KEEN honoree drives excellence in teaching

Dr. Michael De Gregorio, teaching one of his engineering classes at Grand Canyon University, will spend part of his year as a KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellow supporting students as they design a steering wheel vibration isolation system. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

De Gregorio one of 21 educators named an Engineering Unleashed Fellow

Dr. Michael De Gregorio ponders engineering problems while sitting among superheroes.

Canvas wall art and framed prints in his third-floor office in Grand Canyon University’s Engineering Building celebrate Captain America, Batman, the Amazing Spider-Man and the most superpowered superhero of them all, a desktop figure of a wild-haired Albert Einstein gripping an E=mc2 sign.

Those superheroes all do amazing things, but then again, so does he: While they focus on fighting injustice, he betters the world by exercising his powers as an exceptional teacher.

It’s his work as an educator that the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) recognized recently, naming the chair of GCU’s Mechanical Engineering program as one of its Engineering Unleashed Fellows. It’s an honor that comes with a $10,000 grant to advance his work in the classroom.

Dr. Michael De Gregorio is among 21 educators across the nation from 16 institutes of higher education named a KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellow. They are recognized for their excellence in undergraduate engineering teaching. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

De Gregorio is one of 21 Engineering Unleashed Fellows for 2022 from 16 higher education institutions across the country recognized for their leadership in undergraduate engineering education.

The fellowship is yet another example of GCU’s partnership with the Kern Family Foundation.

The foundation awarded GCU a $3.2 million grant to develop an accelerated pastoral training program in 2019, as well as a $2.27 million grant earlier this year to enhance character education in K-12 schools.

And College of Science, Engineering and Technology biomedical engineering professor Dr. Kyle Jones was named a KEEN Rising Star just a few months ago.

It’s not surprising, said CSET Assistant Dean of Engineering Dr. Richard Mulski, that De Gregorio received the Engineering Unleashed honor: “He is always looking for new ways to engage his students with active learning techniques so they are encouraged to learn difficult concepts.”

Dr. Richard Mulski, Assistant Dean of Engineering, said De Gregorio is always trying to find new ways to engage students. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

The process to being named a fellow began with De Gregorio’s initiative to participate in one of the faculty development workshops offered by Engineering Unleashed, a community of more than 4,000 engineering faculty and staff who network and share projects, modules, experiments and the like.

The goal? Create entrepreneurially minded engineers who will contribute to societal good.

After that three-day workshop, called “The Problem-Solving Studio,” and after a year of peer coaching, De Gregorio created a learning module for one of his classes, which he shared on the Engineering Unleashed website.

“That’s where the money is on this website,” he said of the bevy of resources, called “cards,” shared by engineering educators that professors can use in their own classrooms. “If you’re teaching engineering, and let’s say you want an activity for your class in statics, there’s tons of them.”

De Gregorio, who teaches dynamic systems, said there’s a dearth of shared activities for the subject matter he teaches.

“There are currently 75 cards on Unleashed that reference dynamic systems out of 2,121 cards. … It’s a very small percentage. It’s an underrepresented population. Typically, at most universities, this class is considered one of the harder ones for the students.”

The activity he created gave his students practice in diagramming systems, creating mathematical models and using state-space representation. Once they completed their models, they created a simulation of the system via Simscape to learn how adjusting the system parameters changes the output response.

“It was received very well” by his engineering students, De Gregorio said of the classroom activity, and it was received well, too, by his peer coaches, who nominated him for the fellowship.

If we can get more activities in engineering that are engaging for them (students), their success will be much higher.

Dr. Michael De Gregorio, KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellow

Less than 10% of the faculty development participants were named KEEN Fellows.

“Mike is truly an ambassador of excellence for your institution,” said KEEN Program Director Dr. Douglas Melton.

What the honor means for De Gregorio is that he will be able to use the grant and his connections with the KEEN community to help GCU’s students become stronger engineers.

“For me, personally, I get to add some pretty cool stuff to one of my classes,” said De Gregorio, who rarely misses a day at GCU wearing one of his distinctive, professorly bow ties.

The project he has designed as a result of his fellowship for his ESG 455 Dynamic Systems & Lab class, an upper-level engineering class, involves designing a steering wheel vibration isolation system that will reduce the vibration a driver feels while driving.

The fellowship comes with a $10,000 grant to help De Gregorio advance his work in the classroom. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

The project is an offshoot of the research he did for his doctorate, which focused on understanding how humans move their hands so that he could re-create those movements in artificial reflexes for a robotic, or prosthetic, hand.

The steering wheel vibration isolation system is something he hopes could help people with a condition called hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). It’s a type of neuropathy seen in long-haul truckers, NASCAR drivers or those who ride off-road vehicles for extended periods of time.

“I found it interesting that vibrations could cause neurological damage. It was an accident, to be sure,” he said of stumbling upon the condition in his past research. “But it is a problem that can be solved by engineering. … If you can implement some way of reducing the vibration that you see over a long period of time, you can minimize the negative health effects of the vibration to the human body.”

De Gregorio said there is no real end-user with this project, “but we do have people who are experts in vibration that are going to come in and talk to students about it,” he said.

The grant is “going to help us bring in more resources for students. It’s going to help us get more students involved. It will help us get more professors involved, too.”

It also will subsidize faculty salaries over the summer so that the collected project data can be curated for publication in academic journals.

Ultimately, what being an Engineering Unleashed Fellow means for De Gregorio is having even more resources to help students succeed.

“If we can get more activities in engineering that are engaging for them, their success will be much higher,” he said, like a true engineering education superhero.

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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