Engineering faculty member inspires students through real-world education
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
Posted: 06/28/2013
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Dr. Kamal Sarkar sees the potential in his students and in the Rio Grande Valley.

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Dr. Kamal Sarkar, lecturer in the College of Engineering and Computer Science's Mechanical Engineering Departmemt, was one of six UTPA faculty members to receive The University of Texas System's 2012 Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards, the Board of Regents' highest teaching award.

Sarkar left a three-decade career in the private sector about seven years ago to teach mechanical engineering at The University of Texas-Pan American.

"I was in industry and I realized ... at a university, I could get to do something I want to do rather than somebody else telling me what to do," Sarkar said.

Sarkar, a lecturer in the College of Engineering and Computer Science's Department of Mechanical Engineering, has shared his vast knowledge of engineering and industry with students and colleagues since he joined UT Pan American in 2006. His contributions helped create the University's first start-up company, FibeRio Technology Corp., and boost the College of Engineering and Computer Science's senior design projects by having students work for companies.

His dedication to teaching his students and creating economic opportunities for them and the community garnered him one of The University of Texas System's 2012 Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards, the Board of Regents' highest teaching award. Sarkar was one of six faculty members from UTPA to receive the award.

He and his fellow UTPA colleagues were among 65 faculty members from academic institutions across the UT System selected to share $1.8 million in awards. Each one received a $25,000 cash award, considered one of the largest in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.

"I'm really lucky," Sarkar said. "This is an excellent department where everybody is so much engaged with the students, so when you talk with them, we get a lot of information, a lot of knowledge about how well our students are doing and how we can make them better."

He has been collecting data to see how well students are doing once they graduate. His research found that while the top graduates had little trouble finding work, even those students who didn't have the best grade point averages also found gainful employment and were successful.

"It's really important to have a good GPA, it's more important to be dedicated, they have to be focused, whatever they do, they must be excited about it," Sarkar said.

He recalled one former student who did not have the best GPA, but was hired by an energy company and within her first year of employment saved her employer more than $5 million in construction costs.

"These are the stories for our students to hear because, the thing is, if we look back on our students' background, most of them are working part-time, at least taking a large load (of classes), and then trying to succeed," he said. "It's not easy."

That's why he said it is important that the faculty provide emotional support to students and is glad that the university holds that same belief.

"As long as a student is self-motivated, it is very easy to help them and let them succeed," he said. "If we can continue building that support system here I'm sure we will see more success stories."

Sarkar's main goal is to ensure his students not only learn the material, but also understand how it applies to the real world. That is why in the classes he teaches, from introductory courses to the senior design project, he makes sure they see the real world applications.

In recent years, Sarkar began having his students take on clients from the community. Among the first local companies to hire the UT Pan American students was Delta Heating, a Rio Hondo-based company that designs and sells heating and cooling products.

The project was a success, and Delta Heating continues to support the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The company also has hired at least one UTPA graduate, Sarkar said.

Sarkar and his students are also working on other research that he hopes will develop into businesses in the future.

"This is exactly what I wanted it to be, and thank god UT Pan American has given me the opportunity," he said. "This environment gives us the opportunity to bring our kids to the forefront. FibeRio has four of our students, another company has another of our students, so there are a lot of local economic opportunities we're creating that did not exist five or 10 years back."

Sarkar's dedication to educating future generations of engineers reached beyond the UT Pan American Campus.

Throughout the past few years, Sarkar, along with some other faculty members, have worked with area school districts to introduce engineering to students and developed a pre-engineering program at the Progreso Independent School District.

"Before the kids come to us, if we can identify who will be the best suited to be an engineer and pick them up and show them the path, life will be a lot easier for us," Sarkar said.

About 20 students who participated in the pre-engineering programs enrolled at UTPA in 2011, Sarkar said.

In recommendation letters, former students of Sarkar praised him for his commitment to creating new, challenging ways to better prepare them for the real world.

Eugenio De Hoyos, who worked with Sarkar on the nanotechnology research that led to FibeRio's creation, credits his former mentor with keeping the project going when it met some challenges.

"During this time I got to know Professor Sarkar closely, and he provided me with wisdom that I would take with me as I continued my education in Boston," wrote De Hoyos, who completed his bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was working toward a master's degree from UTPA in computer science when he penned his letter of recommendation for Sarkar.

Michael Erik Ramirez, a former student, said Sarkar was always eager to share his knowledge and experiences with students and met with them often to help prioritize their personal responsibilities.

"Everyone should be so lucky as to have an influential figure in their academic careers like Dr. Sarkar," wrote Ramirez, who now works as an engineer in the oil industry. "Learning would never become dull and success would seem easily attainable."

Learn more about the Regent’s Award winners at this website.