SoE Professors Cook-Chenault, Najafizadeh, and Singer Receive 2019-20 Provost’s Awards

School of Engineering professors Kimberly Cook-Chenault, Laleh Najafizadeh, and Jonathan P. Singer were among the six faculty members from across Rutgers University who recently received coveted 2019-20 Provost’s Awards for Faculty Excellence. 

The Provost’s Awards honor outstanding faculty members at all stages of their careers whose exceptional work in innovative teaching, cross-disciplinary research, and STEM diversity has been recognized by their peers. 

Singer, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, received a Provost’s Award for Excellence in Innovative Teaching in recognition of his non-traditional approach to active learning. 

“There’s always some risk in undertaking a new teaching format – both in flipping a technology-heavy 400-level MAE course and when designing a virtual research experience for high school students,” he says. 

“I took a risk in venturing outside traditional methods of instruction, with the goal of increasing student engagement. To receive this award is incredibly vindicating, and I’m honored and gratified by the recognition. I would also like to acknowledge my chair, Alberto Cuitino, Dean Jean Patrick Antoine of SoE and the NJ Governor’s School, and the NJ Space Grant Consortium for supporting me in these untraditional endeavors.”

By design, students gain skills such as teamwork, project ownership, and discovery-based analysis that traditional laboratory courses often neglect through Singer’s Virtual Research Group (VRG) education modules. He also designed a new MAE Multiphysics Simulations course – the department’s first “flipped course” that has since become required for all MAE majors. All lectures are recorded. “This reserves in-class time for active learning discussions and computer lab tutorials that equip students with practical skills in commercial software and the intuition necessary to apply these skills,” he explains.

“I feel honored to have been selected to receive the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Cross-Disciplinary Research,” says Najafizadeh, who is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  “I’d like to thank all those who supported my nomination. I’m grateful for this recognition and for the continuous support I have been receiving from Rutgers for my research endeavors.” 

The award acknowledges her multi-disciplinary research efforts at the intersection of engineering and neuroscience.  She conducts fundamental research to develop novel computational methods for analyzing neuroimaging data obtained through invasive and non-invasive brain imaging modalities.

“These methods have led to better scientific understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying behavior, learning, and plasticity – and have promising applications in the development of next-generation brain computer interfaces, or BCIs, as well as in the fields of psychology, personalized rehabilitation, and clinical neuroscience,” Najafizadeh notes.

The Provost’s Award for STEM Diversity honors the work of professors aiming to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM fields through innovative approaches in pedagogy and teaching practices, research, and community building. 

Mechanical engineering and aerospace assistant professor Kimberly Cook-Chennault is a recipient of this prestigious award. 

“The award is important to me because it illustrates the importance of diversity in higher education,” says Cook-Chennault. “It illustrates how education and the advantages associated with it, such career development and opportunities for advancement and a better lifestyle, should be designed to be accessible to and take into account the needs and disabilities of all people.” 

By understanding how intersectional women and people of color experience engineering education, her own research aims to create inclusive educational tools that reflect diverse, multicultural perspectives.

Cook-Chennault is also dedicated to increasing diversity by designing educational frameworks and programs that aim to shine a light on and provide opportunities for those who she believes are often routinely excluded – and/or ignored – by the educational system. “Inclusion of these groups into the fabric of the academy enhances the learning experiences, level of preparedness, and scholarship of all,” she says. 

Among her successful initiatives is the Student Learning and Achievement in Aerospace and Mechanical (SLAAM) Engineering Summer program, designed to broaden the participation of women in mechanical engineering, which historically has one of the smallest populations of women and underrepresented groups at Rutgers. 

The NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site: Green Energy Technology Undergraduate Program (GET UP) “provides summer research opportunities for academically strong students who may not have such opportunities at their home institutions and/or who are first generation, underrepresented minorities, or women students,” Cook-Chennault explains. 

She has also created a six-week summer program for teachers, many of whom serve local school districts that are under-served with students from diverse backgrounds with diverse academic needs, helps them infuse engineering concepts into their classrooms.