Research: My Statement for Promotion

I am finally going up for promotion from Associate to Full Professor, at the request of my department. This process was an opportunity for reflection on my career, and I wrote about it in three statements that were required for the package of materials submitted for the approval process: teaching, research and service. Here is the first of three posts, with my research statement:

I love flow visualization, the observation of gases and liquids, especially the sinuous, spiraling flows of vortexes. This love has guided my research career. Initially, as a graduate student, post-doc and assistant professor, I hid this. My early experiences in academic culture emphasized that engineering researchers were expected to focus on issues important to industry and government, where research funding was abundant. Societal benefit was secondary, and an interest in the aesthetic aspects of fluid flows was considered useless, if not kooky.  So I focused on experimental work in combustion flows with military applications: rockets, ramjets and turbojet afterburners, and fundamental work on turbulent flame propagation that I hoped would contribute to improvements in air quality at some point, or be useful in industrial combustors (where there was little funding at the time). And I secretly enjoyed the flow visualizations that I was able to incorporate.

In 1997, around the time I received tenure, I learned that vortex rings had been observed in the human heart, and what that might mean for improving medical diagnoses and treatments. I was so excited to learn that the same kind of vortexes that can plague ramjets causing catastrophic failures can drive healthful flows in the human heart and can be used to diagnose certain cardiac illnesses. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with trying to get a better view of cardiac fluid dynamics, and a better understanding of the possible implications for, well, helping sick people. Who could resist? This has formed a consistent theme in my disciplinary work in fluid dynamics.

However, a few years later, in 2002, an unexpected opportunity changed my life, and made me split my research into a brand new branch. There was a program on campus that offered a seed funding for engineering faculty to collaborate with ‘the other side of campus’, i.e.  the humanities, to create interdisciplinary courses. Embracing the spirit of interdisciplinary work, I took this opportunity to marry engineering with the fine arts, and indulge my yearning for the aesthetics of flow visualization.  In collaboration with Alex Sweetman, a photography professor in the Department of Art and Art History, we offered a course titled “Flow Visualization: The Physics and Art of Fluid Flow.” I gave instruction in basic photography, optics, light-matter interactions, the physics of atmospheric clouds, and basics of flow visualization techniques. Alex gave the history of the development of photography from a technology to an art form. Students made aesthetic images of flowing gases and liquids. The assignments were quite open-ended, to accommodate backgrounds of both engineering and photography majors.

The response from students was astonishing. I got excellent FCQs for the first time, and students wrote to me about the impact the class had on them. “I’ll never ignore the sky again,” said one (who later became a rocket engineer at SpaceX). No student had ever written to me after taking my fluids, thermodynamics or measurement laboratory courses, although I thought I had brought similar energy, enthusiasm and expertise to them. What was going on?  I had to know, so I could elicit this response in all my courses, and to colleagues in their engineering courses. Thus began my work in engineering education research.

Since then, I have balanced two research directions: engineering education research (EER) and fluid physics, mostly cardiac fluid dynamics with a few related topics in addition. Although both draw on my visual approach to fluid physics, they have developed independently, so I will expand them separately below.


I’ve been a member of the American Society of Engineering Education since early in my career. I had read in the Society’s magazine and journal how to develop curriculum in various engineering disciplines, and reports of innovative interventions around the country. Then in 2005 I was invited to present on the Flow Vis course at an American Association of Physics Teachers conference, and I got my first taste of what it looked like to apply the tools of quantitative scientific research to education. I was excited to see what kind of quantitative as well as qualitative measurements of teaching effectiveness and educational outcomes could be made, and conclusions drawn from them.

It turns out that doing research on how humans learn is crazy making. It takes years to do controlled experiments, sample sizes need to be large plus studies have to be rigorous enough to defuse the skepticism my colleagues have towards research outside their areas. As a classically trained mechanical engineer, I thought biological engineering research was difficult due to the variability in living organisms. I had no idea about how to address the challenges when human behavior was involved in education research.

Yet, I had to do this if I wanted to understand what was going on in my Flow Vis course, so that its benefits could be more broadly applied. In the process I found a thriving and welcoming research community here at CU Boulder in the form of the Disciplinary Based Education Research (DBER) and Physics Education Research (PER) groups. At the time, the College of Engineering was not particularly supportive of EER as a scholarly area, although recognition of this important area has improved somewhat since then.

After a number of attempts, I was able to secure funding from NSF for a mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative) study of the Flow Vis course. One of the first aspects we explored was how students reported ‘seeing fluids everywhere’ afterwards, demonstrating an ‘expansion of perception’. I found a collaborator in our Neuropsychology department, Prof. Tim Curran, who studies visual expertise. Radiologists, dog show judges, bird, plane and train spotters etc. demonstrate visual expertise in that they can immediately categorize to a granular level the subject of their expertise; they can immediately recognize that ‘that’s a red-breasted nuthatch’ without going through the mental process of ‘that’s a bird, a small one, it’s got a pointy beak and is reddish on the front, and it’s holding on to the feeder upside-down, so it must be a red-breasted nuthatch’.

