Engineering’s Mario Garcia-Sanz earns Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching

Last week, a group of engineering students gathered in a small room off of Professor Mario Garcia-Sanz’s office to watch one helicopter after another fly—and, they hoped, not crash and burn.

Each student took part in the extra-credit competition for Garcia-Sanz’s control engineering course: They designed a control algorithm that was then implemented in a helicopter model in front of the class. Some faltered, while others flourished.

The competition is one that stands out in the minds of nearly all the engineering students who take Garcia-Sanz’s classes. It allows them to see the theories learned in their textbook applied in a real-world situation. And it’s one of the many reasons graduate students nominated Garcia-Sanz, the Milton and Tamar Maltz Professor in Energy Innovation, for the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching. Created in 1978, the Diekhoff Awards recognize full-time faculty members for excellence in graduate student teaching and mentoring.

The helicopter competition embodies Garcia-Sanz’s entire approach to teaching, which he calls “bridging the gap.”

“I do believe that we engineers have the most wonderful job in the world. It is about creativity. It is about bridging the gap between the best mathematical theory and the most advanced and challenging real-world applications,” he said. “We have to understand and create the higher theories, and we have to apply them to solve our real-world challenges to build a better world.”

His students appreciate this approach. All of his nominators cited the helicopter simulation as the highlight of his course—whether or not their controls worked. As one nominator whose solution “spectacularly failed” noted: “The use of this helicopter forces students to think outside the classroom constraints of pretty textbook problems and instead [think] as industrial control engineers facing a true physical plant,” he wrote. “My solution failed because, despite being spectacular on paper, it was not realistic and it took a whining helicopter and humiliation in the face of my peers to teach me that.”

Though he would, of course, rather his students succeed in the project, Garcia-Sanz also wants his students to learn first-hand that not every theory works out perfectly when it’s put into practice—a lesson he learned throughout his years in the industry.

Garcia-Sanz joined the Case Western Reserve University faculty in 2009 after working as a research engineer at the Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Técnicas de Guipúzcoa (CEIT) Research Center and then as a faculty member at the Public University of Navarra in Spain. Through these positions, as well as visiting professorships at places such as University of Manchester, Oxford University, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the European Space Agency’s European Space Research and Technology Center, Garcia-Sanz became a well-known researcher in quantitative feedback theory robust control. He holds 20 industrial patents, has conducted more than 40 large research projects for industry and space agencies and has authored or coauthored more than 160 research papers in the area of QFT robust control.

He also gained prominence for his research in wind energy, leading projects in Pamplona, Spain—the foremost city for wind energy—on large multi-megawatt, variable-speed, multi-pole wind turbines design and control; dynamic control of wind farm grid interaction; water desalination systems using renewable energy; and parallel kinematics and advanced robots for carbon fiber manufacture for the aerospace and wind energy industry, among others. Many of his former PhD students are currently leading the research initiatives in the major European wind energy companies. His latest book, Wind Energy Systems: Control Engineering Design, combined energy and control theory with his own real-life experiences.

In fact, his experience as a professor helped shape the book. As he was putting together the book, he approached his graduate students for their input—after all, they and other students like them would be the ones to use it. “He wanted to know what worked, what didn’t work and what we needed to see for the book to become a useful resource,” a nominator wrote. “This was a valuable experience and insight into Mario’s character: He was willing to take the most practicable approach possible—asking the end-users—what would make a good project.”

Garcia-Sanz’s commitment to meeting students’ needs is evident through his teaching. He takes care to get to know each student on a personal basis, whether that means spending time together outside the classroom or better understanding each individual’s learning style.

In one graduate course, a nominator noted, Garcia-Sanz met one on one with each student to create a “learning plan” to maximize skill sets. “This enhanced my respect [for him] in a significant way early on as it showed me he really cared about teaching, and it motivated me to work extra without being intimidated by weaknesses,” a nominator wrote.

Garcia-Sanz’s research experience and interpersonal skills combine to make him a professor students both respect and appreciate. As his student, “you will feel that he is going out of his way for your benefit and that his success is measured based on your success,” a nominator said.

For Garcia-Sanz, this is true. Though he’s already seen a great deal of success in his field—he’s been awarded the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Heaviside Prize (United Kingdom), the BBVA researcher prize (Spain), and the best research paper at the Spanish International Federation of Automatic Control Congress (four times)—he said it’s the Diekhoff Award that means the most to him.

“This award, to me, is more significant, it’s closer emotionally, because it’s coming from our students,” he said. “At the end of the day you are at the university because of the students, and this award shows they understand and are happy with what you are teaching them.”

The university created the Diekhoff Award in 1978 to recognize full-time faculty members who make exemplary contributions to the education and development of graduate students at Case Western Reserve University. The award was created in honor of John Diekhoff, who served at the university from 1956 to 1970 in roles such as professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

Initially, the award recognized two faculty members who excelled in teaching; in 2009, the School of Graduate Studies expanded the award to honor faculty members with strong graduate mentoring skills.

A committee of the Graduate Student Senate conducts the entire process, from nomination to the selection of the winners. Committee members were Ashley Gan, Mark Barnes, Yotam Blech-Hermoni, Greg Chung, Timothy Franke, Jingle Jiang, Brad Lang, Michelle Meredith, Kelsey Potter, Ben Saliwanchik, Joe Volzer and Brian Werry.

The winners were honored at the Graduate Awards Ceremony Monday. Read about the mentoring award winners, Eileen Anderson-Fye and Glenn Starkman.