On any given morning, long before classes begin at West Virginia University, you will find Powsiri Klinkhachorn walking through the halls of the Engineering Sciences Building, carrying a box. Ask him what's inside and his answer is simple: "Robot parts."
The parts and the robots they ultimately become have helped make WVU a force to be reckoned with at design competitions around the country. They've also served as the springboard to student's careers at places like NASA IV&V, IBM, Honeybee Robotics and Intel, and through outreach activities have helped recruit future generations of engineers to WVU.
"All I've ever wanted is to show the engineering community that students from my alma mater can compete with any school in the country," said Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering. "And I think we have done that."
Today (November 19), the professor known simply as "Dr. Klink" will be rewarded for his efforts when he is named West Virginia's Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He is the 19th WVU professor - the second in engineering - to receive the award.
"Being named a CASE professor of the year is one of the highest honors a faculty member can receive, and Dr. Klink is certainly deserving," President Gordon Gee said. "His impact on students begins the moment they enter his classroom and remains with them the rest of their lives. It is in the best traditions of education."
Klinkhachorn, who earned his master's and doctoral degrees from WVU in 1979 and 1983, respectively, credits his mentor, Professor Emeritus Robert Swartwout, for helping him become the teacher he is today.
"Bob Swartwout was a very caring person and a wonderful advisor," Klinkhachorn said. "He treated his students like his own children. He was always willing to help and took his time to make sure that his students understood the subjects he was teaching. And yet, at the same time, he always demanded his students do their best. I've tried to model my teaching style after his.
"I take a great deal of pride in seeing our students succeed on the competition stage and as engineers in their own rite," Klinkhachorn said. "The projects are very time consuming for everyone involved but the payoff is well worth the effort."
And the payoffs have been significant. Since 2011, WVU robotics teams led by Klinkhachorn have finished near the top in numerous robotics competitions, including taking top honors at the NASA Robotic Mining Competition, NASA/NIA RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition and Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems Robotic International Space Mining Competition in 2014. He also served as an advisor to the team from WVU that became the first level two winner in the Sample Return Robot Challenge, part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, in 2015.
For alumnus Tim Godisart, who met Klinkhachorn as a high school student when he attended a summer robotics camp at WVU, working as the student lead on several of these projects became the defining experience of his college career.
"Working on these teams requires an incredible amount of hard work and commitment from each and every member of the group, including Dr. Klink," Godisart said. "When we came into lab on weekends and worked late into the night, he was right there beside us. When he said he had an 'open door policy,' he meant it; students could count on being able to find him at all hours of the day and he was always more than happy to help guide us to an answer. The fact that he was putting in this much time and effort above and beyond what was already required by just being a professor was not lost on us. He truly models what commitment means and leads by example.
"Before our final run our first year at the NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition, Dr. Klink said to us, 'We may not always win, but everyone will know where we came from.' I'm sure he meant West Virginia University; but what I have come to realize over time is that, really, we came from him." Godisart works for Oculus VR, a virtual reality company owned by Facebook.
"My role as a teacher has changed from a lecturer to a facilitator; someone who stimulates student exploration of problems in a hands-on, realistic setting," Klinkhachorn said. "Students are now actively learning and motivated, which encourages problem solving and creativity and increases their knowledge and skills. It also better prepares them for what will be expected of them on the job for many years to come."
Another alumnus, Scott Zemerick, agrees and he continues to seek Klinkhachorn's guidance in his role as commercial systems division manager and NASA contractor at TMC Technologies in Fairmont.
"I have contacted Dr. Klinkhachorn often during my professional career to ask his opinion on a multitude of engineering projects," Zermerick said. "I have always found his advice - both professional and technical - to be invaluable. With today's tightening budgets and shorter deadlines, Dr. Klinkhachorn's always-practical approach and willingness to teach is even more valuable to today's undergraduates."
"It is certainly rewarding to see how the creativity, teamwork and the time spent outside class have coalesced in enhancing the learning experience of students in unimaginable ways," Klinkhachorn said. "Their enthusiasm and passion fuels my desire to work even harder on their behalf."
Brian Woerner, chair of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, nominated Klinkhachorn for the award, calling him "one of the finest teachers I have had the pleasure of knowing during my academic career."
This is just the latest in a long line of accolades Klinkhachorn has received for outstanding teaching at both the national and state level. In 2013, he won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Major Education Innovation Award, which is given to IEEE members who have distinguished themselves for outstanding educational innovation, and the WVU Foundation's Outstanding Teaching Award. He has twice been named a finalist for the Faculty Merit Foundation of West Virginia's Professor of the Year Award and as an Outstanding Teacher in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, and was named its Teacher of the Year in 2012.
"This award is an honor for both Dr. Klinkhachorn and for West Virginia University and a reminder that exceptional, passionate teaching is at the heart of the academic research enterprise," said Provost Joyce McConnell. "Having had occasion to congratulate Dr. Klinkhachorn for numerous other teaching awards over the years, I am not at all surprised that he has been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation. He is truly a gifted educator.