(Note: Images shown were taken in 2019, prior to mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols.)

By Jill Spotz

Polly Piergiovanni, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, was recently named the Air Products/Ghasemi Chair in Engineering for Interdisciplinary Teaching. The position was endowed in 2017 as a result of the Engineering and Liberal Arts Challenge from the Live Connect, Lead Change Campaign when an anonymous donor challenged the community to support the Engineering Division. The matching funds are enhancing the Acopian Engineering Center through providing space for the faculty chair and interdisciplinary student-faculty engagement and interaction.

Piergiovanni was surprised and thrilled to receive the honor. As a member of the faculty since 1990, Piergiovanni was the first female faculty member in engineering to receive tenure. She has witnessed the growth of the division over the years, its curricular expansion, including the 2019 addition of the Bachelor of Science in engineering (BSE) degree program, as well as efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity, which have resulted in a more diverse faculty and student population. Lafayette’s engineering programs currently comprise 36% women students and nearly 25% from underrepresented groups, approximately double the national average

“I am honored to be named the inaugural Air Products/Ghasemi Chair in Engineering for Interdisciplinary Teaching,” says Piergiovanni. “Since my teaching involves predominantly hands-on concepts, the funds from this endowment will allow me to enhance instruction by purchasing technology that supports experiential learning.” 

Prof. Polly Piergiovanni demonstrates how to pull fresh mozzarella.

Piergiovanni participated in a special Women in STEM event held on campus in 2019.

Piergiovanni earned her Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering at Kansas State University and her doctorate in chemical engineering from University of Houston. She teaches first-year engineering, experimental design, applied fluid flow and heat transfer, and introduction to food engineering. Her research interests focus on engineering education and laboratory development and food engineering.

In 2018, Piergiovanni was awarded the prestigious William H. Corcoran Award from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). The award is presented annually to the author of the most outstanding peer-reviewed article published in Chemical Engineering Education, a quarterly journal that highlights innovations in chemical engineering education practice as well as research on chemical engineering education. Piergiovanni’s article, “Students Learn Without Lectures,” was selected out of a field of about 24 other articles published that year. This is Piergiovanni’s second endowed position; she was the Metzgar Assistant Professor of Engineering from 1991 through 1994. 

“We are delighted that, through the extraordinary generosity of Seifi Ghasemi H’17 and the Air Products Foundation, Lafayette’s Engineering Division has the opportunity to advance teaching and learning,” says Provost John Meier. “The Air Products/Ghasemi Chair recognizes the stellar scholarship of Polly Piergiovanni and the impact her ideas about teaching and research have had on the field, and it will allow the division in perpetuity to support faculty members as they make important contributions.”

Air Products, a leading global industrial gases company, has been a longtime supporter of Lafayette’s engineering programs. Ghasemi, who received an honorary degree from Lafayette in 2017, credits the Lafayette education he received through a partnership between the College and Abadan Institute of Technology in Iran in the ’50s and ’60s. 

“Through Adaban, Lafayette provided me with an education that very powerfully integrated engineering and liberal arts, and that directly influenced the person I have become and the career

I have had,” Ghasemi said. “With her appointment as the inaugural Air Products/Ghasemi Chair in Engineering for Interdisciplinary Teaching, I am delighted that Dr. Piergiovanni will have funding and support she needs to develop her students’ skills, both as strong engineers and holistic thinkers—paving the way for them to become the leaders of the future.”

One of the hallmarks of Lafayette’s engineering programs is the opportunity to learn through collaboration with peers from different disciplines. Air Products/Ghasemi Chair furthers this effort by supporting the type of collaborative and interdisciplinary learning that Piergiovanni provides. 

“Polly’s teaching connects across many disciplines at the College and often includes social, historical, environmental, and technological aspects of the topic,” says Scott Hummel, William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division and Professor. “I can think of no one more deserving of the honor than Polly Piergiovanni.”

Determination and Creativity

Dedicated professors always look for ways to improve the classroom experience, and Piergiovanni is a prime example of an educator who can inspire learning through creative coursework, mentorship, and through their own academic work. With the added challenge of envisioning virtual instruction during a pandemic, Piergiovanni is drumming up ways to ensure her students have as close to the same learning outcomes through virtual learning as they do when in the classroom. 

Piergiovanni’s introduction to engineering class, Films, Foams and Spheres, is typically taught in LeopardWorks, the 5,000-square-foot interdisciplinary project space on the bottom level of Acopian Engineering Center. The hands-on course introduces students to the engineering design process. In small groups, students work together to design food products based on what they learn about the processes of dehydration, spherification (a chemical reaction), and starch films. But how do you replicate this type of learning in a virtual setting? 

Piergiovanni was hard at work this summer solving this exact problem. 

With social distancing rules in mind, Piergiovanni knew that whether students returned to campus or not this fall, they would not be able to work together in groups and share tools, food items, equipment, and more, which is a major facet of the ES101 class. 

“My solution was to create individual boxes of supplies for each student,” explains Piergiovanni. “I prepared a personal kit for 40 students that contained all of the supplies they will need to take the course including pre-measured ingredients. Each kit contains about 20 different items. I’ve measured out 800 tiny containers, made 80 foams, and had films drying in the sun in my backyard. My house was filled with boxes and boxes of supplies.” 

When asked what her favorite courses have been throughout the years, it is no surprise that Piergiovanni mentions Films, Foams, and Spheres because it is not only fun but safe. “I don’t have to worry about safety issues with food,” explains Piergiovanni. 

The new Air Products/Ghasemi Chair spent most of the summer trying to figure out how ES101 can still occur and was determined to see it through. “The faculty are all trying to be very creative. We are taking this seriously. Even if we can’t be together, we want students to have the same experience or as close to it as we can this fall.”

Learn more about Piergiovanni’s food spherification research.

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