We hypothesized that Flow Vis students gained a similar visual expertise and expansion of perception, allowing them to recognize fluid flows everywhere.  My PhD student, Kate Goodman, ran a visual expertise train-and-test study comparing ‘experts’, students who had been in Flow Vis or a fluids course with ‘novices’, non-engineering students. With training, both sets of students improved on recognizing turbulent vs laminar flows in Von Karman vortex streets and other types of flows. The experts were able to generalize from training using vortex street images only to other types of flows, while the novices were not able to generalize. This showed that visual expertise was indeed gained, and that the experts were able to apply prior knowledge, enhancing their learning. This result expanded our concept of learning, and is ripe for application in other disciplines.

The other portion of the project involved validating and analyzing a survey of Flow Vis students’ attitudes towards fluids perception and knowledge. The theoretical framework for this was the ‘transformative experience’ as defined by Pugh (2011) to consist of (a) motivated use, where students apply course learning outside the classroom, (b) expansion of perception (seeing fluids everywhere), and (c) experiential value, i.e. appreciating, even enjoying seeing and using fluid mechanics. This survey, administered before and after the course, showed that many students indeed had a transformative experience. The survey has been administered for most offerings of the course since then. The improvement in student attitudes has become more difficult to measure as the reputation of the course has grown and students enter the course with a positive affect. Answers to the Likert scale questions have become saturated at the top of the scale. The survey is currently being redesigned, and is also being expanded to other courses and content areas. However, analysis of the open-response questions which are most valuable is highly labor intensive. We’ve started a new collaboration with Katharina Kann, an assistant professor in Computer Science, to develop an artificial intelligence approach to analyzing open response answers; a prerequisite to scaling up the survey.

Pugh, Kevin J. “Transformative Experience: An Integrative Construct in the Spirit of Deweyan Pragmatism.” Educational Psychologist 46, no. 2 (April 2011): 107–21.

 Summary of EER Contributions

Six archival publications, 51 conference papers and presentations, one PhD, two Master’s and more than 17 undergraduate researchers

Cardiac Fluid Dynamics.

Research on human subjects is an order of magnitude more difficult than typical well-controlled engineering fluid mechanics problems. IRB issues aside, the cardiac system is highly three-dimensional, asymmetric, and time dependent. It is dominated by fluid-structure interactions and the flow is transitional, neither completely laminar nor turbulent. This is my sweet spot, the kind of complex flow where the fluid physics can only be explained by data derived from visual analysis that then directs quantitative analysis. For example, in the early 2000s I began learning about a rapidly developing magnetic resonance imaging technology: 4-D phase contrast MRI. It is suited for measurement of phase-averaged (i.e. a ‘typical’ heart beat) large-scale flows throughout the heart, providing reasonably well resolved three dimensional flow fields with all three (xyz) velocity components. This allows analysis and visualization of vortical flows during diastole, when the heart is filling. I began working with clinicians at the National Jewish Health Center, Drs. Fenster and Schroeder, to develop a metric to track the progress of pulmonary hypertension (PHT). PHT is high blood pressure in the artery between the heart and lungs where making a pressure measurement is particularly difficult; our goal was to use vorticity (local fluid rotation or spin) calculated from the 4-D MRI-measured velocity fields. We have shown that vorticity in the right ventricle during diastole (filling) can indeed be used to track pulmonary hypertension.  Visual analysis of the vorticity shows that most of the vorticity is generated in the boundary layer that forms over the tricuspid valve flaps, which are themselves invisible to most imaging techniques. However, knowing this fact about the vorticity can allow a more sensitive, accurate tracking of the disease.  This project is still ongoing. Some of our results are easy to see in 3-D (on a stereoscopic monitor) but difficult to represent convincingly in two-dimensional media. Still the project to date is modestly successful; what is perhaps more important are the detailed visualizations of this fascinating flow ( for example). We are exploring VR techniques, but these are not quite ready for prime time. I’m looking forward to better technology being available soon.

Since then I’ve been working with clinicians at the VA Hospital in Denver, looking at diabetic patients before and after an exercise regime. Men and women with diabetes don’t derive the same cardiac benefits from exercise as everybody else, and we are hoping to see why by examining the cardiac flows.

Another of the works that I’m proudest of was the first paper describing ‘echo PIV’. ‘Echo’ refers to ultrasound echo imaging, a safe, non-invasive, relatively inexpensive imaging technique that forms images from high frequency sound waves bounced off tissue and particles in the blood stream. We added an ultrasound contrast agent (lipid-coated microbubbles) to a fluid stream and made multiple rapid images of the microbubbles’ positions in time. This allowed us to calculate the velocity of the bubbles, and thus the fluid, everywhere throughout the image (a two-dimensional, two-velocity component technique). When coupled with the more detailed information about healthy vs diseased flow in general, gained from 4DMRI, this technique could prove to have more widespread clinical acceptance.   Prof Robin Shandas (CU Denver/Anschutz) had the original idea and access to the ultrasound equipment. I worked closely with my post-doc at the time, Hyoung Bum Kim (now a professor in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Gyeongsang National University, Korea) making detailed measurements to explore and validate this new measurement technique. Echo PIV is now an accepted method for measuring blood velocity in the human body and in other opaque flows where optical methods fail.

