Professor Stephen Thiel Represents UC at National Symposium

by: Natalie Bullock

4 December 2015

Stephen Thiel

Stephen Thiel

UC is represented by Stephen Thiel, Phd, at the National Academy of Engineer's Frontiers of Engineering Education symposium where he collaborated with other educators to create stronger learning environments for students.

Stephen Thiel, Phd, Undergraduate Director and Professor of Chemical Engineering at the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science, was honored with a nomination to attend the National Academy of Engineers’ Frontiers of Engineering Education (FOEE) symposium in late October 2015.

The symposium focused on current issues of interest to educators who teach in engineering departments at universities across the country. In order to have been selected, participants must first be nominated by their dean and then submit an application that details some aspect of their current work that is innovative, first of its kind, or revolutionary in some manner.

Thiel’s application spoke of his desire to enhance the existing senior design capstone experience for undergraduate CHE program. The four main objectives he has in working toward this goal are to:

1.       meet the traditional learning objectives of the UC CHE Program,

2.       address the more specialized needs of research- and entrepreneurship-focused students,

3.       coordinate with, but not replace, MS thesis research and entrepreneurial capstones, and

4.       provide opportunities to enrich the capstone experience for traditional CHE students.

As you read his application you can sense the passion he has for providing his students with an education that goes far beyond book learning. As a professor with experience in industry as well as academia, Thiel understands the real-world environments that his students will enter into upon graduation, and chooses to teach in a way that covers the academic bases in a setting that is “something closer to working in the process engineering group of a manufacturing firm or in an engineering firm.”

Thiel first came to UC in 1986, but left in 1990 to take a position in industry. Fifteen years later he returned to the University of Cincinnati where he collaborated part time with Neville Pinto on a project involving the “removal of mercury from coal combustion flue gas.” This part time project evolved into a full-time research position with some teaching on the side, and in 2011 turned into a full time teaching position in addition to his research responsibilities.

Thiel’s unconventional path to professorship has enabled him to see academia with a fresh perspective and has greatly influenced his teaching style. When asked what he is most passionate about in the world of education, he responds, “I love teaching design!  It’s the capstone course for the CHE program, and it’s amazing to watch the students pull together the elements of the discipline into a coherent whole and produce high-quality work.”

This design class is, of course, the subject of the project he discussed at the FOEE symposium. The symposium is a chance for educators to get objective feedback from others who are driving innovative ideas forward in order to continuously improve upon the methods used to teach students in higher education. Thiel says that he greatly valued having “discussions with outstanding engineering educators to learn about their approaches and strategies, and to get feedback” on his own ideas. In addition he was “curious what other educators are doing to push the envelope on engineering education.”

The great thing for engineering students at UC is that Thiel has come back to CEAS armed with anarsenal of inspiration and best practices that he can begin implementing in his own classes as well as share with other professors.

Thiel describes innovation of engineering education as “critical.” It is a must in the world of higher education. Today’s industries, students, and organizations have access to technology that is opening doors to previously unimagined frontiers; if education does not also push the envelope on innovation then it will be left behind. Thiel’s focus on transforming engineering education is centered on undergraduate research and how to facilitate that such that research students do not simply complete a “professor-driven lab activity,” but are actually conducting true research in collaboration with others. A growing number of undergraduate students are expressing interest in research degrees, and Thiel is using his talents as well as his time at the FOEE symposium to learn more about how to do this.

Working at the University of Cincinnati has given him the place to work through these questions, and the university has been very supportive of his research efforts. In addition he is “a participant in a faculty learning community focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning that’s being coordinated through the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning.” This community, and the CEAS community in general have helped him develop his ideas.

As he returns from the FOEE symposium after receiving “impartial, external vetting of the overall concept, including suggestions for improving the approach, and obtaining suggestions to strengthen the project implementation strategy,” the University of Cincinnati eagerly awaits his next steps in transforming the engineering pedagogy.