Excellence in Teaching Advances the Transportation Professional

May 24, 2014

Anusha Musunuru has to look no further than Richard J. (R.J.) Porter for an example of a mentor who is approachable, encouraging, has a strong work ethic, and possesses an exceptional ability to communicate ideas in a clear and compelling way.

Anusha, who recently earned her master’s degree in transportation engineering at the University of Utah, where R.J. is an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, says he’s been an inspiration to her and other students.

“He’s influenced me with his skills and his desire to treat each person he meets with sensitivity. He has a great passion for teaching and research,” says Anusha, a graduate assistant to R.J. since the fall of 2012 and currently an intern with Kittelson & Associates, Inc.

Those and other qualities were recognized recently by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which named R.J. as the recipient of its 2014 ExCEEd New Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. The award, which will be presented next month during the annual American Society for Engineering Education conference in Indianapolis, recognizes his outstanding teaching record, commitment to education, and contributions to academic and local communities.

R.J. described the award – the nomination package for which includes student comments and testimonials – as a “tremendous honor” that helps validate that his teaching is having a positive impact. He says he enjoys helping cultivate students’ knowledge and broaden their experiences, and acknowledges that as a teacher it’s natural to question whether you’re on the right track.

“It means a lot to get some reinforcement that you are heading in the right direction,” says R.J., a KAI Professor Partner and research and design collaborator.

When R.J. joined the University of Utah in 2009, its engineering programs were in a growth mode. During his time there, that growth has only continued. During the past five years, the school’s College of Engineering has outpaced all others in its move up the national rankings.

“When I arrived, it was a very exciting environment,” R.J. says, noting that he also has had the opportunity to help shape the university’s transportation engineering faculty leadership.

R.J. leads faculty and students in research at the Utah Traffic Lab. Much of the coursework he teaches and the research he is involved with is centered on road and highway design, transportation safety, and performance-based design. He called it a “dream scenario that the courses I teach and the research I do are so intertwined.” The application of data-driven outcome measures that quantify safety, today’s broader understanding of transportation’s impacts on users and the economy, and constraints in public budgets make it a stimulating time to be involved in transportation engineering, R.J. adds.

Raised in Pennsylvania, R.J. was the first in his coal-mining family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Penn State University. He then joined a Pennsylvania company called the Last Resource Inc., an experience that prompted him to pursue a career in research. “I was fascinated every day,” R.J. says, “and every project was different.”

He jumped at the chance to return to Penn State for his doctorate, working with advisor Dr. John Mason, Ph.D., also a longtime teaming partner with KAI. From there, R.J. worked for the Texas Transportation Institute for a couple of years. The opportunity to help grow the University of Utah’s program “turned out to be the perfect fit,” R.J. says. “And that continues to be the case.”

R.J., a civil engineering undergrad whose exposure to a transportation engineering course his senior year changed the trajectory of his academic life and career, is a proponent of requiring undergraduates to be exposed to different engineering disciplines in order to help them learn what they have an affinity for.

“When a student takes a course about transportation engineering and it clicks, it’s neat to see,” he says.

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