Summary of Cardiac Contributions

40 archival publications, 39 conference papers and presentations, five PhDs, six Master’s and more than 27 undergraduate researchers

COVID Aerosol Project

Most recently I have been working with Shelly Miller, Marina Vance and participants in the 

International Coalition Performing Arts Aerosol Study. Early in the pandemic superspreader events from singing threatened music education programs worldwide. If just singing emitted so much infectious aerosol, what about brass and woodwind instruments? The Coalition was formed of dozens of music education professional societies who came together to fund our research. We performed flow visualization on a variety of musical instruments and vocal performers, which informed the experimental designs for quantitative aerosol measurements associated with performances. Together we came up with a suite of mitigation recommendations: put “masks” on instruments and singers; increase room ventilation; and reduce time spent in rehearsal rooms. These measures were widely adopted, and I’m relieved to report that no schools that followed the recommendations found any COVID transmission traceable to the music program. This work generated quite a bit of media attention, which was stressful for us all: the work released in preliminary form had immediate life safety implications as well as protecting the employment of thousands of music teachers. I  had hoped that this project would become less important as the pandemic waned, allowing my current PhD student Abhishek Kumar to get on with a more academic study of instrument aerodynamics, but unfortunately this work remains distressingly relevant. Our first peer-reviewed publication has just been published at ACS Environmental AU:

Stockman, Tehya, Shengwei Zhu, Abhishek Kumar, Lingzhe Wang, Sameer Patel, James Weaver, Mark Spede, Donald Milton, Jean Hertzberg, Darin Toohey, Marina Vance, Jelena Srebric and Shelly Miller “Measurements and Simulations of Aerosol Released While Singing and Playing Wind Instruments.” ACS Environmental Au, August 27, 2021.

Other Fluid Physics Research

There are a number of other projects I’ve worked on, contributing both quantitative and qualitative flow visualization methods: analyzing airflows in hospital operating rooms, augmenting fuel sprays for small engines, evaluating performance of pumped thermal energy storage, and using synthetic jets to improve indoor air quality. All have allowed me to use, express, and demonstrate how my love of fluid physics and contributions in flow visualization motivates rigorous and useful science and engineering.

Summary of Other Contributions

13 archival publications, seven PhDs, 17 Masters and more than 14 undergraduate researchers.

Teaching: My Statement for Promotion

I love teaching. I hate grading.

I love making resources available to students and setting a framework for them to explore and learn within. This includes not only challenging, useful, important, relevant (to them) problems and projects, but also fun, beautiful and exciting experiences.

Early in my career my teaching was all about content: proper organization and dynamic delivery of lectures, detailed instructions for laboratories (I taught our Measurements Laboratory course for far too many years), deriving the fundamental governing equations of fluid physics and demonstrating their use in problem solutions step by step. Good stuff but… dry. Pun intended. 

Students were induced to learn, or at least demonstrate competence, with the lash of grades. They were trained to race through homework sets and exams like greyhounds, eager for the reward of points. This type of motivation is extrinsic; they are learning for a grade. Did they leave my courses valuing, appreciating fluids, thermodynamics, heat transfer? Maybe some did, but engineering education research suggests that many did not. After all, students consider these to be difficult topics.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation: Twain VS Feynman

I knew that I was missing the mark in motivating students, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I tried to demonstrate relevance using real industrial applications, knowing that at least half of our students would have an industry sponsored senior design project involving fluids, and most of our students were headed for a career in industry. Well, OK, ‘real’ is a relative term. The fundamental equations of fluid mechanics need complex computer models to solve accurately, so analytic solutions that undergraduates can do require a lot of assumptions, which make students uncomfortable. Still, I wrote unique problems, some taken from my experience as a volunteer firefighter, some from my research and others from everyday fluids experiences, such as how those big sewer sucker trucks work, how much pressure does a fire sprinkler need, how much resistance is in the human blood capillary bed, and what happens when you flush a toilet. Even with these important applications, my enthusiasm and strong fundamentals, students were not reporting great motivation, and I couldn’t blame them. Knowing you are going to need information and skills in a theoretical future (a year is still forever to a 20-year-old) is not sufficient motivation to actually learn something in the present. At the same time, my students’ obvious focus on earning points instead of learning the content was wearing me down. I became dismayed when so many office hour interactions involved grading including “hey, I know I got this wrong, but can I have a few more points anyways?” I started searching for a way to increase intrinsic motivation, to get students to actually like fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, etc. or at least enjoy the process of learning for its own sake.

I began to wonder if our relentless emphasis on the utility of engineering was part of the problem. One way to describe this issue is the framing of Twain vs Feynman, developed in 2015 by my PhD student Katherine Goodman, now an assistant professor and associate director of InWorks, at CU Denver (similar to our ATLAS Institute). When Mark Twain was young, he loved watching the Mississippi river; it was beautiful to him. Then he trained as a riverboat pilot and learned that swirls and ripples indicated subsurface hazards that could wreck his boat. “Now when I had mastered the language of this water … I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”

(Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Ebook, 2004, 1883.

Most of our students can identify with this experience. There is a large body of research that shows that students leave many STEM courses thinking the topic is less interesting, less important and less relevant than when they started. They are sick of it. They dislike it. This is called a ‘negative shift in affect’.  Simply disliking a subject after studying it is often given as a reason for changing majors.

This negative shift is in stark contrast to physicist Richard Feynman’s story: “I have a friend who’s an artist … he’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says, ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty… I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t see how it subtracts.”

(Feynman, Richard P. “What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character”. Edited by Ralph Leighton. Reprint edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.)

