Susan E. Powers

Clarkson University
2004 DTS Award

Dr. Susan E. Powers
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Clarkson University

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Susan E. Powers.

What I am passionate about is using projects to stimulate an "interest in actually learning" in all my students. When I began teaching, I thought about my own high school experience, realizing that what I remembered and valued was the learning that I could see visually. Based on those high-school memories, I was drawn to hands-on, active project-oriented learning.

During my first year at Clarkson University, I had the opportunity to work with another new faculty member on a design competition focusing on hazardous waste with college-level senior students. This new course consumed much of our time, but it reinforced my understanding of the value of project-based learning. My approach in the classroom is to use a specific, real-world project as a spring-board getting students to dive right into problems, and once they are immersed in the problem to backtrack into learning the science and the engineering needed to tackle the project and to succeed in making it work. Although I don't use this approach in all of my course work, as I began to see its impact on my undergraduate students– how they learned better, I began using it to work with middle school students, through the GK-12 program funded by NSF to our campus.

As an environmental engineer, devoting much of my work to the environment, I recognize that many of our environmental problems are related to energy usage. I believe that if we can do something to change the way we use energy, we can reduce the environmental impact of energy usage. In fall 2000, I conducted a project-oriented course on gasoline and groundwater for sophomore honors students. The students and I examined transportation fuels, asking where do they come from, what is their impact on the environment? The project for the students was to focus on the energy efficiency of the Clarkson campus, determining where and how the university was using and wasting energy. From their study and research, I designed a class through which Clarkson honors students could use this material to work with middle school students and teachers in learning how to understand the impact of energy usage on the environment. On the other end of the educational continuum, my PhD students are also focusing on the broader life-cycle perspective, on the overall impact and benefits of biomass fuels versus petroleum fuels.

All this is to say that everything I do now involves looking at energy usage at all levels in the environment, and in all the classrooms and labs for which I am responsible. In a way, you could say that I've become a manager of student researchers from middle-school through graduate schools. In trying to keep sane as a teaching scholar, I try to be as efficient as possible. For me this has meant integrating my research (because this is what I know) with my teaching. By overlapping all the basic concepts that are a part of your life, you don't have to learn different things for the various aspects of your teaching, research, or academic career.

One of the nice things about being at a small, private college of 3000 undergraduate and graduate students is that Clarkson does not have as many managerial layers as other universities; everyone knows everyone. I count the president as a friend, and regularly talk with him about my research and scholarly ideas and activities. The campus culture is one in which research and teaching are in balance. Although undergraduate education is valued (especially since the undergraduates outnumber the graduates), we also recognize that our graduate and scholarly activities will continue to strengthen the Clarkson reputation.

Overall, the administration has been supportive of project-based learning and has established the SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design) program, which offers institutional and fiscal support for our engineering students to participate in design competitions and curricular and extra-curricular activities. A similar infrastructure exists for K-12 Outreach to support faculty who may not know where to begin on a project or grant or to train graduate students who will be entering the classroom. The Outreach infrastructure also assists faculty with linking research problems and NY state prescriptive teaching standards to fit together in the classroom.

But, we still have a long way to fixing the reward to ensure it values equally the quality of teaching and the quality of research. As one of the youngest DTS honorees, I started working with project-oriented learning as an assistant professor, yet I have dedicated much time and hard work to my research in order to receive grants and recognition among my scholarly peers. It was good when I received education grants, but I didn't let my research suffer. Unfortunately, scholarly work is not valued as an "instead of," so I continue to teach and do research, especially focusing on the work of middle school students.

I find now there are more rewards on the education side of my career than the research side. My research papers on groundwater contamination were not "making a mark on the world." The reward for me needs to be that I am making a difference, but my papers were not reducing or even cleaning up the environment. Through teaching, I can see the output of my efforts. For example, a student may use the knowledge on energy policy from one of my course projects in a future job. This is why I focus on the bigger picture, and find the tangible and satisfying outcomes of teaching.

In order to see the successes of teaching faculty, all the deans of engineering departments nationally should invite NSF DTS awardees to speak at engineering meetings. By learning about our experiences, deans can identify ways to ensure similar success with their faculty. This is the right audience to advance and accelerate the process of transforming the engineering learning environment for greater numbers of students.