Anyone who has met Manuel Rausch is familiar with his energetic personality and passion for teaching. An assistant professor of aerospace engineering, engineering mechanics and biomedical engineering, Rausch can often be seen biking across campus or chatting with one of his students around the ASE Building. In fact, he’s been mistaken for a graduate student once or twice himself.
Since joining the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (ASE/EM) in 2017, Rausch has taught several of what are considered to be the department’s most difficult courses: EM 306 (Statics), EM 311 (Dynamics) and ASE 324L (Aerospace Materials Laboratory). He also teaches the graduate course EM 397 (Soft Tissue Biomechanics) which focuses on his current research – a combination of experimental biomechanics and computational modeling. The graduate course is now being offered to senior undergraduate students as well, and this year the class of 20 students included 14 undergraduates.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and classes transitioned to an online format, Rausch realized quickly that he would need to develop strategies to help keep students engaged. When classes were in person, students were able to participate in lab projects, watch hands-on experiments and ask questions – something that just wasn’t possible remotely. Rausch recreated some experiments using video, but he still wanted to offer something more for students who learn best in a hands-on environment.
“I was really racking my mind, trying to figure out how I could recreate this in-person lab experience,” Rausch said. “I eventually came up with a final project that would allow students to do experiments from home.”
Using real-world tools and practical software, Rausch developed an inexpensive, fully functional materials testing device kit that each student could assemble and use at home along with a group project module.
Rausch designed the final project module to walk students through the full pipeline of material characterization using the device. Each student receives a device packet which contains an aluminum frame, 3D-printed clamps, a mimic tissue sample and a weight balloon. The device can be assembled without tools and is safe and entirely open and free, allowing for a variety of test samples.
“What I realized along the way, is that I would like to extend this opportunity once we return to in-person learning too, because it will allow the students to perform the experiment themselves instead of just watching it in the lab,” Rausch said. “This way they can get their hands on the samples themselves, calculate stretch and stress, do curve fitting, and identify the material parameters of the material they are testing.”
Even before the pandemic, students were praising Rausch’s teaching as early as his first year of teaching. His Course Instructor Survey scores are not just unusually high for a young professor, but they also include several positive comments from students.
“A closer look at the [student] comments reveals a professor who is truly passionate about teaching, someone who cares about the students, gets to know them at a personal level, is willing to seek out feedback mid-semester and adjust his teaching style accordingly, and who is truly innovative,” wrote Clint Dawson, ASE/EM Department Chair in an award nomination letter.
This spring, Rausch was selected to receive the 2021 Dean’s Award for Outstanding Engineering Teaching by an Assistant Professor by the Cockrell School of Engineering. Recipients of the award must demonstrate effective teaching as reflected through mechanisms such as course/instructor surveys, show a warmth of spirit and a genuine concern for students, and exhibit the ability to impart knowledge while challenging students to conduct independent inquiry.
There’s no doubt that Rausch meets all of the award requirements and more. His teaching philosophy says it well:
“My overarching teaching philosophy is that I see my primary role as an educator in sharing my passion for the course subject and to instill in my students a love for learning. I do so through innovative teaching techniques and tools as well as through class-room inclusion. As I teach, I take great joy in experimenting with teaching methods and tools. In open dialogue with the students, I learn what works for my students and what doesn’t.”
Rausch is looking forward to implementing his new teaching device into his future courses.
Rausch’s current research focuses on characterizing and understanding the mechanical behavior of biological tissues such as myocardium, vascular soft tissue, heart valves and skin to improve diagnostic and therapeutic methods, as well as medical device design, using both computational and experimental methods. He was awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER award for his work on the mechanics of blood clots. Learn more about Rausch’s work on his Soft Tissues Biomechanics Laboratory website.