No teaching for a year?!? It’s not as relaxing as you think.

by Dr. Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical engineering and industrial engineering

Oh, you’re on sabbatical?  A whole year with no teaching and committee work; what are you going to do? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation as I begin my year-long sabbatical this fall.

When I have this conversation with other faculty, they want to know which exotic country I’ll be in while writing my book, learning new research methods, or starting a new research trajectory – or all the above.

When the conversation is with non-academics, though, they are in complete disbelief that I am allowed to do this – and get paid for it! They can’t fathom why Penn State would allow this, and think that I must be sitting around eating bon-bons all day. How wrong they are!

So what is a sabbatical? Sabbatical derives from the Latin sabbaticus for ceasing, i.e., a break from work, and according to, a sabbatical is defined as:

any extended period of leave from one’s customary work, especially for rest, to acquire new skills or training, etc.

While I really like the “especially for rest” part of the definition, you will not find rest or break mentioned anywhere in Penn State’s definition of sabbatical:

Sabbatical Leave provides a leave of absence with pay for purposes of intensive study or research to increase future contribution to the University.

You will see how different Penn State’s definition of sabbatical is from perception. There is no mention of rest – it is “intensive” with the expectation that the experience will “increase future contributions to the University.” While “future contributions” is pretty open-ended, in my world of engineering, the unwritten expectation is that your sabbatical will prepare you to increase your research portfolio (in an existing or new area), which benefits Penn State’s R&D portfolio and leads to more revenue (through overhead and/or licensing of patents).

In essence, Penn State’s placing a bet – they pay you for a year to work hard to do something cool that will generate more in return to the University in the future. Faculty often do more into a sabbatical year than a regular academic year to maximize the returns on this rare opportunity, even though we don’t receive our full salary while on a year-long sabbatical.

So what am I doing on my sabbatical?

Short answer: everything that I wanted to get done since my last sabbatical seven years ago but haven’t had time to do.

Simpson-CoWorking-SpaceLonger answer: I’m immersing myself in entrepreneurial cross-training – learning how engineering design fits into the large entrepreneurial ecosystem locally (see photo at left) and nationally – and exploring new research into all the cool things that 3-D printing and additive manufacturing can do for engineering designers. At the same time, I continue to advise my students, make sure that all of my research projects stay on track, and engage in a few consulting projects with industry to validate the impact of my work.

To learn more about my plans, I invite you to check out future posts and see what a sabbatical really looks like.

Tim Simpson is a professor in both mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. He holds affiliate appointments in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) and the College of Information Sciences & Technology. From 2007-2012, he served as director of the Learning Factory, and now he serves as co-Director of the Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D), a DARPA-funded Manufacturing Demonstration Facility for Additive Manufacturing. This is his second sabbatical. 

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Breaking down the U.S. News rankings

Earlier this week, U.S. News & World Report released its “2014 Best Colleges Rankings,” where Penn State was ranked No. 8 among all public national universities and the College of Engineering was ranked No. 19 among undergraduate engineering programs.

U.S. News ranked the following undergraduate programs:

  • Aerospace Engineering: 12th
  • Chemical Engineering: 17th
  • Civil Engineering: 14th
  • Engineering Science and Mechanics: 10th
  • Industrial Engineering: 6th
  • Materials: 10th
  • Mechanical Engineering: 16th

The University’s undergraduate programs in biological engineering, bioengineering, computer engineering and electrical engineering were not ranked.

According to U.S. News, the undergraduate results are based solely on the peer judgments of deans and senior faculty who rated each program using a scale of 1 to 5 in a mail survey.

U.S. News does not include the disciplines of architectural engineering, computer science and nuclear engineering as part of its survey.

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PSFEI serves all of Pennsylvania

The Penn State Facilities Engineering Institute (PSFEI) proudly boasts on its website: WE ARE PENN STATE to thousands of Pennsylvanians who come in contact with us everyday.

I got the opportunity to hear just how that happens from PSFEI Director Jim Myers, PE, when I visited the Institute today.

PSFEI works with government-related organizations across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to consult on the maintenance and operations of their facilities, including energy-related issues. Jim explained that a client may call the Institute to uncover a simple maintenance item, consult on a large building or renovation project, or provide training and education for employees.

And when Jim says they ARE Penn State to many Pennsylvanians, he’s not kidding. PSFEI does work in all 67 counties – through relationships with the State System of Higher Education, PA Department of Transportation, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Department of Corrections, PA Historical & Museum Commission, and many more.

