S ometimes P.T. Vasudevan sounds like a philosopher. “Nothing in life is linear,” he says as he explains the variables involved in manufacturing—pressure, 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 valves—all 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 asks.

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 don’t feel overwhelmed, but they still feel challenged.”

Vasudevan’s 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 sterilization—1.5 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 wouldn’t 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. “They’ve been very good about this.”

Vasudevan’s 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 teacher—apparently some things in life are, in fact, linear.

—Suki Casanave, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

 

More Faculty Excellence

 

 

 

 

 

Excellence in International Engagement and Jean Brierly Award for Teaching Excellence, P.T. Vasudevan

P.T. Vasudevan with student Dan Horan, Morse Hall

P.T. Vasudevan, associate professor of chemical engineering, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, with student Dan Horan, Morse Hall, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.

 

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