Teaching Style is Calculated Risk

Blowers blows off some steam at the UA Rec Center with undergraduate pre-physiology/mathematics major John Perkin. Photo credit: Will Seberger
July 10, 2012

Fresh from graduate school, Paul Blowers, Ph.D., took it very personally when two students flunked the first chemical engineering class he taught at the University of Arizona.

Both were hard-working students. How had he failed them?

They repeated the course and Blowers worked with each one individually three hours every week. That’s when he realized that people learn in very different ways – which led him to totally change his teaching style.

“I engineer my classes,” he said. “In engineering you see a problem, you look at the constraints, you find a way around the problem and you make the situation better.”

2012 Distinguished Professor

 In April, Blowers, associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, was named a 2012 Distinguished Professor by the Arizona Board of Regents, the most recent of many awards he’s received for his innovative and effecting teaching.

He called this honor “amazing.” He so thoroughly enjoys his teaching and research career that he often says, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”

Blowers challenges himself to find down-to-earth ways to connect chemical engineering to real life for his students. One infamous example is relating the concept of vapor liquid equilibrium to Jello shots, a trendy item with the party crowd. He explained why you heat the water, add the Jello, then remove it from the heat before adding alcohol. Heating certain alcohols can create a toxic vapor cloud that if inhaled would send you to the hospital. That’s vapor liquid equilibrium. Lesson learned. The class then researched the toxicity of alcohol in various forms.

Blowers joined the UA chemical and environmental engineering department as assistant professor in 1999 after completing his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Traditional Approach Didn’t Work

Blowers started teaching the traditional professorial way – lecture from the front of the room, take a few questions, remain in control. He quickly learned that didn’t work for everyone. In fact, he found the majority of people who chose chemical engineering do not absorb information well from a verbal teaching style. It has to do with how they think and learn.

“My own learning style is so visual it’s unbelievable. It took me forever to figure this out. I struggled so hard in college,” he said.

A whiz kid at a not-very-challenging high school, Blowers was the first in his extended family to go to college.  At the University of Michigan he studied from 8 in the morning until 9 at night, yet did not excel. “I did what everyone was telling me to do – read the book.” That didn’t work because “I don’t remember verbal information at all.”

“I got a D on one engineering exam. That’s when I said, ‘I will not be defeated.’ I transformed the way I studied. I religiously went to office hours every week. I worked problems 15 minutes every day. And I got 100 on the final.”

Today Blowers shares that story with his undergraduate students who hit the wall. “One exam does not kill you. Just dig in and study differently,” he says. “Doing extra problems works for about 90 percent of my students.”

He Knows Every Student By Name

In class, he may start with a brief intro, then detail a meaty problem as the 100-plus students break into smaller groups. They call out options and ideas as they grapple with solutions. Blowers goes from group to group and knows every student by name. After a time, they share collective insights gleaned, then tackle the problem anew.

Changing to this high-energy teaching style was not easy. Though Blowers may seem gregarious and outgoing, ever the engineer, he points out, “I’m an introvert. I trained myself to appear extroverted and engage as an extrovert.”

He films and posts his lectures online to give students 24/7 access to class material. He posts numerous web-based training tools, including student solutions to problems.

He keeps office hours, answers emails, and even plays tennis and table tennis with his students. “It’s a way to give them a little extra support.”

Now Blowers is part of a team developing online courses for Intel employees around the world so they can earn an accredited UA engineering degree via distance learning. That’s a whole new challenge, he says, because you’re not there to interact with and guide the students.

Researching Sustainability of New Technologies 

Blowers came to the UA with no intention of staying. He scheduled Tucson as his first interview – an early practice run for the two other universities he was seriously considering.

What he found here was uniquely appealing. First, the UA is one of only three universities in the nation with a department that combines chemical engineering and environmental engineering. And second, he liked the culture – the way the faculty balanced  teaching, research and their outside lives.

Blowers’ research involves using chemical engineering principles to project the long-term environmental impact and global warming potential of chemicals –“before we make a series of bad mistakes, which we as humans have done many times,” he said, citing 50 years of putting lead in gasoline as just one example.

Currently he’s working with fellow chemical and environmental engineering professor Kim Ogden, Ph.D., to conduct a life cycle assessment for biofuel grown from algae, analyzing the environmental upsides and downsides of this emerging technology.

His outside life includes his family, reading (1,442 books since 1983), a bit of volleyball and lots of cooking. He has developed more than 200 recipes in the past two years alone.

One of his first students is now a post-doctoral engineer at the University of Texas, Austin. Another he mentored became the first Hispanic female hired to work at Proctor and Gamble. Other grads work for Lockheed Martin and Valero Oil.

“Our students are really successful – amazingly so,” Blowers said.

Jeff Goldberg, dean of the UA College of Engineering, said, “Paul is a master teacher and all-around good guy. Our students are lucky to have him as an advisor, mentor and teacher.” 

Check out the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, part of the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona.