Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Austin Polebitski
Dr. Austin Polebitski, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, helps students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville be engaged in hands-on opportunities. Polebitski stresses the importance of incorporating meaningful experiences for student growth, and he is interested in learning the most up-to-date teaching practices. In addition to his work on campus, he also enjoys playing board games, coaching youth soccer and traveling with his family.
How did your interest in engineering begin?
As a young kid, I liked problem solving. I enjoyed Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem-solving program for students from kindergarten through college. My dad is a computer science teacher which goes hand-in-hand with engineering. In college at Seattle University, I knew that I wanted to work with the environment also, so it was natural for me to combine my interests through environmental engineering.
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
I want students to learn to critically think about problems rather than believing that there is just an equation that you place numbers in for variables. With civil and environmental engineering, many factors outside of designing impact how engineers arrive at a solution for real-world problems. Whether it is something that is related to the social or political aspects of a problem, I want students to know that real problems aren’t black and white.
What inspired you to pursue teaching?
Both of my parents are public school teachers, so I have always thought that education was an important way to contribute to society. I worked as a research assistant professor for a number of years. I really enjoyed the research, but I enjoyed mentoring undergraduate students more. When I was looking for a new position, I was searching for either an undergraduate or smaller institution where teaching would be my focus point.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I am rewarded with the opportunity to watch students progress through our program and to see how much they change between their first year and the last semester. I enjoy seeing them prepare to go out with their new knowledge into the professional world. I always appreciate hearing back from former students about how their lives are going and when they inquire about my own. I like learning new aspects about the always-developing professional world that my former students live in. It helps me revise my approach to different class concepts to help best prepare students for the environment today.
What is exciting about what faculty do in the College of EMS?
A number of faculty are completing outreach activities with K-12 schools. I grew up in Waupaca, Wisconsin, and I try to reach out to them also. I visit for a day every year to meet with high school students to share the opportunities that are available to them. When I was in high school, no one came to school and told me what engineers actually did. I want students to know the options that they have to continue their education. My parents, who recently retired from the education system, stressed the importance of outreach opportunities to make our system stronger. The more we learn about how students are being prepared in K-12 schools, the better off colleges will be in addressing student needs.