Faculty Spotlight: Charles Kutal

Friday, February 26, 2016

Chuck Kutal is one of those faculty members who is not only well known, but also widely respected across campus. He is also one of the most modest people you will meet on campus—even steering the conversation away from himself when being interviewed for this article—which endears him to many. Held in high esteem by his Honors chemistry students who laud his contagious passion for a subject that is often difficult to grasp, he was named the 2008 Lothar Tresp Outstanding Honors Professor, and in 2012 was named one of best 300 undergraduate teachers in the nation, according to a joint ranking by the Princeton Review and RateMyProfessors.com.

He is also well regarded by his peers and colleagues for his research. In 2009 Kutal invented a new technology that uses visible light for curing a multitude of monomers, oligomers, and polymers (chemical building blocks from which synthetic organic materials are made), which was licensed to a worldwide leader in the adhesives, sealants and bonding industry. He has certainly earned his stripes as a tenured faculty member, all the while holding the position of associate dean in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. But his accomplishments that are probably most widely recognized at the University of Georgia center on his long-time devotion to a field that is now coming into its own: STEM Education.

When Kutal arrived at UGA 42 years ago, there was no such thing as STEM Education. In 1974 UGA offered science and mathematics courses, and even engineering courses in the then-named College of Agriculture, but technology at that time was slow moving and barely a blip on the radar of most colleges. Fast forward to 2007. The PRISM (Partnership for Reform in Science and Mathematics) project, a University System of Georgia initiative designed to increase science and mathematics achievement for K-12 students for post-secondary education and careers, of which UGA was a participant, was approaching its last year of National Science Foundation grant funding. Kutal was sitting on ready. The USG was funding a new initiative on STEM education in 2008, and Kutal made sure UGA was one of eleven universities in the state accepted into this program.

The PRISM and STEM Education initiatives were the springboard for the founding of UGA’s Office of STEM Education, which has been directed by Kutal since 2008. In the last eight years the OSE has been the one-stop resource for information and services in STEM education on campus. The office has a three-part goal of preparing K-12 students to succeed in STEM classes, increase the number of STEM majors and graduates by improving teaching, and to increase the number of STEM K-12 teachers to promote more active learning.

So far OSE has awarded mini-grants to 75 faculty, which have helped move UGA into a more STEM-focused campus. Many of the mini-grant recipients have joined together to form  the UGA SEER (Scientists Engaged in Education Research) Group, which is directed by Paula Lemons and facilitates cutting-edge research in the field of STEM education through multi-disciplinary interactions and research collaborations between a community of scientists from different colleges and departments and the medical partnership. SEER also sponsors a series of workshops through the Center for Teaching and Learning on various topics related to STEM education.

Another important program supported by the USG STEM Education grant under Kutal’s tenure is Project FOCUS (Fostering Our Community’s Understanding of Science). This service-learning experience founded by David Knauft, places undergraduate students in local elementary and middle schools to teach science lessons to children. This program provides invaluable hands-on learning while making a positive impact in the community. More than 25,000 K-8 students and hundreds of UGA students have been impacted by this program.

Now in its eighth year of consecutive funding, the OSE is transitioning into a new era of STEM Education and looking at ways to be involved in the Experiential Learning initiative and other innovative partnerships across campus and the state. With the hiring of Timothy Burg as the new director of the OSE and taking STEM Ed to the next level, don’t expect Kutal to disappear. He is still actively involved in the ongoing work of the office to support UGA’s STEM efforts.

“We want the University of Georgia to be the premier STEM Education institution in the state of Georgia. We want to use undergraduates in peer mentoring programs, and to engage students in student assistance roles that count as experiential learning requirements, teaching them pedagogy while getting credit for mentoring. We want to be recognized on a national scale, and with the Chancellor continuing to support USG funding for STEM education, we can do just that,” said Kutal.

If you ask Kutal about the success of the Office of STEM Education thus far, he will no doubt attribute it to the PRISM program, the NSF and USG grants, and the outstanding work of faculty across campus who share his same level of dedication and passion for teaching. However, the success of the OSE is due in large part to the foundational work that he has done to make it a central campus resource for STEM education and a catalyst for student success. And for that, the university is extremely grateful.