April 21, 2003: Headlines: COS - South Africa: Engineering: University Teaching: Daily Pennsylvanian: Engineering professor Thomas Cassel spent three years in South Africa with the Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Directory: South Africa: Peace Corps South Africa : The Peace Corps in South Africa: April 21, 2003: Headlines: COS - South Africa: Engineering: University Teaching: Daily Pennsylvanian: Engineering professor Thomas Cassel spent three years in South Africa with the Peace Corps

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Engineering professor Thomas Cassel spent three years in South Africa with the Peace Corps

Engineering professor Thomas Cassel spent three years in South Africa with the Peace Corps

Engineering prof brings real world perfection to classroom

By Laura Sullivan
April 21, 2003

He graduated from Penn no less than three times, held down a three-year stint in South Africa with the Peace Corps, managed a multimillion-dollar independent electric power company and, for a while, raced cars as a hobby.

But most recently, he was declared a "Perfect Professor" by the Penn Course Review.

So upon entering Engineering professor Thomas Cassel's office and reading the framed message that hangs behind his desk -- "If life is a journey, then life's greatest tragedy is not having enjoyed the trip" -- you get the feeling he has enjoyed the trip.

Further, Cassel's three classes -- Engineering Economics, Engineering Entrepreneurship I and Engineering Entrepreneurship II -- benefit from this sense of life as a journey.

"I can throw in anecdotal stories from my own experience, and I think that adds a dimension," he explains. "It gives the classes color."

His students, too, attribute Cassel's success in the classroom to his success in the real world.

"He was a real engineer and a real entrepreneur -- it's someone who's done it teaching you," Engineering senior Megan Smirti says as she praises Cassel's teaching methods.

"The students are very interested, attendance is great and conversations are lively," she adds.

And while Cassel has certainly garnered prominence in the eyes of his students, he did not rise to professor status through the typical ranks of academia. Cassel is just now rounding off his sixth semester of teaching -- only the most recent of which has been as a full professor.

"I started as purely an adjunct type position," he explains. "It was very part-time, I'd [planned to] just do the one course."

Yet, the success of his class quickly boosted Cassel into far more than an adjunct position.

"I was recently appointed a professor of practice," he says. "From what I understand, it's the first time in 150 years of history in the Engineering School that they've ever given such an appointment."

"I earned my stripes, so to speak, by practicing," he explains.

And when Cassel says he learned through practice, that is exactly what he means.

The company he helped to start with around $6,000 of "personal money" grew to take in millions in revenue.

In fact, most of the surface space in his office is covered in memorabilia from his time in the business world -- glass figures, plaques and other small trinkets each hold their own stories of business ventures completed and experience gained.

"This is a clock we got from closing a $385 million deal in Illinois, and this is a box from closing a $146 million deal in Pennsylvania," he says of two of the items on his desk.

Despite his success, Cassel wasn't always as business savvy as he hopes his students will be one day.

"The company had grown beyond my expectations" during the '90s, he says. As a result, he decided to bring in a management consulting firm to assess company strategies.

"The consultant ended up walking into my office, which was the corner office, so to speak, and asked, 'Do you have any business education?'" Cassel recounts with a smile.

So at the consultant's suggestion, Cassel found himself in the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School learning the ins and outs of business with other owners, founders or presidents of companies with at least $5 million in sales.

"It was a fascinating group of people... about 60 students from all over the world," he recalls. "And the one common denominator amongst them all was that we all had our own companies."

And it was at Harvard that Cassel was introduced to the case-study method of learning.

So when he agreed to take on teaching, this philosophy became one of his bedrock principles.

"I think my industry experience really helped to sort out a curriculum," he explains. "I was kind of looking at it as, 'I wish I'd known this when I was starting my own company.'"

"Unlike probably any other engineering course, at least that I'm aware of, we rely mostly on the case-study method," he adds.

This use of 'we' is fairly common in Cassel's vernacular. At first, you wonder who exactly he is talking about, but it's been clear to him from the very beginning.

"I focus the course on engineers and, in the course, talk as if it's we the engineers who are pulling this off and... starting the companies," he explains.

And it is this sense of solidarity that seems to have struck a chord with his students.

Proudly declaring that she's "been in every class he teaches," Engineering senior Dana Hobbs says that Cassel invites his students to his house in April for dinner.

"He's really a really great person," Hobbs gushes. "We invited him to happy hour once, and he actually considered it before saying no."

It's not just his current students who are close to Cassel either.

"I deal with I don't know how many e-mails a day from students that are out of school," he says. "Some are just cordial... some are dealing with career decisions and some are saying 'I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D., what do you think about this?'"

Kathy Wu, a 2001 Engineering graduate, is one of these former students who stays in contact with Cassel.

"It was always a friendship and a mentor relationship," she explains.

"He was probably the most influential teacher I knew at Penn," she adds.

Cassel, who learned of his "Perfect Professor" status when his three sons brought it to his attention, is appreciative of his students' adoration.

"The program is pretty popular, and it's helped to energize me as well," he explains. "I love teaching here."

About this series

Each year, the Penn Course Review ranks Pennís top professors. And throughout this week, The Daily Pennsylvanian has decided to take a look behind the scenes at a handful of professors from all four undergraduate schools to determine what makes these noted men and women so perfect.

When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:

This Month's Issue: August 2004 This Month's Issue: August 2004
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Read the stories and leave your comments.

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Story Source: Daily Pennsylvanian

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - South Africa; Engineering; University Teaching



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