The teacher who learns
Assistant ChemE Professor Joaquin Rodriguez recognized with both the 2022 Provost’s Award for Diversity in the Curriculum and 2022 James Pommersheim Award for Excellence in Teaching in Chemical Engineering
Joaquin Rodriguez, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, emigrated to the United States in 2017 with the intention to teach but didn’t realize how much he’d learn.
Originally from Venezuela, Rodriguez faced various communication and cultural boundaries that he would need to cross – for both himself and his students at the Swanson School. He incorporated these challenges into his teaching which eventually led to his recognition with the Department’s 2022 James Pommersheim Award for Excellence in Teaching in Chemical Engineering, and the 2022 Provost’s Award for Diversity in the Curriculum. Both awards celebrate educators who dedicate a portion of the classroom experience to diversity and inclusion.
“I appreciate the recognition very much, but honestly, these awards should go to my students,” Rodriguez said. “They do the work; I just create the opportunity. I celebrate the commitment of our university to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the best thing to do.”
Steve R. Little, Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said Rodriguez is one the department’s most committed and passionate faculty members.
“He has done a tremendous job of working out ways for students to get early training on how to effectively work in diverse teams,” Little said.
Other than teaching, Rodriguez researches engineering education focusing on diversity, teamwork and leadership, global and community outreach, and alumni relationships.
His work has led to the creation of the ChemE Global Projects Day, a program where students design solutions to regional problems. Students then present their work to stakeholders from each country represented.
Rodriguez wants his students to be knowledgeable about issues that are happening elsewhere – outside of the news and social media. ChemE Global Projects Day is an avenue to foster the development of global awareness.
“For a couple of hours, the world is at hand, from Brazil to the Philippines, from South Africa to Bangladesh.” Rodriguez said. “The main concerns of the world are approached with a positive attitude of potential solutions and with an inspired commitment to do something about it, all together.”
When he first came to Pitt as a faculty member, Rodriguez’s strategy was to teach technical content with a strong selection of supporting materials. This approach evolved over time as he adapted to an American classroom setting. He incorporated changes like open-ended projects and teamwork to replicate the outside world. He said he tries to be innovative, but acknowledges that he can be limited by established barriers, biases, and misunderstandings that he continuously has to navigate through.
He rehearses his lectures in advance, but he isn’t afraid to ask students for feedback.
“Students provide me with filters and categories to approach my teaching,” Rodriguez said. “I learn from their criticism from course evaluations – which can sometimes be very harsh, but I rely on their sincerity.”
Being an immigrant, Rodriguez said he has a level of openness toward students, making him more sympathetic to their unique needs – especially in times of uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic. He still has to remind himself this generation of students is different from his own.
“I remind myself that education is different now, and I am the one that needs to adapt,” Rodriguez said. “This is no minor struggle.”
Through training and education, Rodriguez has become more sensitive to barriers students may face like a disability or mental health. He tries his best to connect with each student personally, but also acknowledges a standard of privacy.
He’s learned something new from each student he’s interacted with. In a lot of ways, he feels inspired by them.
“I have learned from students’ interests, aspirations, and dreams,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve helped me get an idea of how their future leadership will move this country forward.”