Those of us who have become professors are firmly in the Feynman camp, but traditional pedagogy has led to our students ending up like Twain.

How can we turn them, divert them into Feynmans?

Initially, I had hoped that demonstrating my own enthusiasm for my course topics (I found aspects to love in all of them) would increase my students’ affect. Students appreciated my enthusiasm, but did not adopt it themselves.

Flow Visualization

Then I created and taught my Flow Visualization course, and everything changed. I had stumbled onto a combination of pedagogical techniques that seemed to unlock my students’ intrinsic motivation. It seemed that they created amazing works because they wanted to. Students told me that I had changed their lives, that ever after they saw fluid physics everywhere. The inception of this course is described in my research statement because I became desperate to understand what it was about the Flow Vis course that works so well, and began research to find out. I want this transformation in student attitudes for all my courses! For all of our courses. I believe that my most important job as a professor now is to foster this transformation. Once a student is truly, intrinsically motivated, then they will learn; they will find a way to learn. The gates of knowledge are open now. All the details of our engineering disciplines are available online. Excellent recorded lectures are out there, as are inexpensive textbooks, problem sets, and exams. Yes, all these resources need curation, that is still important. Having a community and a mutual structured experience is also still important because learning is a social activity, even for introverts. But teaching Flow Vis showed me that there can be a better way, that we can make Feynmans instead of Twains.

The Flow Vis course represented a badly designed experiment, in that many factors were all changed at once. Aesthetics and art were introduced as motivation for doing science and engineering. Carefully crafted laboratory experiences were abandoned in favor of turning students loose in their kitchens, backyards and laboratories (with strict safety guidelines; students love combustion) with instructions to ‘make cool images and videos of fluid flows and write about them’. Point-based grading was eliminated as a motivation for achievement in favor of authentic publication and critique. Students from diverse academic backgrounds were put together on teams. Lecture content was loaded with physics, but using a minimum of mathematics, to keep the course friendly for fine arts students.

Was one of these changes the magic ingredient? A subset of them? In what combination? To what extent?

I began scholarship in teaching and learning (SOTL): reading literature in discipline-based education research (DBER) and participating in CU’s noteworthy DBER community, applying what I learned to my courses and beginning to apply a professional, research-oriented approach to my course modifications and to my teaching practices overall. I attended the National Engineering Teaching Institute (I and II in 2012). In 2006 I was a participant in FTEP’s PTLC, which paired experienced education researchers with novices. At the same time I began a series of experiments in course design. Here my teaching philosophy and education research become inextricably entwined.

I first wanted to test whether simply adding a visual aesthetics component to an engineering discipline would do the trick. I wanted a discipline which is pervasive in our environment but generally unrecognized so I could observe an expansion of perception and hopefully a transformative experience (see the research statement for definitions). In 2009 I piloted a one credit course called “Perception of Design” in which students made photographs of mechanical design exemplars and reported on them. Similar to the Flow Vis course students were instructed in basic photography and optics, had freedom to choose their subjects, and the publication, critique expectations, and grading scheme were the same. I got a lot of images of sports equipment and a few cars, and some superficial design analyses but no impressive work. Surveys indicated no transformative experiences. Enrollment was lackluster, while Flow Vis consistently had waitlists. This was contrary to typical elective enrollment in our department; students generally prefer design to thermo-fluids topics. I tried tweaking a few aspects, but gave up on this approach after three offerings.

Aesthetics In Design

What was missing? I searched for clues in the Flow Vis survey data. One potential ingredient that emerged was that students were having a creative experience that was missing from the rest of our curriculum. Mechanical engineering requires some degree of creativity in problem solving (that utility again) and design, but our students are never offered free rein in choosing their design projects, nor are they given the opportunity to own all aspects of a design; instead they are expected to contribute only in the context of a team project. I pondered how to increase the degree of creativity and agency for students in an aesthetics-oriented design course, and eventually the central concept for “Aesthetics in Design” surfaced. My research group has now distilled this hypothesis as ‘creative aesthetics is the conduit for a transformative experience with Feynman attitudes as the goal’.

I piloted Aesthetics of Design in Maymester 2014 with the assistance of two co-instructors, Hunter Ewin and Jiffer Harriman. Our paper describing the course won a Best of DEED (Design in Engineering Education Division) Paper award (one of five) at ASEE’s 122nd Annual Conference and Exposition. I’ve taught the course on my own since then five times, evolving it with each iteration based on survey data and class interviews. Course content now includes a survey of contemporary aesthetics, a history of 20th and 21st century design movements, a case study of chairs, brief biographies of a few contemporary designers, and a look at design competition winners. Students have complete control over their choice of projects within very broad guidelines: a warmup project must use upcycled/recycled materials and a main project which must be dynamic in some way. Aesthetics must be a major consideration for both projects. In keeping with the requirement for authentic publication, students write weekly blog posts about their work which are published on the course website This site, like is high in Google rankings and gets hundreds of hits per day. 

This course (AesDes) has been much more successful than Perception of Design, but is not yet quite as impactful as Flow Vis. Our most recent surveys from Spring 2021 showed an increase in engineering identity (this was an unexpected benefit) and an expansion of perception, but not much evidence for transformative experiences, in contrast to previous semesters. The pandemic might be to blame; the course was taught remotely and students had limited access to manufacturing facilities on campus. And we’ve all seen how exhausted and stressed our students are.

