Dr. Vincent Prantil
Once, a student actually turned to Dr. Vincent Prantil and said it out loud: I don’t need you anymore. There’s confusion, frustration–maybe even some impatience–but after some hard work and guidance, eventually it happens.
“It’s a great thing,” said Prantil. “Although students usually don’t come right out and say it like that.”
Prantil, a professor in mechanical engineering, has been helping MSOE students achieve I-don’t-need-you-anymore moments for 16 years. The Brooklyn-born, Cornell University educated Prantil heard about
MSOE through a former faculty member. When he was seeking a job in higher education, the university stood out to Prantil because of its focus on teaching.
In 2000, he made an impromptu visit to Milwaukee to tour MSOE. Six months later he was invited to apply for an assistant professor position and he was hired. Although he spent much of his professional life in industry, working 12 years as a research engineer for Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California–seven years as a senior researcher, teaching has always been his passion.
“Parker Palmer says vocation at its deepest level is that feeling ‘this is something I can’t not do.’ That is how I feel about teaching,” Prantil said. Palmer is one name on the eclectic list of pedagogues who inform Prantil’s teaching philosophy, including physicist Richard Feynman and TED Talk contributor Tyler DeWitt, a high school chemistry teacher and Ph.D. student in microbiology at MIT.
“People think that for science to be real it has to be serious,” Prantil said. “DeWitt says when you are talking to fresh, young learners you need to tell a story; find something they can relate to. Strip away the complex jargon into its basic elements.”
Prantil fully embraces this approach. He authored a textbook in system dynamics that was inspired by comic book superheroes and illustrated by one-time The Simpsons animator Tim Decker. Most recently, his commitment to making dynamics education relatable and engaging led to his participation in a National Science Foundation-sponsored collaboration with Northern Illinois University and Rutgers
to improve student learning through the use of the video simulation platform, Spumone.
“There is a notion if learning is fun as when delivered through a video game, you are playing to a student’s ‘entertainment needs,’” Prantil said. “But we target student engagement, not entertainment. In pilot studies, Spumone improved learning of engineering dynamic concepts. The moment a game loses its ties to science and becomes entertainment it’s of little interest to me.”
Beyond the classroom, Prantil is the program chair of the mechanics division of the American Society
for Engineering Education. Achievements of which he is most proud include his role in the conversion of a carriage house at Cornell University into what is today the Big Red Barn Graduate and Professional Student Center; and the part he played in establishing the protracted leave program for MSOE educators. “When teachers have time dedicated to scholarly pursuits, they come back reenergized,” he said.
When not at MSOE, Prantil enjoys spending time with his wife and children–16-year-old Carmen and 12-year-old Lorin. He also enjoys swimming and bicycling, and for many years he scuba-dived and played underwater hockey.
“The longer I am here, the more I realize I can’t find another university like this,” Prantil said. “I work with great professors and I have the freedom to choose my intellectual pursuits. At MSOE, I can always promise the students I am here for them.”