What I found amazing, beyond just how efficiently the Institute serves its clients (there are 31 engineers, technicians and staffers on the team, supplemented by student interns who have the opportunity to learn from experienced engineers and take this real-world experience to jobs in the ‘real’ world), is that the Institute was working with clients to deal with energy markets, energy procurement, and energy savings programs long before it was ‘cool.’ Jim joked during our conversation, “We were Green before it was even a color!”

Jim has been with PSFEI since 1985, rising to director in 1995 and seeing the 66-year-old organization through a period of intense growth. And it’s easy to see how he’s contributed to that growth. Jim’s passion for the work PSFEI does is truly contagious. He’s just hired an assistant director, John Hajduk, MBA, to help in the next phase of growth for the Institute.

I look forward to working with Jim and his team to highlight the value that PSFEI brings to its clients, the residents of Pennsylvania and the many, many others who are touched by the work that PSFEI does. And, of course, to see what happens next!


Dana Marsh, director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering, freely admits that she’s not an engineer but is fascinated by how the work of engineers impacts every aspect of a human’s day-to-day existence: from the houses we live in and the roads we drive on, to the smartphones and computers we rely upon. She’s now made it her mission to educate non-engineers about the real-world applications of leading-edge engineering initiatives. 

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Meet: Ryan Patrick

RyanPatrick“I am not very technical but as a senior in high school I really started to weigh my options,” explains Ryan Patrick. “Mechanical engineering is a good major to have because it is broad and the degree gives a variety of options.”

With THON weekend just two days away, we are featuring our final overall who is also a student within the College of Engineering.

Ryan is a senior from Jamison, Pa. in Bucks County and the Overall Merchandise Chairperson for THON 2013. The purpose of his role is being responsible for spreading the awareness of THON and the Four Diamonds Fund through the sale of merchandise. Patrick is also responsible for protecting the name and brand of THON.

Ryan’s THON involvement began in 2011 when he was the THON Chair for Beta Theta Pi. In 2012, Ryan became a Merchandise Captain and went on to be overall in 2013.

When asked how he manages his course load and commitments to THON Ryan replied, “I just do it.” He says time management is crucial and that his school work always comes first. Ryan is constantly making to do lists, staying on top of what he needs to accomplish and using free time effectively.

Mechanical engineering has helped Ryan to look at things differently than others and tackle problems with a different and more analytical approach. He looks at some of his tasks within THON as problem-solving and never tries to “constrain himself to staying inside the box.” His participation in THON has made Ryan realize that of the Four Diamonds, honesty is the most important one for an engineer to have.

“Being aware of ethical concerns, along with being honest to yourself and co-workers is extremely important in all aspects of life,” explains Ryan.

One of his favorite THON memories was during THON 2012. Around 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, when the wear of the weekend could be felt on volunteers, he stopped and took a good look around the Bryce Jordan Center. “I really took in the scene, seeing how selfless everyone in the Bryce Jordan Center was being,” says Ryan.

Ryan is really looking forward to THON 2013 for a lot of reasons. As a captain for THON 2012, he saw a lot of different things he wanted to change. As an overall, he has been able to implement some of those ideas into projects.

Ryan’s biggest piece of advice to a current or future student is to get involved. He says it would’ve been easy to just be an engineering student but getting involved in other things has given him extremely valuable real world experience. “You learn a lot about yourself, develop social skills, time management and how to make it all balance,” says Ryan.

“Do things that stand way after you leave. Make an impact and leave a legacy.”

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Middle school girls say, “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” after Penn State visit

Robot Dance Off

Middle school girls helped to program “dance moves” for robots designed and built by Penn State engineering students. Music from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” accompanied this particular robot’s moves.

A Godzilla-inspired robot and a lovesick mechanical mouse were among the highlights for two dozen middle school girls visiting Penn State’s College of Engineering on Thursday.

The trip, part of the Women in Engineering Program Outreach Workshop, gave the students a glimpse into what it’s like to be an engineer. The annual event is designed to encourage young girls to consider career opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Gozilla robot gets a helping hand from a student as she steers her creation to knock down a series of buildings during its dance.

Seventh-graders from Philisburg-Osceola Junior High School, eighth-graders from the Grier School and eighth-graders from Park Forest Middle School spent an entire day meeting Penn State engineering students, touring laboratories and working on hands-on projects.

The middle schoolers kicked off the day by teaming with students in the first-year robotics seminar ME 102. Working with undergraduate students, the middle school girls helped to program robots built by the engineers for a robotic “dance off.”

Constructed of Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kits, the machines’ movements were choreographed with music and in some cases customized to look like a character, such as Godzilla, a mouse or a fish.

During their visit, the students toured the architectural engineering department’s Immersive Construction Laboratory, enjoyed a presentation by the Engineering Ambassadors, took in a pizza lunch with engineering students and designed their own amusement park ride.

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