Applications to Teaching from Education Research

The development of the Flow Vis and AesDes courses are examples of one aspect of my approach to teaching, emphasizing that aesthetics are a valid motivation for science and engineering and it can enrich their professional lives regardless of their career path.  There are a few more concepts from my engineering education research and scholarship that I’ve applied in an additional courses that I’d like to highlight next.

Active learning has dominated STEM education reform for the past 15 years or more. Ironically, often seminars by DBER researchers on some aspect of active learning research rarely employ the techniques they are investigating. This has inspired me to develop a course for early career instructors, assistant professors and post docs, focused on ‘walk the talk’: the Evidence-Based Introduction to Teaching (EBIT). Please see my service statement for more information about the content. EBIT gets a bit recursive. Many of the participants have never experienced a student-centered environment as students themselves. In EBIT, participants get that experience while learning about course design, assessment and active learning via active learning techniques.  For example, after highlighting the learning objectives for the day and a short lecture introducing essentials of how to design learning objectives, participants develop objectives for a hypothetical class session in their own discipline using a think-pair-share approach (i.e. think about it on your own, then exchange ideas with a partner). Later when we are discussing active learning techniques, students recall their own experience with think-pair-share. Teaching EBIT allowed me to collect and practice new evidence-based techniques myself which have found their way into my courses and presentations.  For example, I now routinely include some sort of audience participation whenever I give a ‘talk’.

In addition to pursuing how to increase intrinsic motivation in my students, I have worked on improving assessment and grading. The more I’ve learned about summative assessments such as exams the more deficient they seemed to me. As engineering educators, we don’t have the expertise to devise unbiased measurements of what a student knows or is capable of. We never consider issues of sensitivity, reliability, repeatability, dynamic range or accuracy in our psychometric measurements, despite our expertise in the realm of physical measurements.  Students and employers have unjustified faith in the accuracy of our grades, even believing discernment to three significant figures! Students believe that a good grade means they have learned the material, and that a bad one means they did not. I have 30 years’ experience writing exams. I can write a ‘good’ exam and get the average score and distribution I aim for, covering whatever learning objectives I have.  But having written the exam, seen the responses and interacted with the students, I still see how the exam has failed as a true assessment. Exams succeed to some degree in getting students to study and synthesize the material, but this is a formative outcome, and exams cannot prepare students for authentic engineering practices. Yes, there are ‘right answers’ that engineers must be able to reach. Correct vs incorrect analyses. Clear communication of analyses vs impenetrable scribbles. Our students need training in these, and homework sets and exams are one way to achieve this training but no course should stop there. 

Instead, I am working with several different approaches to de-emphasize grades and exams. I use low-stakes formative assessments extensively; I’ve found I need only offer what I call a ‘whiff of credit’, a tiny amount of credit that acknowledges student participation. In class I use active learning methods such as clicker questions, worksheets, and group problem solving.  I publish 10 years’ worth of solved homework sets and exams for students in my fluids courses, and invite them to practice extensively and self-test, acknowledging completion only. This also keeps the playing field even by giving all students access to these resources.

I now offer projects in all my courses; students tackle open-ended questions that require them to seek out readings independently, and produce a written report at the end of the semester. I used to shy away from projects; the thought of reading and grading all those reports (my classes have had enrollments up to 175) was overwhelming. A co-instructor, Peter Mitrano, convinced me to give it a try some years ago. I’ve since evolved techniques to manage the work and reported on these to my community ( First, provide a detailed rubric lays out explicit expectations. Next, assign projects to student pairs. There are techniques for doing this smoothly as well. Be clear about the quality of the references they may use. I don’t expect undergraduates to exclusively read archival journal articles, but they are not allowed to reference grade-school level YouTube videos either. I provide scaffolding in the form of intermediate milestones so that students are not overwhelmed at the last minute. Most importantly, I teach the students about critique, so they can evaluate their peers work constructively and accurately.

When I started teaching Flow Vis, I was hesitant to comment on the actual artistry displayed. I found that engineering students were even more hesitant than I was, and would sit mutely during critique sessions. I began reading about critique and feedback methods used in various disciplines. I found a fair amount describing traditional practices in business and the arts, but only a small amount of credible research in the business, education and psychology literatures.  One approach that I’ve become a fan of is the Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman. Admittedly, it is missing the scholarly component; I’ve not found any studies of the efficacy of the overall method. This is a potential research project for the future.  In any case, I’ve been using aspects of it for the past few years in all my courses and I’ve seen dramatic improvements in both the quantity and quality of the feedback students offer during peer reviews. In oral presentations I’ve found that if I can just keep my mouth shut a student will pipe up with the exact critique I was thinking of, and do it in a more constructive way. An additional bonus is that student feedback to me is also more thoughtful and constructive.

The last approach I’ve been experimenting with is ungrading, the topic of a workshop I presented for the Center for Teaching and Learning last year. There are a variety of techniques, described in writings by Jesse Stommel, Alfie Kohn, Susan Blum and others. In my implementation I give students normal feedback during the semester, and then at the end of the semester I ask students to write me a short paragraph describing what grade they think they have earned, and why. I compare their assessment to whatever measures I have for them from the semester. Unless I see a significant disconnect, I give them the grade they ask for. I’ve found them to be remarkably similar to my own assessments. This has completely eliminated grade-begging, and I appreciate students’ self-reflections.


