Salil S. Desai

North Carolina A&T State University

2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Salil S. Desai, North Carolina A&T University

Salil S. Desai, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering, directs the Integrated Nano & Bio Manufacturing Laboratory. He has been a faculty member at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University since 2004. Desai specializes in the areas of multiscale-multiphysics modeling, direct-write technologies, nanoimprint lithography, and combinatorial additive manufacturing with applications in biomedical implants, semiconductor electronics and energy devices.

Desai believes that education is the mission of “igniting the spirit of inquiry to transcend knowledge that benefits humankind.” As an engineering educator, he promotes students' ability to think analytically and independently using real-life case studies within a collaborative learning environment. He implements a holistic education plan using a variety of pedagogical and assessment strategies that prepares students for life beyond the classroom. Desai has been instrumental in securing educational/research infrastructure and funding of over $5 million from several agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Education and private industry for developing innovative curricula in the area of advanced manufacturing.  

Desai’s genuine passion for student learning and engineering mentorship is aptly captured by one of his students: “Undoubtedly, Dr. Desai is one of the most introspective, empathetic, and informative instructors that I have worked with throughout my college career, both undergraduate and doctoral.” Another student notes: “Dr. Desai stresses the impact that engineers have on society and how engineering principles and ethics can be applied to life. He is a role model for any profession.” His Department Chairperson, Tonya Smith-Jackson, echoes this theme: “Dr. Desai’s targeted and sustained mentoring of African American students via different programs has led to a steady pipeline of minority engineers who have gone on to careers in industry, academia and national laboratories.” Over the years he has expanded his teaching role beyond the university to disseminate nano-bio technology concepts and ideas to K-12 students and the general public via several outreach programs, including science shows, live exhibit demonstrations and podcasts for the Natural Science Center of Greensboro.

In addition to being recognized for teaching excellence, Desai has been honored with several prestigious awards, including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award and Outstanding Young Investigator Awards from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Institute of Industrial Engineers, and the American Society of Engineering Educators. Desai is also the recipient of the Department of Defense and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Young Faculty Awards.  Desai serves as the faculty advisor for the Alpha Pi Mu honor society where he engages students in peer mentoring, community service and volunteer activities. He was chosen for the Triad’s 40 Leaders under 40 Award and the UPS Minority Advancement Award for establishing advanced manufacturing educational programs within the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina.

Desai received his BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Mumbai in India, MS and PhD in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.

Q. The Teaching Awards were established in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to encourage, identify, recognize, reward, and support good teaching within the University. What does this award mean to you?

A. This award is a tribute to my students for their dedication toward learning and education. I am thankful to my colleagues for their continuous support and encouragement to achieve this significant milestone. This award exemplifies the fact that educators play a vital influence on student lives by being inspiring role models in all walks of our lives. I am humbled with this honor and cognizant of the fact that it brings along a genuine long-term commitment to teaching and outreach excellence in the coming years.

Q. What was your path into the teaching profession?

A. Ironically, I never thought of academia as my career path; while pursuing my PhD, and wanted to work in an industrial or research setting. In my final year of the doctoral program, my advisor encouraged me to apply for faculty positions. Initially I declined this suggestion; however, I finally decided to apply and see what comes my way. I was called for an interview at North Carolina A&T and decided to take up a faculty position. My first few weeks as a teacher were challenging as I had never taught before. However, with time, I picked up the art of teaching and started enjoying teaching. As they aptly say, “You never know what you can do until you try.” In retrospect, the academic route was one of the best decisions I have made. The academic career gives one the freedom to pursue research and teaching endeavors and the ability to empower others with our work.

Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?

A. I was recipient of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award which is awarded to outstanding junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding integration of frontier research and excellent education within the context of the mission of their organizations. As the first awardee of this honor at the North Carolina A&T College of Engineering, I was able to affect positive change in the educational experiences of minority students. This grant award mechanism enabled me to conduct cutting-edge research in the fields of nano-, micro- and bio-manufacturing. The research resulted in a US patent which is being commercialized by our university. This NSF award was pivotal in translating basic scientific discovery into a viable technology with widespread applications.

Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?

A. I believe that education is the mission of “igniting the spirit of inquiry to transcend knowledge that benefits humankind.”  As an engineering educator, I promote my students' ability to think analytically and independently using real-life case studies within a collaborative learning environment. I have employed Concept Mapping as a knowledge-based strategy to bring out information that is maximally relevant to students wherein they gain fundamental understanding of the core concepts in a discipline. To enhance student comprehension I have devised mock models and experiments that replicate complex research infrastructure. In my courses students team up in groups for case studies and projects giving them a glimpse of the collaborative scenarios they would be facing in the workplace. I envision a holistic education plan using a variety of pedagogical and longitudinal assessment strategies which prepares students beyond the classroom.

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