Narrative

Throughout my academic career, I have made a concerted effort to leverage my teaching, research, and service activities.  As I have progressed as a scientist and an educator, I see my discipline-specific research as a means to inform my teaching, refresh my perspective as a novice, and provide countless examples for the classroom.  I recognize that discipline-specific research excites students to solve unknown, cutting-edge problems with scientific and societal impact, and is the ultimate example of the experiential, open-ended learning I strive to incorporate into classroom activities with the aim of developing critical thinking skills.  Serving as a research mentor has pushed my own understanding and expanded my creativity, and I am united by learning with my students. My professional mission statement is drawn from the Humboldt model, which revolutionized higher education in the early 19th century:

 

The teacher does not exist for the sake of the student: both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge, and hence there is unity of research and teaching.

 

Teaching Activities, Philosophy, Motivation, and Approach

At Penn State, my formal teaching activities have varied from first-year general education to senior-level engineering design, from applications-based electives to fundamental engineering courses.  Examples to synergize teaching with my research and service activities include a term project in which general education students (in EGEE 101) developed web sites to present alternative energy technologies to middle school students (the elementary students were participants in Penn State's GREATT1 project).   Hydrogen and Fuel Cells students (in EGEE 410) proposed a mini hydrogen storage research project after a literature review, then carried out measurements using state-of-the-art research methodology with materials donated by the larger hydrogen storage community.  Many term projects / extended assignments in my classes have incorporated real world problems and scenarios:  senior Environmental Systems design students (in GeoEE 480) evaluated remediation alternatives to the local I-99 "Skytop Mountain" contamination problem, and discussed their designs with practicing engineers from Pennsylvania's Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection.  Candidate clean coal technologies were explored by Energy and Fuel Option students (FSc 464) in plant-level designs with economic analysis, and in mini research briefings by EGEE 301 students to tie clean coal power cycles to Thermodynamics.

 

My ultimate goal as an engineering educator is to equip students with an array of tools to solve the types of open-ended problems they will face over the course of their careers.  Rather than trying to anticipate the problems they will encounter 40-50 years from now, we must equip these students both with mastery of fundamental engineering concepts and the ability to think critically, self-educate, and creatively solve problems.  These are higher-level thinking skills, as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy.2  In an attempt to develop these skills in students, I involve students in my thought process as I work out in-class engineering examples; I provide partially complete notes and example problems that the students complete both individually and in small groups; I seek to incorporate analysis of data, synthesis of new information, problem solving approaches (using formalized methods from Fogler and LeBlanc3), and critical evaluation of solutions.  For more conceptual material, I incorporate active learning exercises involving directed in-class activities that require explanation, categorization, and/or identification. When lecture is required to present new material, I involve students through minute papers that require the students to summarize, respond, and ask or answer questions.  In my explanations, I strive to use both concrete and abstract examples; use diagrams and charts to show relational concepts in addition to verbal explanations; use analytical exercises that are carried through to completion; and incorporate physical analogies to connect abstract engineering concepts to situations to which the students relate.  Incorporation of these mixed methods has been linked to increased student productivity4 and is suspected to retain a more diverse student body, in terms of how they approach and solve problems.5  Exams in my introductory general education courses include essay questions, evaluations, and short quantitative problems.  Exams in all of my undergraduate engineering classes are problem based, designed to test students' critical thinking and analytical reasoning; graduate engineering exams require independent evaluation of a research problem or paper of the students choice.  In the upcoming years, I will look to put even more emphasis on coupling of research with undergraduate education. There is an opportunity to couple research dissemination with scientific education of all levels of students; doing so exposes a general audience to science while aiding in the professional development of the researcher.

 

