Double Award-Winning Stevens Professor has Passion for Teaching

11/9/2011

He was working in a fun Silicon Valley start-up in the late 1990s, doing nanotechnology before nanotechnology was a word.

But as the company grew, Dr. Ronald Besser found himself spending most of his time in meetings he didn’t want to be in. Daydreaming in his cubicle or in those dreaded meetings, he imagined his ideal job that combined teaching (he loved mentoring young employees) and research.     

Today, he has his dream job. Besser, 55, of New Providence, N.J., is a professor of chemical engineering and program chair at Stevens. His current research focuses on hydrogen fuel cells and using nanotechnology to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and make alternative energy sources cheaper and more efficient.

But he also teaches classes in fluid mechanics, chemical reactor design and sustainable energy.  And he seems dedicated to becoming the best teacher he can be, studying the latest educational approaches and striving to better reach his students.

"There have been many times when I’ve realized that I have the greatest job on earth,” he says. 

“These have less to do about my accomplishments and more about really enjoying the moment, like when a student really understands something for the first time, or when their experiment produces a truly novel result no one has yet observed.

“It’s very rewarding,” he says. “I really enjoy seeing students grow and change and become something.”

Dr. Besser’s talent for the art of teaching was rewarded twice this fall at Convocation, when he received the Stevens Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award and the Henry Morton Distinguished Teaching Professor Award, presented by the university. Alumni from the five most recent graduating classes vote for the SAA Outstanding Teacher Award.

During an interview this past September, Dr. Besser, who joined Stevens in 2002, called the awards a pleasant surprise.

“I sort of thought that teaching is something that you really work at, and that most good teachers are not recognized for the effort they put in,” he says. “There are many good teachers out there who are changing the lives of their students.”

Miguel Ocampo ’08, M.Eng. ’08, is one of those students whom Dr. Besser has touched. Ocampo now works as a research engineer with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, and he says that “Dr. B.” is one of the reasons he’s where he is today.

He praises Besser not only for the great advice and knowledge he conveyed during their two years of summer research together, but also for his personal interest in his students. Ocampo recalls Besser, who is also fluent, letting him practice his Spanish or discussing their common love of tennis.

“He’s a professor who cares for his students academically and personally, a rare thing to find in universities,” Ocampo said.    

When you meet him in his Burchard Building office, Besser is soft-spoken and thoughtful. A shelf behind his desk displays a wedding photograph of his wife, and a homemade picture frame, a long-ago art project most likely made by one his four children, who are now ages 13 to 21. His desk, cluttered with papers, is comfortably messy.

He again mentions that he has the greatest job in the world—time to do quality research as well as satisfy his passion for teaching. He praises his chemical engineering students, many of them so outstanding. But it’s the students who have to work really hard, who struggle, that stay with him.

“That’s the group that brings the most rewards,” Besser says. “They are the ones that keep me going.”

Besser, who advises the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, has also done work with Stevens’ Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE), providing middle school science teachers with hands-on activities and content instruction related to energy topics.

“Being a K-12 teacher—that’s an honest living!” he says. “It really gave me a new respect for what they do.”

CIESE has been an excellent resource for his own teaching methods, he says. His latest approach: Less is more.

“I’m talking less and they’re talking more, and it’s working better,” he says. He smiles when he recalls how he used to prepare lengthy lectures with the expectation that his students would take fastidious notes for the entire hour. Then he discovered, after reading the educational research, that most people’s attention spans are about 20 minutes. So now he breaks up the class with different activities, from discussion to writing terms on the board (he hates PowerPoint) to ungraded quizzes to make sure his students are doing the reading and are ready to discuss it in class.

One day in late September, Besser’s Fluid Mechanics class gathers in a basement lab of McLean Hall, reviewing about a dozen terms and problems on the board. Besser is patient and gentle with his students, cheering on those who give good answers and making sure one student really “gets it.” He’s not high tech—he uses conversation and a highlighter—and he hardly sits the entire period.

They may not have gotten Besser’s reference to Jon Voight in the 1978 film, “Coming Home,” but these students certainly seem to have mastered the day’s lesson.

Student Owen Jappen praises Besser for his interesting lectures, his great guidance during research projects and for his availability when it comes to office hours. 

“You can go there any time,” Jappen says.

Besser, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and his master’s and Ph.D. in materials science from Stanford, grew up on the San Francisco peninsula. He calls his father, the owner of an electronics repair company who was “able to repair anything from cars to refrigerators,” and his mother, an elementary school teacher who gave him a love of learning and teaching, his major influences. 

Dr. Besser spent about 15 years in industry, working with several Silicon Valley companies before he decided he wanted to teach. He started as an adjunct professor and later left industry to make a big move with his family to northern Louisiana in 1999, where he accepted an associate professorship with Louisiana Tech University. When some Stevens professors contacted him about their plans to establish what would become the New Jersey Center for Microchemical Systems and asked him to join them, he accepted, and started with Stevens in 2002. The New York metro area, with its top universities and vibrant, high-tech economy, attracted him as a great place to settle with his family.

Now that he has his “dream job,” Besser says that his plans for the future are to continue balancing research with teaching and mentoring new researchers and engineers. A devoted runner and a bass guitarist who plays at his church, he hopes to become a virtuoso musician. And he and his wife, Cheryl, are still busy raising their children.

While their two oldest, both college students, are leaning toward writing, psychology and business, the two youngest are still seeking their own path. 

“There may be an engineer or scientist in the remaining two,” Besser says.