Pittsburgh, PA,
16:00 PM

Reinventing the Wheel of Engineering Education

IE Professor Karen Bursic receives IISE’s Wellington Award

Karen Bursic, professor and undergraduate program director of industrial engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, hopes that students can see their own potential as much as she does. 

She recalled one student who needed time away from working on their engineering degree, citing mental health reasons. That student eventually came back to Pitt, finished their degree – 12 years later – and landed a nice career. 

“This individual is the prime example of everyone being on their own path,” Bursic said. “I like to think that I played a role in them finishing their degree, but it’s ultimately up to the student as well.” 

For her work in continuously reinventing the wheel in engineering education, Bursic was selected at this year’s recipient of the Wellington Award from the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), which recognizes outstanding long-term contributions and service in the field of engineering economy that enhances the visibility of the engineering economy division of IISE. The award, which is one of the organization’s most prestigious, is usually only given for research contributions; Bursic is the first to receive it primarily for  contributions to the classroom. 

Bursic credits Bopaya Bidanda, Ernest Roth Professor of Industrial Engineering and former department chair, for supporting her in the journey that led to this achievement. 

“Over my 21 years as Department Chair at Pitt IE, I have yet to find a more dedicated faculty member to Pitt and to her discipline,” Bidanda said. “Karen always went beyond ‘merely teaching’ – her creativity in developing new learning and teaching tools was evident each time she delivered her courses in Engineering Economy. Many of these are now in use nationally and internationally.”

Bursic became interested in researching different teaching paradigms early in her tenure at Pitt.  As the Swanson School itself became more interested in new pedagogies as well, her Engineering Economic Analysis class organically became a laboratory to test these methods. 

 A Career of Constant Adaptation, Growth and Change

At the beginning of her tenure, Bursic understood that she wanted to engage her students and tested different classroom designs rooted in active, hands-on learning. However, she still recognizes that every student learns differently.

“It’s a career-long thing,” Bursic said. “I have to continuously improve my teaching to improve student learning.”

Bursic does her best to stay a step ahead of the students. Unlike when she was a student, technology has become the norm for new generations of engineers. She builds Microsoft Excel and other tools into her teaching plan so students are prepared once they leave her classroom.

“Things are different now,” Bursic said. “I used to do everything by hand, but we need to ensure that these students can do the calculations with and without the technology.” 

Leveraging her role as the undergraduate program director, Bursic works with young faculty to adapt their teaching to students. The Swanson School has a desired list of outcomes for their students and part of Bursic’s duty is making sure that stays on track. This for example was a critical component of the Swanson School’s ABET accreditation review last fall; Bursic was her department’s coordinator.  

It’s a hands-on role, and Bursic finds pride in knowing that she's not only part of creating better students, but better educators. 

“As educators, we have to consider so much,” Bursic said. “We need to look at societal, economic, and environmental factors when deciding how to best guide our students.”