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 UP CLOSE

BY ROBIN TATU

OPEN DOOR, OPEN HEART

Acclaimed Massachusetts professor assures students they matter.


UP CLOSE: Youngmoo Kim wants to equip an iPhone with  sound-studio tools.What makes Jeanine Plummer a valued instructor? Consider this: When graduate student Jennifer Griffin signed on to work with Plummer, she questioned how well they would communicate, given their very different academic backgrounds. Plummer is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Griffin had experience in biochemistry and virologic techniques. But Plummer's ease, both in mastering the molecular elements of Griffin's project and in clarifying the engineering and regulatory aspects, quickly laid those fears to rest. "Her ability to communicate complex concepts is what makes her such a fantastic teacher," says Griffin.

Plummer's skills have not gone unnoticed: A teacher for just 10 years, she has been recognized with WPI awards for outstanding advising (2005) and outstanding teaching (2006). In 2008, she was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. This year, as director of WPI's new undergraduate environmental engineering program (EVE), which she initiated in 2007, she was installed as the first Schwaber Professor of Environmental Engineering, a position supported by a $2 million endowment.

Such recognition comes as no surprise to colleagues and students. "One of Professor Plummer's most noticeable assets is her dedication to helping students," says Maggie Elbag, a 2009 EVE graduate. Sharon Long of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a colleague and former professor, observes that "she makes every student feel like what they need and what they're going through is the most important thing." Since Plummer is the only tenured female in the civil engineering department, Long adds, all the women want to be her advisee - "and she never says 'no.'"

In shaping the EVE program, Plummer wanted to "open up opportunities for students to really see the breadth of the environmental profession very early on." This meant designing a highly flexible, project-based curriculum that has students decide how they'll integrate their humanities and social sciences requirements into the technical program. The interdisciplinary junior project draws upon economics, public policy, philosophy, and even religious studies. For their individually designed senior project, many students partner with non-profits, industry, or government agencies, often in overseas locations. While EVE is in its infancy, with five students in the second graduating class this past spring, interest is strong and growing, and a dozen students are expected to finish by 2011.

Plummer strives to involve undergraduates in her own research, which focuses on water pollution and microbial source tracking. In 2005, one group helped determine sources of contamination in the local Wachusetts Reservoir, identify remediation alternatives, and co-author a paper, presented at the American Water Works Association Symposium. Students have to grapple with real-world applications of environmental engineering, Plummer believes: "They need to see how it applies, why it's important - 'why am I here' sort of questions."

She also takes time to show "that I am not just a professor standing in front of the class. I am a teacher, I am a mentor, a researcher; I am a collaborator. I also happen to be female, a wife, a mother - all of these other things." Students sometimes tease Plummer for mentioning family in class discussions. Yet she wants to demonstrate "that my profession is not just my profession but part of my person, also. And that's why I'm so excited about it." Leaving her office door open for students at all times keeps her very busy - she accepted 70 undergraduate and graduate advisees in 2008-2009. She works to accommodate the load, "because students learn and grow and develop in so many different ways in college."

Elbag is one student who appreciates Plummer's efforts. During her time at WPI, "she taught me laboratory, writing, and presentation skills." Recently, Elbag e-mailed Plummer, seeking career advice. "School was out, but she had e-mailed me back within the hour with helpful advice. Needless to say, my experience at WPI would have been very different without her."

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.

 

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