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Faculty Q & A

Dr. VT E-Newsletter

Dr. Kenneth Van Treuren

Dr. Kenneth Van Treuren is a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and currently serves as the Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development. Dr. Van Treuren has been a faculty member at Baylor since August 1998. Learn more about Dr. Van Treuren’s research experience and his outlook for the School’s research platform in this edition’s Faculty Q & A.

Q: How have you seen Baylor’s research enterprise change since you joined Baylor’s faculty in 1998?

A: When I first got here, faculty were not required to participate in formal research projects. A few faculty members participated in research because they wanted to, but most of us only participated in research for educational papers. At that time, research was not a big part of what we did. We taught. We got to know the students. And occasionally we would work on an independent research study.

As our programs grew to include a master’s programs, and now doctoral programs, we added faculty that brought more research projects and funding to our programs. Currently, we have fifty faculty members, and a majority of them are actively participating in research at some level. From that standpoint, our programs have changed quite a bit since I came to Baylor.

Q: You currently serve as the Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development at ECS. What kinds of trends do you see among some of the newer faculty members at ECS?

A: We are truly a research university at this point. New faculty are expected to bring a new research program with them to Baylor that will support graduate students, be fully funded, and eventually be recognized internationally. We are strategically hiring faculty to support our current research projects and programs, but we are also looking to expand our faculty’s expertise and knowledge base. At the same time, we value teaching. We are developing our faculty as researchers, but we’re also developing them as teachers in the classroom.

Things have changed. Classes are bigger, and it’s harder to get to know all of our students on a first-name basis. That’s a challenge that has come with the growth, but as our research enterprise expands, more and more of our undergraduate students are participating in research projects with faculty. For instance, I am directly working with eight to ten students on current research projects. In addition, a number of faculty have gotten involved with students outside of the classroom. They’re advisors for student organizations, they’re working with students at Teal Residential College, or leading Bible studies. It is part of the culture that we are trying to develop here - that students are important to our success.

Q: Why is research important for faculty and students

A: Participating in research adds a dimension to the classroom that we might not otherwise have. It keeps us up to date and viable. It gives us credibility because we are doing things in the areas of interest to our students. Research adds to our body of knowledge. Through research, we are trying to advance ideas and create new things. That spills over into the classroom. Research informs what we teach in the classroom and drives us to look at alternatives that we might not consider otherwise. It gets students excited about a topic and provides them with opportunities for hands-on experience that employers look for in new hires.

Q: Are you working on any new research projects?

A: I’m working on a research project for the United States Air Force. We are designing new propellers for unmanned aerial systems. We are trying to make them more efficient and quieter than the stock propeller that is currently being used. So far, we’ve been very successful at doing that.

We are also trying to design and optimize a small wind turbine that would work well in areas like Waco that aren’t considered good areas for wind turbines. In fact, my current student is working on small wind turbines that would work in an urban environment.

Lastly, we are researching low pressure turbine flow separation in jet engines, particularly when flying at high-altitude cruise. There is a significant decrease in the efficiencies between an engine operating at low altitudes and an engine operating at high altitudes. This decrease in air density results in a phenomena called flow separation occurring in the low-pressure turbine. When you’re at altitude and you’re getting low momentum flow, air will separate from the blade. This separation of air will create a lot of inefficiencies in the engine. This research not only looks at learning more about flow separation, but also ways to fix it.

All of these research projects have a similar theme. They all deal with low-momentum flow over an air foil that is susceptible to separation. That’s what research does. It opens up new doors and allows us to apply what we’re learning in different areas once we start to understand some of the physics behind what happens.

Q: You are also a faculty advisor for ASME. What is the biggest difference between the undergraduates you taught when you first started teaching and the undergraduates that you teach now?

A: There are many similarities. I’ve been really impressed with our students. They’re all really good. Ten years ago, we didn’t have as many student organizations and activities. Now we have organizations like Engineers with a Mission, AMSE, IEEE, and many more. There is a lot for our students to participate in now, and they have to choose how to fill their time. We do more team work activities than we used to do. It’s a desired industry trait, and the team interactions have gotten better over the years.

Social media and technologies are much more advanced with our students now than they were when I started teaching. Students are more tech savvy. They have a shorter attention span, but it is part of keeping up with the fast paced world that we live in. I am always amazed at all the things that students do now. They have assimilated and adjusted to the high-tech industry that they are going to be in, and I see that as a strength.

Q: What advice would you give to a student that is considering graduate school?

A: I got my master’s degree right out of college, but I didn’t go back for my Ph.D. until I was 35 years old, so I did it both ways. Right out of college, you’re very proficient in your skills and knowledge base. When you walk into a graduate program, you know how to study, you have lab experience, and most people don’t have a lot of other demands on their time like family and children. It also opens a lot of career opportunities once you’re finished. The downside to entering graduate school right out of college is that you don’t have the field experience or the depth of knowledge to guide your field of study. Later in life, you’re more mature, but it can be difficult to balance family, career, and study.

Before deciding whether to enter graduate school or work right out of college, look at the opportunities in front of you, both with the companies and the graduate programs you’re considering. A lot of companies will support you and help pay for a master’s degree. It’s something to consider before going to work for a company. If you’re going to get a master’s degree, it needs to be in an area that you really love. If you know what that is right out of college, then it’s a great idea to go to graduate school. If you don’t know what that area is, then it’s not a bad idea to work for a while until you determine what you really love doing.

Q: What trends have you seen among ECS graduates

A: We’ve done a good job keeping up with our alumni. I’ve been impressed with how far our students have gotten in eight to ten years after graduating from our programs. They are directors. They’ve gotten masters and doctoral degrees. Some are lawyers, others doctors. I don’t really see a trend in terms of industry. What I do see is that Baylor graduates like to recruit Baylor students. Our graduates have made an impact, and people are starting to see that.

More and more companies are recruiting at Baylor. We are a smaller university, but I think we graduate better engineers because we spend more time with our students.

Because we are Christians first and foremost, our students not only receive a quality education, but also a call to make an impact on the world through the work that they do. Our students have good work ethic; they are positive; and they are dependable and responsible coworkers. Those are the characteristics that we are trying to develop in our students. It’s our testimony, and it adds a dimension to our students that they wouldn’t receive at another university.

Q: How has your interaction with students had an impact on you?

When I retired from the Air Force, I had several options for my career path. I could have been an airline pilot, worked for a for-profit company, or I could teach. The opportunity to be around students and affect their lives was what drew me to Baylor. If I didn’t have the opportunity to teach, I don’t know that I would enjoy my job as much as I do. I love being around the students. They keep me on my toes. They challenge me to be better. Teaching is fun, and students help make it fun. I just love it.

Q: How do you see ECS changing over the next five years?

A: We’re moving in a good direction. As we build up our critical core of research faculty, we will increase our outreach and obtain more grants and funding to help support faculty research projects. I also anticipate continued growth in our undergraduate programs and accelerated growth in our graduate programs. With that growth, we will have to add resources so that we can maintain our smaller class sizes and ability to get know our students. I think we’re on an upward trajectory.

Q: Do you have any personal updates you want to share?

A: I’m still having a great time! I’m enjoying doing research and working with my students. I would love for former students to stop by and see me sometime. My door is always open to alumni.