Dr. Mary Jo Kirisits, environmental engineering professor for CAEE, has won the 2022 Maxine and Jack Zarrow Family K-16 Teaching Innovation Award. The award is reserved for faculty members in the Cockrell School of Engineering who has most impacted students in K-12 and beyond, encouraging enrollment into STEM education and empirically improving the educational experience across all grade levels.

Department Chair Dr. Robert Gilbert nominated Dr. Kirisits, stating she “has enhanced teaching effectiveness for elementary, middle, and high school students by developing and leading outreach programs, has actively recruited pre-college students to pursue degrees in engineering and apply to the Cockrell School, and is continuously improving the teaching of science, math and technology at all levels.”

Through her “Guardians of the Gulf” outreach program, Dr. Kirisits provided curriculum and programming for Girl Scouts to learn about environmental engineering and study water quality in the Gulf of Mexico. She led groups through a series of hand-on learning activities, developing innovative modules for a variety of topics. Through this process, she also studied the effect of presenting caring and empathetic messaging throughout the learning process, finding that outreach is important for the development of engineering identity in middle school girls.

Dr. Kirisits’ outreach also extended to high school students, as she developed STEM programming and collaboration opportunities between her team and local high schools. These experiences were designed to intentionally provide students a supportive environment while they worked, promoting mentorship and building personal relationships.

In her own classroom, Dr. Kirisits provides interactive learning opportunities for students, which continued onto a virtual platform where she went above and beyond to provide a quality learning experience despite issues presented by the pandemic. She developed new modes of learning that allowed students to work at their own pace, keeping track of their understanding of material and providing supplemental support as needed. Her engagement in the lab environment has been particularly notable as she mentors many students, and often even helps guide them through the application process into graduate school.