Dr. Russell Gorga, Outstanding Teacher, Continuously Raising the Bar

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Our department considers student success to be at the core of everything we do, from classroom instruction, hands-on laboratories, undergraduate research, enriching experiences such as internships and study abroad, service projects, and fun social events, to career placement and alumni services.  When asked what they like best about TECS, our students often tell us that high on their list is being part of a vibrant department that has a family atmosphere, low student-to-faculty ratio (< 20:1), and challenging and relevant programs with all the benefits and resources of the largest university in the great state of North Carolina. Through high average teaching evaluations, our students also consistently tell us they appreciate our teaching and mentoring.  We don’t teach subjects.  We teach our students.

Our department’s focus on teaching and mentoring is exemplified in that 13 of us are members of NC State’s esteemed Academy of Outstanding Teachers.

One Academy member is Dr. Russell Gorga, a Chemical Engineer who came to us from MIT and is a graduate of Iowa State, Drexel, and Rutgers Universities. Dr. Gorga is one of our very best teachers and communicators.

In this Faculty Profile, we highlight Dr. Gorga and his endeavor to continuously improve teaching and mentoring in our department via a sabbatical in Europe.

Why did you choose Textile Engineering, Chemistry & Science as your professional home?

RG: Back in the fall of 2002 I started applying for tenure-track faculty positions.  By early 2003, I had four interviews; by the spring of 2003, I had four offers.  So why did I choose TECS at NC State?  Very simple, it was clear to me that the faculty and the department had a strong focus on excellence in teaching.  This wasn’t true for the other three institutions (which will remain nameless).  Since I started teaching in TECS, I have devoted a significant amount of time to develop my courses and to become the best instructor I could be.  One of my proudest accomplishments includes being selected as an “Outstanding Teacher” and being inducted into the Academy of Outstanding Teachers at NC State!  In fact, many of my colleagues in TECS also hold this distinction.  In addition, many of our faculty also hold other distinguished teaching honors (including three NC State Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor Award recipients).  It makes me proud to see such a strong emphasis on teaching in our department.

What is a sabbatical and how is it intended to benefit the university system?

RG: A sabbatical is designed to encourage faculty members to immerse themselves in a new area of research or scholarship.  It benefits NC State by encouraging faculty to increase exposure to new areas of research and scholarship with the intent that the faculty member will pursue new areas upon return to NC State.

You scoured the world for top programs that conduct research on teaching effectiveness.  Why did you choose Denmark for a sabbatical?

RG: This semester, I am embarking on my first sabbatical, which will focus on teaching innovations and effectiveness in engineering, with a specific emphasis on Problem Based Learning (PBL).  I am working with Prof. Anette Kolmos, a leader in engineering education at Aalborg University in Aalborg, Denmark.  Prof Kolmos focuses on research in the following areas: changes to PBL curriculum, development of transferable skills, and faculty development. She is actively involved in developing profiles of engineering education research in Europe as well as internationally.

What do you hope to bring back to the Textile Engineering, Chemistry & Science Department?

RG: I hope to learn how to frame detailed questions that get to the heart of improving engineering education.  My aim is to improve the overall learning experience for all students.  Specifically, I would like to focus on active learning activities, where the students are able to work through problems in class with other students.  In addition, I want to apply PBL techniques to provoke students to better understand why they need to learn concepts as they attempt to solve problems.  Specifically, in PBL, the problem drives the learning.  Traditionally, students are “taught” the concepts and theories of a discipline and then they’re asked to apply them to problems.  In PBL, the problem comes first, which motivates the need to learn!  I think it will be very interesting to try to apply this approach to the capstone senior design courses as well.

How will you share what you’ve learned with your colleagues and graduate students interested in teaching?

RG: When I return to TECS this summer, I hope to not only incorporate these approaches into my classroom, but also provide training and resources for other faculty in TECS (and throughout NC State) who would like to incorporate these teaching modalities. I will be presenting at our college Graduate Seminar in the fall, which is open to everyone, is recorded, and available for free online.

Dr. Gorga in Denmark in the town square with the ice skating ring and cathedral behind him.
Dr. Gorga in Denmark in the town square with the ice skating ring and cathedral behind him.

Is there anything else you hope to experience while in Europe?

RG: I will be in Europe with my wife, Colleen, and two young children, Leonardo and Cecilia, so Colleen and I hope to travel throughout Europe on weekends and holidays to provide a broad cultural experience for our 3 and 5 year olds!