To my amazement and joy, I found that following my aesthetic inclinations, coupled with a scholarly evidence-based approach has allowed me to teach in a way that focuses on student motivation and learning, and avoid the negative consequences of our grade-dominated culture.

Service: My Statement for Promotion

In the same way that Flow Vis and educational research changed my research and teaching, it has given me a focus in my service activities. After that first AAPT conference (please see teaching statement) I began attending our local Physics Education Research (PER) and Discipline Based Education Research (DBER) group meetings. I admired the student-centered values and how the inclusive camaraderie supported rather than eroded the rigor of the research. However, I noticed that I was usually the only participant from engineering, and certainly the only fluids educator. I wanted to bring this type of community and the application of scholarship to teaching practices home to my department, my college and my fluids professional society, the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics (APS DFD).

Service to the Mechanical Engineering Department

From 2001 to 2011 I led our department’s Undergraduate Committee, overseeing our program’s curriculum, student affairs and accreditation. By 2004 our undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled, without commensurate increase in resources. Our class sizes ballooned, leading some of our faculty to threaten to reduce enrollment by flunking out large numbers of students; instead I argued for raising entrance requirements based on grades. This addressed our immediate need, but most unfortunately led to a drop in student diversity. Eventually the college adopted a more equitable enrollment strategy and resources became more balanced; data and research on equitable practices won, thanks to Brian Argrow, Associate Dean at the time.

I was also the ABET accreditation coordinator through two review cycles. Beyond assembling the gargantuan reports required by the process, I learned a great deal about program assessment and I tried to make the ABET process value added. For example, from the PER community I had learned about measuring learning gains using pre and post course concept inventories; this innovation had sparked a revolution in physics teaching and gave rise to PER itself. Concept inventories had then been developed for a majority of our required engineering courses by an NSF initiative. I introduced the idea of using those concept inventories as data for our ABET process during the first ABET cycle that I led. Our faculty was intrigued by the idea of a nationally-normed objective assessment available for each course each semester, and readily agreed to implementing them. The data was indeed helpful in our program reviews, but more importantly the inventories introduced our faculty to an important data acquisition tool: the concept question, which later evolved into a form of active learning via clicker questions. Now, 20 years later, using concept inventories and clicker questions are routine in our department. This is an example of how evidence-based teaching methods can become part of a department culture.

Teaching Quality Framework (TQF)

Another example of the application of scholarship to teaching practices that I have been working on is in the assessment of teaching.  I believe that poor assessment of faculty teaching can stifle innovation and enable bias. In 2013 I began participating in the Teaching Quality Framework (TQF), a campus initiative led by Noah Finkelstein and the Center for STEM Learning and supported by NSF and the AAU. Based on existing scholarship, the TQF is a rubric of seven categories of teaching including the alignment of course content with course goals and the preparation of the instructor for teaching. In each category, evaluation is based on data collected from three voices: student, instructor and the instructor’s peers. The goal is to improve summative and formative evaluations of teaching.

I volunteered to form and lead an ad hoc department committee to implement the TQF in Mechanical Engineering as an overload to my regular department service obligations. One question that came up early in our work was whether summative assessment was the goal, or whether improved teaching was?  The idea that accurate assessment (i.e. a grade or a merit rating) will lead to better performance is deeply ingrained in our culture: punish the poor teachers or students to inspire better performance, and reward the best. A truly Skinnerian approach. In practice, however, research has shown that this approach is generally ineffective, or even counterproductive. Negative feedback has been shown to be a useful goad only for the very worst performers. I find I am much less interested in assessment for assessment’s sake, and much more in improving our teaching.  Nevertheless, within our current system summative evaluation is required for promotion and tenure and annual merit evaluations.

As a committee, we decided that a gradual approach was best. My model of institutional change is that new ideas are always rejected until they become old and familiar. We elected to first focus on measures used for promotion and tenure, reasoning that they could be introduced piecemeal over time. We reviewed the types of data collected and found metrics that could be relatively easily improved: low hanging fruit. The TQF initiative has provided resources in the form of post docs that facilitate our meetings and do the background research and synthesis while our committee shapes the product to fit our department culture. To date we have developed four tools for use in assessing teaching for promotion and tenure: a peer observation protocol, a template for a request for letters from students, a guide to writing teaching statements and a set of guidelines for mentorship. Efforts to institutionalize these tools in our department procedures is ongoing. The peer observation protocol has been the most popular so far. At the same time the TQF initiative and the need for better evaluations of teaching have gained strength in our college and campus. The tools we have developed have positioned our department as a leader in this arena.

EER in the College of Engineering and Applied Science

At the college level, I began working to build community by co-organizing a series of education retreats from Spring 2009 to Spring 2011. I met wonderful educators who share my passion for the application of scholarship to teaching practices; i.e. for professionalizing our teaching practices. However, this initiative has been a tougher sell. I was told explicitly some years ago that the First Level Review Committee in our college did not look favorably on education research as an appropriate scholarly activity for engineering faculty. I am hoping that attitude has changed. In any case, I’ve been happy to participate in as many educational initiatives in our college as I could. Most recently I helped (at least a little) get Engineering Educational Research supported by the college as part of an Interdisciplinary Research Thrust, along with Artificial Intelligence (EER-AI IRT). At first I was hesitant to propose my own research in this area, but the partnership has worked; as I learned more about how AI can help EER while serving as a Lead in the EER-AI IRT program, my research has begun to move that way. Another example of overlap between research, teaching and service.


