It is not every day that your college professor begins lecture by highlighting National Toilet Day or the birth of one Thomas Crapper (make the link between the two references yourself)! Then again, Utah State University engineering professor Laurie McNeill is not an ordinary professor.
McNeill is one of 38 national winners named Thursday as this year’s Carnegie Professors of the Year. McNeill is in Washington, D.C., to participate in a special awards ceremony honoring her as the solo 2010 pick representing Utah. She is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USU.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named McNeill one of the nation’s top university teachers, selected from more than 300 professors who were finalists. McNeill’s selection makes the count 10 of last 16 picks in Utah to come from USU.
“Dr. McNeill has a deep dedication to teaching and to service learning, and she brings meaning into every contact she has with students,” said USU President Stan L. Albrecht. “She is an exceptional educator and deserves this highest honor, and we are proud, once again, to count a USU professor among the very best university teachers in the nation.”
McNeill has received accolades from students and colleagues alike for her innovative approaches to teaching and mentoring students. She tries to broaden the context of lecture materials and to get students to think outside the lecture/equation box. Her reference to National Toilet Day, during a class this semester that covers wastewater treatment, was an attempt to cultivate awareness of sanitation issues in a world in which 2.5 billion people don’t have access to any sanitation at all, not even to pit toilets.
She believes in getting students to see and experience real applications of what they are learning in class, and her nearly 100-person class session included two “clicker-technology” class surveys of hands-on projects student teams were involved with in the community.
Her teaching techniques have evolved, she said, to where she now uses new and unique demonstrations, new technologies and new types of assignments — writing assignments, in particular —designed to keep students focused on the complexities of the world of engineering they will face when they walk out the door at graduation.
“Facts they’ll forget, but if I can teach them to approach a problem and evaluate it more broadly, they will learn what it takes to confront a lot of issues they will face,” she said. “That is my ultimate goal — to get them to learn how to learn.”
And learn they do. McNeill has received accolades for her teaching prowess from students and colleagues alike. One student wrote that McNeill used innovative demonstrations and non-traditional teaching methods to engage students in interactive lessons that gave everyone an opportunity to have a voice.
“Dr. McNeill taught me that the learning process is an academic conversation with two truly engaged parties,” the student wrote in a nomination letter.
Another wrote that McNeill made education personal by always relating technical material to current, real-world problems and hands-on experiences in the field. “Rather than settle for simply teaching how to plug a number into a formula, she goes the extra mile to ensure that education is personal for her students and that true understanding takes place, rather than temporary memorization,” the student said.
College of Engineering Dean H. Scott Hinton said McNeill is an exceptional educator who receives outstanding reviews from students. She also is making lasting contributions to the profession by preparing the next generation of faculty members through her work in a teacher-training program, a three-semester series of courses that provide doctoral students opportunities to improve their teaching and research skills while still in graduate school.
“Dr. McNeill is an extraordinary teacher in the classroom, and she is very involved with learning and teaching outside the classroom through Engineers Without Borders, in particular,” Hinton said. “She demonstrates a scholarly approach to teaching and learning, and I know I speak for all of her colleagues in congratulating her for this well-deserved honor.”
In 2010, McNeill was honored as the Outstanding Undergraduate Advisor for the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at USU. In 2007, she won the Eldon J. Gardner “Teacher of the Year” Award, which is the highest teaching honor at USU. In 2006, she was chosen as the Outstanding Teacher in the USU College of Engineering.
She is the faculty advisor for the USU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a volunteer group that implements engineering projects in developing countries. As faculty advisor, McNeill mentors more than 40 students and faculty as they work on projects in Mexico, Uganda and Peru. She also advises the Society of Environmental Engineering Students and mentors those students in extra-curricular design competitions.
McNeilll said she spends a lot of time fine-tuning her teaching skills, and she takes the job of classroom teaching extremely seriously. But getting students out of the classroom and into the field is where comprehensive education really melds into true learning. Her work as advisor for Engineers Without Borders is particularly rewarding, and useful.
“These experiences are the ultimate application of their engineering education,” she said. “I can teach everything in the classroom — from program management to engineering design to cost estimation — but when they see the real-world application of these ideas, especially in a developing nation, it brings things to a deeper level.”
She said these projects are a lot of work, and the days are challenging at many levels both for her and for the students. But the rewards are seemingly endless.
“Of course we get a warm, fuzzy feeling from helping people, but, more important perhaps, the students are growing,” McNeill said. “They are having experiences both personally and professionally that will make them better engineers and public health professionals. Yes, we are helping people. But, while that’s an important goal, it is not our only goal. We are training better engineers who down the road can have a positive influence on the world and in their own communities.”
McNeill earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She earned her Ph.D. in civil engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Contact: Laurie McNeill, 435-797-1522, firstname.lastname@example.org