ometimes P.T. Vasudevan sounds like a philosopher. Nothing in life
is linear, he says as he explains the variables involved in manufacturingpressure,
temperature, concentration, liquid level.
It could be a nuclear power plant or integrated circuit manufacturing or pharmaceutical manufacturing. Or you could be brewing beer, says Vasudevan. Whatever the process, it involves variables that need to be carefully controlled.
Future chemical engineers learn to manage these variables
in the process-control course Vasudevan teaches each spring. One afternoon
late in the semester, he and two students huddle in front of a computer
in the lab. A screw-terminal accessory board rests in his hands as he
explains the different inputs, the multiplexer, the transducer, the valvesall
the hardware involved in controlling liquid levels. Behind him a giant
Plexiglas column is filled with bubbling water. As he talks, the students
scribble in their notebooks. Suddenly the lecture stops.
Do you understand what I am saying? Vasudevan
If there is a single secret to his teaching success, it
is embodied in this moment. He wants to be sure his students grasp the
principles behind his explanations. So he poses the critical question,
the one that opens the way for students to respond with their own questions.
And he asks it over and over again as he teaches.
He was genuinely eager to answer our questions,
says Lynn Walker, who took two of the very first courses Vasudevan taught
and is now an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department
at Carnegie Mellon University. After teaching a sophomore course
for the first time, I truly appreciated just how much Dr. Vasu achieved.
Dan Horan, a senior chemical engineering major, has taken
thermodynamics, kinetics, and biochemical engineering, plus an independent
study, with Vasudevan. Dr. Vasu is able to tread that fine line,
says Horan. He challenges students to a degree that they dont
feel overwhelmed, but they still feel challenged.
Vasudevans enthusiasm for putting chemical engineering
principles into action is at the root of the learning opportunities he
cultivates with industry. He and his students worked with one company
to test polymers for molded trays to hold surgeons tools. Since
the trays must be sterilized before every use in the operating room, Vasudevan
and his students put each polymer sample through 1,000 cycles of sterilization1.5
hours per cycle.
The labor-intensive undertaking paid off especially well
for one student, who found an excellent job when he graduated. He
had an understanding of polymers that he otherwise wouldnt have
had, says Vasudevan, who sees these first steps into the job market
as an extension of his role as teacher. If I put them in touch with
a job, and they get hired, I believe they should interview other students
and keep the momentum going, says Vasudevan. Theyve
been very good about this.
Vasudevans support of students beyond the classroom
extends across national boundaries. In recent years, he has developed
an ongoing collaboration with colleagues in Spain at the Institute of
Catalysis and at Salamanca University.
In 1999, Vasudevan sponsored two juniors to participate
in summer research projects in Spain, working out all the details of their
stay from project identification to housing.
When the students presented their research results last
year at a gathering of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, one
of them, Aaron Tomich, won first prize. An award-winning student, coached
by an award-winning teacherapparently some things in life are, in
Suki Casanave, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences