April 29, 2016
“It is perhaps one of the most challenging majors at WKU…but you get a lot for your hard work.” This is what Dr. Kevin Schmaltz says about Mechanical Engineering. A professor of Mechanical Engineering here at Western Kentucky University, Dr. Schmaltz is one of many instructors who works tirelessly to ensure an engaging undergraduate experience for his students. While most ME students will see him in as many as five or six classes throughout their years of schooling, some may not know the story behind his interest in engineering and what brought him to Western Kentucky University. Let’s take some time to get to know Dr. Schmaltz!
Dr. Schmaltz’s interest in engineering started, as he puts it, “back in the stone ages!” Throughout high school, he had an interest in math and science, as well as other engineering-related topics. His father being an engineer, it seemed natural for him to go into this field of study, as well. He went to Virginia Tech to study engineering without a second thought, and afterwards he worked as a practicing engineer for Shell Oil. He enjoyed his work and was good at making technical decisions and other necessary aspects of engineering. However, throughout his years of schooling, he realized that he wanted to be involved in the education of others. At the large undergraduate university he attended, Dr. Schmaltz learned that most engineering professors at such institutions focus on their own research, only doing a small amount of teaching. Many classes were taught by graduate students, and there was not a large emphasis put on teacher-student interaction. However, several experiences as he worked towards his doctorate helped him realize that he wanted to go in the direction of teaching. He valued the idea of teachers working to do a good job at teaching and universities that support this. He was able to teach a design class as a PhD candidate, where he actually spent a great deal of time in front of students, interacting with them. One of his advisors who put an emphasis on quality education also reinforced this idea for him.
So, Dr. Schmaltz went on to teach at a small university, Lake Superior State University, after finishing his doctorate. Five years later, he came to teach at Western Kentucky University. WKU was appealing to him because it is a school where professors are focused on teaching students well. He believes that many universities advertise teacher-student interaction, but they do not always employ strategies that allow for this kind of collaboration. However, he feels that Western does this in several ways:
- its manageable size
- project-based learning, which facilitates teacher-student interaction
- more emphasis on professors teaching, rather than conducting research
Since coming to WKU, Dr. Schmaltz has enjoyed being involved with students, and he particularly enjoys doing projects with them. Many of the classes he teaches are project-based design classes, and he works with a wide range of students, from freshmen all the way up to seniors. Each semester brings him over 20 new student teams, over 125 students, and many new projects. While he is pleased with even the smallest project, he is also fond of working with students on some of the larger projects at WKU, such as the biodiesel facility. Currently in operation, the biodiesel project allows for all waste vegetable oil from WKU dining facilities to be made into biodiesel, which powers machinery out on the farm. While Dr. Schmaltz admits that all of the projects can get crazy and busy, he also finds it very rewarding.
Outreach is very important to Dr. Schmaltz, as well. He believes that engineering educators have a responsibility and a commitment to share what they do with others. Dr. Schmaltz makes it a point to get involved with the Bowling Green community and facilitate within it an interest in engineering. Dr. Schmaltz thinks that while many kids may have an aptitude for math and science, many of them may not be given the opportunity to learn about engineering and explore its possibilities as a career. Through the LEGO Competition and Robotics Competition for elementary through high school-aged students, he hopes to create and facilitate this interest. He loves being involved with this sort of outreach project, and he also encourages current WKU engineering students to volunteer, reminding them: “Something encouraged you to try engineering…Now, let’s go out and do that for someone else!”
Dr. Schmaltz is proud of the engineering program at Western Kentucky University. He feels that the mechanical engineering major challenges students and prepares them for life after graduation. The project-based learning method of teaching allows students to work on projects throughout all four years of their undergraduate degree. Additionally, many ME sophomores complete projects that are not less challenging than senior projects at other schools. While he does believe that mechanical engineering is one of the hardest majors at Western, he would encourage a freshman considering engineering to try it out. His students must work hard, but they will have the opportunity to do many interesting things. Dr. Schmaltz says that “the story of engineering is not that you get to use math and science…but you get to take on things that can improve the world…ideas that can change the world around you and improve the lives of people…You get a lot in return for your hard work.”