Also at the campus level, in 2012 I was invited to take over as Institutional Leader of our CIRTL program. CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) is an NSF supported consortium of over 40 mostly R1 institutions; CU was an early member. The idea is to improve undergraduate education by training STEM graduate students and post docs in evidence-based teaching methods via the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) so that they are prepared when they become faculty. In other words, get them young before they become invested in traditional but less effective teaching methods. I could see that our Graduate Teacher Program was doing an excellent job with grad students under my co- (Administrative) Leader, Laura Border; CIRTL and our Grad School supported it well. I could also see that post docs were underserved and administratively invisible on our campus. This led me to develop a workshop aimed specifically at post docs and young faculty: EBIT, the Evidence Based Introduction to Teaching (see my teaching statement for a description of content). As Institutional Leader, I represented CU at CIRTL meetings twice a year, and again found a supportive community as I learned more of SOTL approaches to bring back home. I offered EBIT seven times to post docs from across the country as well as small group and individual mentoring of new faculty in ME. The pandemic and a shift in campus funding priorities has at least temporarily ended the workshop and CU’s participation in CIRTL.

In 2008 I began serving as a Faculty Associate in the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program (FTEP). Faculty wanting to improve their teaching would request a service from a short list: 1) a simple consultation/discussion with an Associate about their teaching, 2) a video consult, where they would be recorded giving a lecture, followed by a review with an Associate or 3) a classroom interview, where the Associate would facilitate small groups of students to come to consensus on strengths and improvements of the course and instructor, and also vote individually their agreement or not with each specific item on all the groups’ lists. Over the years, until FTEP was dissolved in 2020 I interacted with faculty and students from all over campus, broadening my perspectives and proselytizing for evidence-based methods. I also availed myself of the services on several occasions. My favorite technique is the classroom interview. It is open-ended but provides a quantified, consensus view from students. It generates more useful, actionable suggestions than any of the other techniques.

Service to the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD)

I began work on building community and scholarship around teaching fluid dynamics at the annual DFD meeting in 2006. Prior to this there was no discussion of education at DFD meetings; they were all focused entirely on fluid physics research. I proposed and organized a minisymposium on teaching fluid mechanics, and co-organized more minisymposia over the next three years. At the same time I started the Fluids Education Google group, now at 252 members. I began meeting others who shared my focus on education whom I now count as dear colleagues. Eventually, with their help and participation the special minisymposia evolved into regular meeting sessions focused on education topics which have continued to this day. In 2008 I got funding from NSF for a dinner workshop focused on active learning with clickers. These workshops have also continued, and have now evolved into a regular well- attended lunch at the DFD meeting, supported by the DFD itself. I helped found and chair the Education and Career Outreach Committee in 2010, which is now part of the standing committee structure. The whole education initiative is now self-sustaining and I have retreated to being a delighted mere participant. 

As a side note, the acceptance of education as an appropriate topic for our annual meeting has inspired me to give additional service to the DFD. I was elected to the Executive Committee for a three year term in 2007, and eventually co-hosted with Peter Hamlington the annual meeting in Denver in 2017, with over 3000 participants.

Art is Engineering

One final service activity I’d like to mention relates back to my focus on aesthetics as a valid motivation for science and engineering. Prior to 1999 ABET requirements forbade fine arts classes from counting towards an engineering degree. This stricture has been softened since then, but the attitude of engineering faculty that participatory fine arts and performance classes are ‘basket weaving’ and undeserving of a student’s time persists. This attitude has always enraged me. I see it as dehumanizing our students and damaging to our profession. Driving away people who value creating art themselves has led to a less diverse, less creative population of engineers. We can be so much more than paid solvers of other people’s problems. In response to a call for efforts to improve diversity in the college in 2017, Elizabeth Stade and I began offering “Art is Engineering” participatory art activities in the Engineering Center lobby. Students and passersby are invited to spend a few minutes creating collages, drawings, sculptures etc. Some students end up spending hours. I look forward to resuming these activities as the pandemic eases.

Opportunities for Undergrads Interested in Research

Here in the Mechanical Engineering department at CU, there are many opportunities for undergraduate students to get research experience. Pretty much all of us professors have active research programs, and most of us welcome undergraduates to participate. If my projects don’t fit with your interests, don’t stop looking. On the department website you can find short descriptions of what each prof is interested in. They might also have an informative website, but don’t count on it. The best way to find out what a prof is doing is to ask them; make an appointment, say that you are interested in their work.

If you say you want to work with me, I try to find out what kind of experience you want so I can suggest projects to match. Some projects are hands-on design/build/test of a piece of laboratory apparatus for my fluids research or for the Flow Vis course. Some projects involve a bit of Matlab programming and/or data analysis from my research. A project might  be a literature survey on a topic of mutual interest, or might be interviewing other students and analyzing the results. Most projects are related to ongoing research, so you might be helping and be supervised by one of my graduate students. I’m also open to fluids-related ideas that you are passionate about. Whatever it is, I want a good match so you’ll be enthusiastic, self-motivated and dedicated.

