Paul Blowers, PhD, originally took on the profession of chemical engineer as a personal challenge. Growing up in his home town in northern Michigan, he saw others bested by the field – and that only drove him harder.
“The town pharmacist had tried to become a chemical engineer and he didn’t make it. And then the county superintendent had tried to become a chemical engineer, and he didn’t make it. And the school superintendent who was coach of our golf team had tried, and he didn’t make it either,” he remembers.
“I said, ‘This has got to be really hard. That’s what I want to do.’”
Today, Blowers is an associate professor in the UA College of Engineering in theDepartment of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. He loves everything about the discipline, and is determined to help his students succeed in the face of those same challenges.
Styling Teaching for Optimal Learning
“The students remind me a lot of myself,” he says. “Many of them are first to go to college. Many of them are maybe coming out of disadvantaged schools, where the high school wasn’t very strong.”
As a computational scientist and educator, he searches for new ways to engage learners both in and out of the classroom. He has made active learning techniques central to his teaching style. For example, if students are struggling with a challenging concept during a lecture, he stops talking – and lets the students figure out the problem for themselves.
“Yesterday in my sophomore class, we spent fifty minutes solving one problem,” he says. He remembers the time as fantastic, as “the energy level in the classroom and the amount of discussion and the arguments – and the heated arguments – with me just occasionally answering questions in front of everyone” truly engaged the students in the learning process.
“I walked out of that class thinking, They have it. They have it now,” he recalls. “Because they had the time to think about it.”
Blowers teaches by example, encouraging his students to explore every aspect of a problem.
On one occasion, a student asked Blowers an especially good question – one that really stumped him.
“I said, ‘that is a really good question, and I have no idea what the answer is. You need to go find some more papers and we will figure out what the next step is. I don’t know.’”
Blowers has learned that when students see their teachers as real people who don’t always have the answers, “they’re given a lot more power. And then they get to learn these tools of research.”
Dedicated Global Citizen
Known internationally, Blowers was the first to apply computational chemistry to predict the environmental impact of many chemicals and their effect on global warming.
“You look at the toxicity of the thing that might be out there and how we don’t necessarily know whether something is going to be good or bad, but we don’t know enough to not do those things yet.”
Given that perspective, and his appreciation for nature that came from growing up on the edge of a small town in Northern Michigan, he now takes his role as a good citizen of the Earth seriously.
“One of my research areas is life-cycle assessment, categorizing the environmental sustainability of different technology choices,” he says. “And if you look at my lifestyle, I try and be pretty environmental. Two weekends ago I did a spaghetti marinara, made completely in the solar oven. I bike to work, and when I don’t bike, I’m walking. Recently, I just went three weeks without getting into any motorized vehicle.”
When it comes to engineering a better future, Blowers practices what he teaches, every day.