Excellence in Instruction Award winner Beth Hess connects course concepts with real-world applications
Beth Hess has been there, done that.
That’s why she feels so strongly about the importance of connecting course concepts with real-world applications. Before joining the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering in 2016, Hess spent eight-plus years with MED Institute Inc., a product development company in West Lafayette, rising from a clinical project manager to research engineer.
“As I look at how I have evolved from when I began teaching until now, I’m not afraid to share that personal side of me – I’m not just up there reading from the textbook – to bring my personality and my experiences, and I think that is what students respond to best,” says Hess, who recently was named a 2022 winner of the Excellence in Instruction Award for Lecturers. The award honors academic staff with the rank of lecturer or senior lecturer for outstanding undergraduate teaching. “My background is different from some of the faculty that students see in their classes. I have a perspective that I can share a bigger-picture, real-world experience.”
Hess has taught a breadth of core courses in the mechanical engineering undergraduate curriculum, spanning sophomore-, junior- and senior-level courses in design, dynamics and vibrations, solid mechanics and thermodynamics. She also leads the sophomore seminar course. Her goal is to empower students to embrace their own resourcefulness and curiosity as they learn to solve engineering problems.
“I want them to know that getting their bachelor’s degree at Purdue isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning,” Hess says. “What they are learning here are tools they are going to carry with them for the rest of their life. I want them to have confidence that they can meet the next challenge and solve the next problem.”
‘The gold standard’
Hess’ students have described her as “amazing,” “fantastic” and “the gold standard.” One of them says, “She always has enthusiasm about the material and is so kind and caring to her students. When you walk into her office, it is like walking into a room filled with knowledge and experience, but also like walking into an office with a family-oriented atmosphere.”
Beyond the classroom, Hess takes a special interest in mentoring students, particularly females.
“It plays a big part in helping me stay connected with students and understanding what their needs are and what they’re going through,” Hess says. “And it really helps me fine-tune my approach so that it is relevant and meaningful to them. A lot of mentoring relationships are initiated by the mentee, when they seek guidance, but I find that I learn as much if not more from them as they do from me. Some of the most important things I’ve done at Purdue were because they started with a conversation with a student. It has made a big difference in my career, and I want to further it as much as I can.”
Not only does Hess have real-world experience in her background, but she also has familiarity with Purdue. Growing up on a farm in Moundridge, Kansas, Hess (nee Galle) and her family were “always fixing something, which blends over to the engineering world,” she says. So, Hess matriculated to Purdue in the fall of 1997 to pursue her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
She fully expected to graduate in four years, which she did, and move back to Kansas, which she did not.
As I look at how I have evolved from when I began teaching until now, I’m not afraid to share that personal side of me – I’m not just up there reading from the textbook – to bring my personality and my experiences, and I think that is what students respond to best.Beth Hess
senior lecturer, School of Mechanical Engineering
Once a Boilermaker, always a Boilermaker
Rather, Hess stayed seven more years to earn her master’s degree and PhD, both in mechanical engineering. “Then I was really ready to leave,” she says.
Not so fast. While pursuing her PhD, Hess had the opportunity to teach four semesters of sophomore-level classes, which led her to pursue a career in teaching. While interviewing for positions in 2008, she got set up on a blind date with her eventual husband, also a mechanical engineer employed locally.
Hess forwent teaching to work for MED Institute. “My research was in biomechanics, and it was a great opportunity,” she says.
Hess initially returned to Purdue as a visiting assistant professor for the 2014 and 2015 fall semesters, teaching a sophomore-level class in thermodynamics. She was hired as a continuing lecturer in 2016 and promoted to senior lecturer in 2019. “I always knew that, eventually, I would like to get back in the classroom,” Hess says. “I worked in project management, supervisory roles, clinical trials and in an engineering role. So even though I really wanted to be teaching that whole time, I learned so much during those eight years, and that experience made me a much better instructor.
“Looking back, it kind of makes perfect sense how all the pieces fell into place, but it was nothing that I could have planned or even dreamed about. But I’m happy that the opportunity came along when it did. I’m teaching the same classes I took at Purdue. One of the rooms I sat in as a student is where they surprised me with the award, although it has been remodeled. I feel like I’m where I need to be right now.” As for Kansas, where the family farm continues to thrive, and where Hess’ husband also grew up: “Maybe we will retire there.”
I’m happy that the opportunity came along when it did. I’m teaching the same classes I took at Purdue. One of the rooms I sat in as a student is where they surprised me with the award, although it has been remodeled. I feel like I’m where I need to be right now.Beth Hess Senior lecturer, School of Mechanical Engineering