Other things I look for in a research student:

  • Being a junior or a senior. This means that you have enough background in your discipline (whether it’s Mech Engin, some other engineering, filmmaking or whatever) to get started quickly. This is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule.
  • Having a partner or two lined up, with schedules similar enough that you can spend around 10 hours together per week, plus a short group meeting with me every week.
  • Being able to make a commitment to a total of 150 hours in a semester. Sometimes this can be spread out over more than a semester, and include part or all of summer. This means having a reasonable course load, and not a lot of other projects.
  • Production of a good final report. It will be due two weeks before the end of classes, so I have time to edit it and you have time for revisions.
  • I much prefer to work with CU students, with the hope that after I invest my time in you and get you trained up to be productive that you will want to stay on and work with me for more than one semester.

In return, you’ll get a taste of real research, including an experienced mentor (I’ve had over 150 undergrad researchers in my program), a great letter of reference for job applications, and maybe a research publication or two to put on your resume. You can also get either

  • 3 credit hours of Independent Study which will count as a technical elective in Mechanical Engineering. If this is in your plan, you’ll need to fill out the application form, get my signature, and get it to one of the ME undergrad advisors in time to register. Yes, it has to be typed, and we have to agree on the scope and methods.
  • OR
  • a bit of money. This is harder to set up, but I’ve been fairly successful helping CU students get funding from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) here at CU (but watch out, the deadlines are waaaaay in advance). Depending on the project, there might be other pots of money around for funding.

I usually have 3 to 6 undergrads working with me at any given time. I’ll be posting about specific projects in the future, so if you are interested, check back here now and then.

Projects in Fluids Courses Made Easy (for You, the Instructor)

I’m giving a talk at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting in Seattle, November 23-26, 2019. This talk will be in Session H29, one of the Fluids Education sessions, on Monday 11/25 at 9:44 AM–9:57 AM, in room 611 at the Seattle Convention Center. Here are the slides from the talk, the project assignment that is given to students, including a list of projects to choose from (thanks to Peter Mitrano) and the all-important rubric, thanks to Derek Reamon.

The Best Part of Teaching

I was invited to sit on a panel of engineering faculty today, to talk to a class of first year students. We all introduced ourselves, and then we were asked to talk about what gets us going. When you are sitting on a panel, there’s always a moment of panic when you cast about in your mind, looking for something to say that is unique, useful and true. Ah, here we go.

For me, the best part of teaching is learning.

I collect skills. I love learning how to do new things. I’m old enough to have collected a wide range of skills: photography, gardening, coding,  firefighting, folk dancing, (here’s where I stopped speaking, but it’s fun to list them all) data analysis, wiring,  public speaking, kitchen knife skills, electronics assembly, automotive repair, reference chasing, laundry, drumming in odd rhythms, laser repair, WordPress, sewing, teaching, making mustard, plumbing and flow visualization. I’ve never regretted spending the time to learn any of these. I don’t claim expertise in very much, but I can do a lot of different things with basic competence. OK, I can’t really sing, or remember names or faces. But my most important skill that I truly delight in might be how to learn new things.

So now when I teach, that’s what I want to teach: I want my students to learn how to collect a new skill, how to teach themselves, so they can have the pleasure of conquering useful new knowledge, of doing new things.

I’m glad I sat on that panel today. I learned something new about myself.

The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

This semester I am teaching a new course, the Aesthetics of Design. It is a mashup of industrial design, studio art and engineering projects courses. Grad and undergrad students from our Mechanical Engineering program, plus students from TAM and other programs will design and build artifacts with an aesthetic component, possibly useless things for art’s sake. Not your typical functional time-and-money oriented engineering project course, and not a traditional ‘industrial design’ product-oriented course either.

Continue reading The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

Collected Fluid Artists

I’ve been collecting examples of work from fine artists who use fluid mechanics as a significant part of their media. Currently this collection is posted on as Flow Visualization on, but perhaps I will transition the collection to be part of my blog here. Meanwhile, here is a recent example:

Suggestions for artists to add are welcome.

Am I Back? Oh Yes!

Office Hours Fall 2015

Pretty much everybody I run into asks me “so, are you back yet?” meaning am I back to teaching. Based on prior experience, I expect them to continue asking this question in some form for the next seven years. I think it reflects a wistfulness on their part; they wish they were on sabbatical too, whether they are academics or not. Knowing how irritating this question gets over time, when I run into a colleague I haven’t seen in a while I ask instead “you’re not on sabbatical now, are you?”, as if that phrasing is really any different. I’m eternally wistful too.

This semester I’m teaching two courses, undergraduate Fluids and my favorite, Flow Visualization. Both are MWF, so it feels like I’m always preparing for one or the other, even though I’ve taught both courses 10 times. Fluids has 85 students in it, but really I have 170 students, because I’ve joined forces with Peter Mitrano (a Flow Vis alum) who is teaching the other section. We are sharing homeworks and exams, so it’s like teaching a big course with a co-instructor, although we have separate lectures. Flow Vis has 45 students or so, as usual. This means I have contact with over 200 students, who all would like me to know their names. Oy.

I’ve tried to block out Thursday as my day for uninterrupted work, since all of my PhD students are hoping to graduate this term. I thought there were 3, but I just heard from an ABD (all but dissertation) student from a few years ago who now wants to finish. That is one big pile of theses.

Wish me luck.

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