Dr. Frank Huang: Distinguished Teacher 2012

SOCORRO, N.M. May 24, 2012 – Each year, Tech recognizes outstanding two faculty members at commencement with special awards.

Dr. Frank Huang (left) is introduced as the 2012 Distinguished Teacher Award winner at commencement.

The 2012 award winners are Dr. Phil Kyle for the Distinguished Researcher Award (see separate article) and Dr. Frank Huang for the Distinguished Teaching Award.

Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president for Academic Affairs, introduce Huang as the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award.  Dr. Frank Y.C. Huang joined the New Mexico Tech faculty in 1994 in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

Huang earned his bachelor’s degree in Taiwan, and then attended Vanderbilt University for his master’s and Ph.D. Seven years after joining the Tech faculty, he earned a second master’s in chemical engineering practice from M.I.T.

Huang is a prolific researcher who has collaborated with Sandia National Labs, General Mills, the City of Albuquerque and other groups. He has also led student field projects in Socorro and Albuquerque. But this award is about his abilities as a teacher.

“Dr. Huang is known to keep long hours and always makes himself available to New Mexico Tech students,” Gerity said “This year, he is spear-heading a new freshman project aimed to foster community spirit, introduce new students to research and engage their minds.”

Five current students wrote impassioned nominations for Dr. Huang to receive this award. Each letter praised him in great detail for his supreme dedication to teaching, his devotion to students and his willingness to grow as an instructor.

“I was surprised to get this award,” he said. “I’ve always cared a lot about students, but winning awards is not something that was on my mind. I have some really good students and I didn’t realize that they were nominating me. I was really touched by that.”

Each nomination noted that Dr. Huang truly cares about his students and providing them the best education possible.

“As one example of his selflessness and dedication, Dr. Huang pulled an all-nighter in the lab with a team of students … and provided a late-night meal,” Gerity said. “Based on the nominations, you would think that this award is long overdue.”

Huang said he has become a better teacher over the years, largely due to his experiences as a professional engineer.

“We as professors do research and teaching, but there’s a disconnect between what we are teaching and what students practice when they graduate,” Huang said. “I’ve been doing a lot more consulting and engaging in the practice of engineering on the research side. My experiences from sabbatical leave and consulting services have transformed me, in terms of understanding the needs of students.”

Huang said he has adapted his curricula and focused on hands-on projects, in order to better prepare Environmental Engineering students for their careers.

“I am not just showing them a procedure,” he said. “I want to teach them how to think when they face an open-ended problem. Fundamentally, that’s important.”

Huang has broad interests in engineering – his degrees are in civil, environmental and chemical engineering. His focus, however, is water and wastewater treatment and re-use.

“Look at the world – the population is growing and water resources are dwindling,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll get to the point of re-using our water. So, sustainability is something I’m interested in too.”

That interest spurred him to take the lead in the new Living Learning Community cohort in sustainability. He teaches the linchpin class in engineering for about 40 freshmen, challenging them to complete a semester-long project in building a mini-greenhouse powered by wind or solar.

“This is a research course, which is kind of unique because seldom do we have research courses for freshmen,” Huang said. “We want to do a much better job in terms of integrating  math, chemistry and physics early on.”

Huang has been teaching about photovoltaics, wind power and their practical uses on a residential scale. Students selected a system, then constructed and installed the system, including small greenhouses that are home to a few vegetable plants. They have been monitoring their power-generation since setting up their systems.

“This is really exciting because I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Huang said. “Look around campus and we don’t use this energy at all – no solar panels on campus and certainly no wind turbines.”

Moving to Socorro was quite  a change of pace to Dr. Huang and his wife, Cecilia, who teaches at Socorro High School. They hail from Taipei, a metropolitan area of several million people. They also lived in Nashville and the greater Houston area.

“When we came here, it was a shock,” he said. “I came down for an interview and thought, ‘Wow, I could ride a horse and come charging down here.’ I was so used to a lot of people and big metropolitan areas. But over the years, it grows on you.”

The Huangs have two sons. Morris graduated from the University of New Mexico with a bachelor’s in engineering on the same day that Dr. Huang received his award. Morris was the UNM Engineering Student of the Year. Caspar, 13, just finished seventh grade.

“We like the shopping and restaurants [of larger cities], but Socorro is a nice town to raise a family.”

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech