The Pennsylvania State University
Distinguished Professor and Department Head
Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering
Dr. Karen A. Thole holds the titles of University Distinguished Professor and Department Head of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. She previously held a post-doctoral position at the Karslruhe Institute of Technology and faculty positions at the University of Wisconsin and Virginia Tech where she was recognized as the William S. Cross Professor. She served as an AdvanceVT Professor, funded by the National Science Foundation. She received a Bachelor and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois and a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas.
Dr. Thole’s area of expertise is convective heat transfer, particularly applied to turbine cooling. She has published over 230 peer-reviewed archival journal and conference papers and advised over 60 theses and dissertations. She has secured more than $30 million in external funding from industry and federal agencies and nearly $8 million in grants for faculty development and educational initiatives. Dr. Thole is an ASME Fellow and is active on several technical leadership teams. She formerly served as the Chair of the ASME - ME Department Head Executive Committee, as a member of the Vision 2030 Committee, and as the Chair of ASME’s Committee on Honors. She has been recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for STEM recruitment. She received Penn State’s Rosemary Schraer Mentoring and Howard Palmer Faculty Mentoring Awards; SWE’s Distinguished Educator Award; ASME’s Westinghouse Gold Medal for contributions in turbine research; and ASME’s Church Medal for promoting engineering education.
More from Karen Thole:
In your current and previous leadership roles, what has been most effective way for you to understand and serve the needs of faculty and students?
To understand and serve the needs of faculty and students, I have used multiple methods since no single method works for all situations. It is helpful to know that I have an open door policy and that I sincerely enjoy talking with faculty, students, and staff. I have used modes including: group discussions, formal and informal visits, town halls, focus groups, surveys, and email exchanges. This is a wide range of modes, but all can be effective depending upon the situation. It is important to visit with people in their environment. In translating that to a Dean’s position, it will be a priority to spend time in each School learning from the faculty, students, and staff as to the concerns and opportunities.
For more complicated issues with a relatively long time horizon, I have found multiple conversations spaced over time is important. In the case of faculty and staff, it is effective to hold multiple informational meetings followed by extended lunchtime discussions (with food). People need time to digest the information; express their opinions; and hear firsthand the opinions of their colleagues. Because of the difficulty in assembling all of the students, I have found it is effective to have discussions with multiple student focus groups to hear their input.
In all cases, gathering information is important, but equally as important is the communication on the ultimate actions. The actions to be taken are often best expressed through town hall meetings to clarify remaining questions.
What do you see as the most critical issue for engineering education in the future?
Much dialogue exists on the worth of a four-year degree. What will differentiate the excellent programs will be experiential learning. While similar content exists in many programs, quality experiential learning does not. Companies have continued to emphasize the need for experiential learning, which is also particularly important for successful entrepreneurship experiences. Large institutions have advantages here because of the breadth of opportunities and because of the ability to scale across multiple programs.
The integration of impactful disciplinary and cross-disciplinary projects, open-ended laboratories, competitions, research-based experiences, internships, and entrepreneurial activities into the learning experience are ways to individualize a student’s education. Georgia Tech is uniquely positioned given the urban setting with internship opportunities that can be directly integrated into degree programs, sometimes even evolving into multi-year projects that provide students with a deeper understanding.
The issues around the cost of a higher education cannot be ignored. The institutions that will succeed are those that will successfully address these cost issues. One solution is reducing the time to complete the degree. Offering students the opportunity to learn traditional content online while they earn money during internships can reduce the time to graduate.
At the graduate level, a critical issue is to provide opportunities for non-traditional specializations in topics for master degrees that allow students to cross disciplines. At the doctoral level, Georgia Tech can excel by providing graduate students with professional development opportunities. Doctoral students should have accessible module-based content to learn about business principles, how federal agencies operate, and other such topics.
What’s something we wouldn’t know about you from your CV?
I grew up on a dairy farm about 40 miles outside of St. Louis in a small town of about 860 people. The only professions I knew were farming, teaching, and nursing. When I went to college, a friend suggested engineering. So I called McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) to ask if they had any engineers and to my surprise they had more than one. After chuckling at me, the operator put me in contact with an engineer who described his daily job. I do not know who was this engineer or the operator, but both had a profound effect on my life. Based on this experience, I became passionate about communicating to the world, especially our future generations, how engineers elevate our quality of life.
Also not apparent from my CV is that I am experimentalist, which goes beyond my research. In my administrative roles, I have not shied away from risks by trying new paths and, after assessment, making adjustments. For example, I implemented new practices to promote high quality faculty hiring, to diversify the faculty, and to increase the rate at which our offers are accepted. Another example is the initiation of a non-travel based global experience for our students who could not do a study abroad. Instead, we implemented a multi-national senior capstone course in which our students work on teams with students from a foreign institution. While risk was involved, this program has been successful in making sure many of our students achieve a cultural awareness.