Sudhagar Mani, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biological Engineering

Dr. Mani is a professor with the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia. He is, formerly, a lecturer and a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Mani’s areas of specialty focus in biological and chemical process modeling, simulation & optimization, as well as, sustainable biomass feedstock supply logistics system, novel biomass densification, torrefaction and thermal conversion technologies, Techno-Economic Analysis (TEA) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and novel routes to produce nano-size cellulose, chemicals & biocomposites.

“I am interested in the role technology could play in engineering education by presenting more visualization of engineering principles.”

A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Mani:

What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?

The College of Engineering at UGA is very diverse, and there are an interesting range of people with different backgrounds coming into these programs. This makes for a very unique college when compared to other engineering programs. The College of Engineering originally started as an interdisciplinary type of college. As a land-grant university, we are very well connected with other disciplines and that aspect helps us teach our students how engineering connects to other disciplines in an effective manner. I think that makes it very exciting. By having different programs in the same college without much of any deviations, I am able to see mechanical engineers, civil engineers, and environmental engineers on any given day, often in the same classes, so I should be able to connect the engineering principles to the different disciplines. That is something you’ll never get in other schools and is one of the unique experiences faculty will get from Georgia – there’s an open interdisciplinary atmosphere. I think for the first two or three years of undergraduate study, the engineering principles are pretty similar, but the application is where the disciplines really change and the distinctions come into play– where the electrical engineers are applying the electrical principles and so on. This multidisciplinary approach is something that is very unique to UGA.

What role do you see learning technologies play in ENED?

I think in general, with multidisciplinary engineering and also the younger generations of new people coming in, we have a great opportunity to integrate technology effectively with our students. At this point, we haven’t now done much other than using email, maybe posting content, and sharing information. But I am interested in the role technology could play in engineering education by presenting more visualization of engineering principles so that students with diverse backgrounds can understand the content. I think that could really help the next generation of engineers so that they’re not just plugging in equations but rather giving them the ability to understand why these specific engineering equations apply and where to apply them. I don’t know whether technologies have really contributed significantly to education, but I think there is a lot of opportunity for impact if we are able to better integrate some of the new technologies. I think that’s one role I would like to play, so that we can vertically integrate technologies beyond external support and the principles of engineering can be taught better.

What role does preparing students for engineering practice play in your teaching?

I want engineers to be critical thinkers. I want to help them to extract or bring out their embodied knowledge that they have gained from different classes, and I want to act as a catalyst to motivate them and to be proud of their disciplines. So something I would like to see: a little more ambition, ownership, and enthusiasm for being an engineer. This is something that is sometimes lacking, and I would like to play a role in bringing those qualities out. I also want them to understand the responsibility of engineers which is something we talk about in engineering ethics when we look at professional practice. I think if they can actually mature these skills in the classroom during learning itself, then their future will be much more bright when they go out.

One of the things I’ve tried recently to foster enthusiasm is bringing in examples of how engineering fits in with the rest of society. This may involve presenting the societal challenges imposed on different problems to the students on a level that they are able to understand and able to contribute to finding solutions. Another thing we have done is bring in some external speakers who are working in the industry to give them a little more motivation and understanding of the role they tend to play in that system. And finally, the National Academy of Engineering has put together some of these greatest innovations and achievements of engineers which is something students find exciting. They are able to see the ethics these engineers have followed over the years that prevented a lot of disasters from happening across the world. Those are actually the critical elements because the students can see the value engineers bring.

What do you find most interesting about the current generation of incoming students, and what do you, as a teacher, do to connect with them?

I think the new generations of students are really techy; they know how they can use technology in their everyday lives to do things much more efficiently sometimes and in many ways they are much faster thinkers than students were a few generations ago. I think as faculty, we don’t make use of those skillsets currently. So as a faculty, we have to really understand our incoming students, and essentially customize our teaching for those groups. One thing I would really like to do to is see how vertical integration of technology could enhance the learning experience by bringing additional engineering tools to the table. When I was studying, we used to go on an annual tour of labs and other industrial plants, but with the new generation of students there isn’t enough time. Perhaps the technology could fill that gap, you know? I was talking to Dr. Johnsen before about how we can bring virtual realities into engineering education. We can bring in the 3D view of a processing plant or maybe laboratory equipment to the front of the classrooms without having to physically go there. That is really where we lack, and that’s where the opportunities are. I think it would help the new generation of the students become a little more motivated if we can bring world outside into the classroom.

On the other hand, there are some downsides that this engagement with technology could present: sometimes students are less focused because they are multitasking and they miss the core point of the material that is being covered. One thing I always tell my students when they are using computers is engineers are not the user of computers but rather the creators of them. I want to bring that emphasis back into the conversation. If you can swipe an app with your finger on a touch screen, what are all the actions that are happening behind the screen that make it respond?  That’s where the engineers play a role. The general public might only consider technology as a user, but Engineers want to be the creators. So it’s important to show what’s going on in the back end. In engineering, if you are not innovative and futuristic in your thinking you lose your job. So if they can understand that, I think then they can be more focused and creative in their roles.

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