The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Nonnenmann and Tobiason Each Win Coveted College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award

John Tobiason

John Tobiason

Stephen Nonnenmann

Stephen Nonnenmann

The winners of the UMass College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award for 2019 are Professor Stephen Nonnenmann of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department and Professor John Tobiason of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department. Both of these highly accomplished teachers, researchers, and academics have made a lasting impact on the education of the engineering workforce for many years to come.

“Professor Nonnenmann has clearly established himself as one of the best young teachers in the department and the college,” said MIE Department Head Sundar Krishnamurty, “as evidenced by the student evaluations and letters of support reflecting his innovative pedagogical initiatives, his outstanding mentoring activities, and his overall contributions to the teaching mission of the department, the college, and the university.”

As Nonnenmann has said, “Engaging the continuously inquisitive minds of engineering students requires a careful, innovative approach to presenting a flexible curriculum within a strongly supportive and enthusiastic classroom environment.”

In that context, as Krishnamurty noted, Nonnenmann has embodied that supportive and enthusiastic attitude in environments as diverse as lab courses in which students expect hands-on engagement, large undergraduate courses with over 200 students apiece, or specialty graduate courses requiring a mastery of state-of-the-art subject knowledge. “Professor Nonnenmann has actively and aggressively done everything possible to make sure that the students not only appreciate the learning process, but also leave with a lasting impression of their important role as the next generation of engineers,” said Krishnamurty.

As one of Nonnenmann’s students observed, “My experience both in the class and as a teaching assistant showed me that he was a professor who cared about his students and wanted them to succeed, doing everything in his power to allow the latter to occur.”

Another of Nonnenmann’s students explained that “You can feel the passion he has for the success of the students in our college, and we applaud him for going the extra mile to make our college experience an impactful one.”

The comments from the faculty in support of his nomination further highlighted Professor Nonnenmann’s extraordinary commitment to excellence in teaching. Take this comment from a prior COE Teacher of the Year award winner: “I have never before met someone who can translate a passion for cutting-edge research and the scientific process so seamlessly into classes at any level; from introductory material science classes and labs all the way to advanced graduate classes. His level of preparation and commitment to his classes is awe-inspiring…Even in a class of 200 students, he knows the majority of their names!”  

“Dr. John Tobiason is an outstanding teacher, educator, research advisor, and faculty member and a true leader in the field of drinking water treatment,” said CEE Department Head Richard Palmer. “He, perhaps more than any other faculty member in our department’s history, has had a significant impact on the many students that become leaders in the field of environmental engineering throughout New England and beyond. He has been extremely active in mentoring a new generation of researchers and practitioners in environmental engineering.”

Tobiason has been on the CEE faculty for more than 30 years, and, among other awards, the department has recognized him with the James L. Tighe Outstanding Teaching Award in 2003 and the Advisory Council Faculty Service Award in 2012.

“John’s teaching style is ideal in an engineering department,” said Palmer, “with a very strong emphasis on engineering fundamentals, a focus on practical applications, and a talent for extending his subject matter (water and wastewater treatment) into a broader social context. Any student taking one of John’s courses learns not only about how to design engineering water infrastructure, but the history of water quality and public health, the importance of the role of engineers in society, and the responsibilities an engineer has to the public.” 

Since 2005, Tobiason has served as a faculty and professional mentor for our Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Student Chapter. Most notably, he has mentored the EWB UMass Kenya Program, traveling 12 times to Kenya with groups of two to seven students, implementing a variety of water-supply projects in rural villages, and providing a tangible philanthropic presence. 

As Palmer explained, “These efforts have not only provided our students a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience of working directly with stakeholders in small villages in Kenya who are desperately in need of improved water supplies, but they reflect the values professed by the university, College of Engineering, and the CEE department.” 

One of Tobiason’s students commented that “I witnessed his unwavering passion and dedication to his field. He brings a genuine energy and enthusiasm for his research and his classroom material that is refreshing and stimulating. He was also kind and caring. His enthusiasm extended outside of the classroom into his personal life, and his passion for his field and for life was contagious.”

Another student noted that Tobiason’s “patience and trust in his students set him apart from professors in other departments. He truly wants every one of his students to succeed. The door to his office, which he frequently leaves open for students to come and go, demonstrates his willingness to mentor and advise students at all levels, even despite his extremely busy schedule.”

The College of Engineering is extremely fortunate to have two such talented and dedicated teachers to represent this important award in 2019. (April 2019)