Research Overview, Philosophy, Motivation, and Approach

My research pursuits are selected based on the opportunity to creatively address sustainable energy solutions, while addressing underlying scientific phenomena. Since the onset of my Ph.D. studies in 1999, the major outlet for this pursuit has been the hydrogen storage "Grand Challenge" (so dubbed by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2003).  The issue of the "Grand Challenge" coincided almost exactly with my appointment as an Assistant Professor at Penn State. When I accepted this position, I knew meeting specific H2 storage targets would be quite elusive, if not impossible.  To counterbalance this point, I have sought to define research goals for my students which would further basic scientific understanding, rather than meet a particular storage target.   With one eye on the storage targets and one eye on furthering scientific phenomenon, we have also remained open to the unexpected. In 2006, my research approach changed significantly, as I literally held a material in my hand as it slowly evolved H2 at room temperature after storage in ambient air.  With widespread concern about the safety of the hydrogen economy, this behavior stood in stark contrast to the reinforced high-pressure vessels I had been working with for the prior seven years.  Furthermore, the low-temperature H2 evolution indicated a chemical reaction was producing H2 during processing, as we had added hydrocarbons rather than molecular H2 to the reaction vessel.  The idea of trapping H2 during synthesis was in-line with a similar 'systems-level' study by the National Academies of Sciences6 calling for new concepts in distributed H2 production in order to make the transition to the hydrogen economy economically viable. This approach is the basis for the on-going multi-investigator DOE-BES research project which I lead as PI, which explores unique carbon and hydrogen interactions in which hydrogen is kinetically limited, or 'trapped' in a material after polymerization of the carbon material in the presence of hydrogen.  In 2009, I was also awarded a multi-investigator DOE-EERE hydrogen research grant (as lead PI) to develop novel materials that incorporate transition metal catalysts into metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), that utilize the hydrogen spillover mechanism which was the primary focus of my PhD studies. A small portion of this work included experimental and theoretical studies on novel gate-opening MOFs.  In 2012, I was selected for a highly competitive Marie Curie International Fellowship for senior faculty, and this experience has allowed me to explore a priori material design through molecular simulations and density functional theory.  With the return to hydrogen spillover, my research has come "full circle" in some sense, but in my ten years at Penn State, I have had tremendous opportunity to expand my research expertise and academic growth, with my work now extending to adsorption, catalysis, material design, advanced characterization, in situ spectroscopy, and molecular modeling and computation.  Over the course of these activities, my research group has literally found diamond in processed coal, found novel spectroscopic evidence for reversible hydrogenation via the spillover process, and (as described above) found unexpected hydrogen evolution conditions that have changed my approach to the hydrogen storage problem.  These accomplishments have come in parallel with (by most chemical engineering standards) a fairly high teaching load (four classes per year from 2003-2009, three classes per year 2009-2012) and a high variability in my teaching assignments. In the past year, I have begun to explore additional topical areas for my research expertise, including proposals to study diffusion limitations in gate-opening MOFs for gas separation applications, novel carbon-based materials for methane storage, in-process recycling to produce specialty Pt catalysts using a biochar waste stream, and development of novel hydrogenation catalysts that are based on Pt insertion into the graphene lattice.  I am happy to discuss any more of these "work in progress" ideas in more detail.

 

Service and Broader Impact

I have served as a reviewer to journals and funding agencies; I have organized conference sessions in catalysis and carbon materials. I am co-Principal Investigator (and serve in an advisory role) on an NSF-outreach program to pair graduate students with disadvantaged middle schools so that the graduate students obtain communication and teaching experience while the students are exposed to science and cutting edge research and creative implementation of scientific education.  As mentioned above, middle school students have directly benefited from student-developed web sites regarding energy and the environment as a part of my general education class.  In addition, I have participated in outreach activities via planning committees for summer camps for middle school girls, novel methodology to teach first-year engineering seminars, a Keynote Lecture at a STEM outreach program (in 2012), and presentations on the hydrogen economy at a number of University events.  I currently serve as the "Alternate Councilor for the Fuel Division of the American Chemical Society, which represents a bit of a hiatus from the much more time-intensive role as treasurer of this organization.  I also previously served as the Earth and Mineral Sciences elected representative to the Penn State's Graduate Council, which reflects my on-going interest in expanding graduate education to include other aspects of professional development, including communication, teamwork, networking, and project management. 

 

I have chosen service activities that complement my general academic philosophy about the broader impact of a University (both graduate and undergraduate) education. There is an increasing body of literature that indicates that the traditional focus on discipline-specific research skills is not sufficient to meet the expectations of an increasingly diverse graduate student body and the evolving expectations of the employers of graduate students.7, 8  The ability to manage one's own project, manage subordinate employees, and clearly communicate technical ideas to both peers and non-technical audiences are key determinants in future career effectiveness, across employment sectors.7  In most graduate programs, there is little formalized mechanism for graduate students to develop these skills.  Women and minorities, in particular, often feel a lack of collaboration, teamwork, and peer mentoring in academia, and this may explain lack of advancement of underrepresented groups despite efforts to enhance diversity.9  As affirmative action programs across the nation are being scrutinized, it is important to focus on retention as well as recruitment of underrepresented groups.  Coupling research with education and outreach has been a goal of mine since I was a graduate student, when I worked to supplement my own discipline-specific research by proposing and developing various leadership activities.  The enhancement of graduate education to consider a more holistic approach to professional development is the reason behind my career choice in academia.  As I approach the next stage in my career, I hope to not only excel at scientific research as I continue my international collaborations and multi-tiered research efforts, but also find ways to better integrate cutting edge research activities into my teaching and outreach activities, and do so without losing sight of mentoring and graduate student development.

Personal Narrative

 

Footnotes:

1. Graduate Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Technologies, an NSF-sponsored educational/outreach project.  PI:  Prof. Dan Haworth, Mechanical Engineering.

2. Bloom, B. S.; al., e. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives:  The Classification of Educational Objectives.  Handbook 1:  Cognitive Domain; New York, 1956.

3. Fogler, H. S.; LeBlanc, S. E., Strategies for Creative Problem Solving. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1994; p pp. vi, 2, Ch. 1, 3.

4. Barr, R. B.; Tagg, J., Change 1995, 27, 13.

5. Felder, R. M., "Meet Your Students" series. Chem. Eng. Education Spring 1989, 23, 68.

6. The Hydrogen Economy:  Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs. Washington, D.C., 2004.

7. Nyquist, J.; Woodford, B. Re-envisioning the Ph.D.: What Concerns Do We Have?; Center for Instructional Development and Research and University of Washington.: Seattle, Washington, 2000.

8. Danforth, W. H. C. Committee on Graduate Education

Report and Recommendations; Association of American Universities: Washington D.C., October 1998, 1998.

9. Ibarra, R., Beyond Affirmative Action:  Reframing the Context of Higher Education. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 2000.

 

 

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