Susan Masten wins President’s Distinguished Teaching Award

March 29, 2023

Engineering professor wins top MSU teaching honor

Michigan State University’s Susan Masten is the kind of professor students dream of having. The associate chair for undergraduate studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Masten is highly communicative, readily available and takes a personal approach to working with her students, caring as much about their mental health and overall well-being as she does their academic journeys.

MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff surprised CEE Professor Susan Masten with MSU's top teaching award.
Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., and Susan Masten

For her dedication to teaching and her passion for engaging students to foster excitement about learning, Masten was honored on March 27 with the 2023 President’s Distinguished Teaching Award. This annual award recognizes an outstanding MSU faculty member who extends their knowledge beyond the walls of the traditional classroom, sharing what they know and motivating others to do the same. Recipients of this award nurture and inspire students, challenge them in unique ways and empower them to enact change in their own lives and the lives of others.

MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., was joined by a group of university leaders and colleagues in a surprise classroom visit to present the award and congratulate Masten. Among those joining her were Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies Mark Largent, 2022 award recipient and history professor John Waller and award creator and retired economics professor Carl Liedholm. Each offered a word of gratitude and a hug or a handshake to Masten, who beamed as her classroom was filled with the applause of her students.

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“It is such a privilege to honor Dr. Masten and the excellence in teaching she reflects,” Woodruff said. “Our faculty are vital to ensuring the success of our students, which is Michigan State’s highest academic priority. We are inspired by the dedication and innovation Dr. Masten brings to the classroom and beyond.”

An MSU faculty member since 1989, Masten’s career is grounded in discovery. She views teaching as an opportunity to encourage, excite and mentor students to become better learners, instilling in them a sense of curiosity within their work and daily lives. Masten believes that exploration is key, engaging with her students through collaborative knowledge sharing, supportive alternate learning styles and the integration of classroom innovations.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes had gone fully remote and educators and students were reeling from the adjustment, Masten devised an inventive suite of “kitchen chemistry” labs that environmental engineering students could perform at home. The labs were shared with engineering colleagues and came with detailed instructions for the students, notes for teaching assistants and a list of supplies to organize into kits. Many students used leftover kit materials to create their own experiments after the classwork was complete, embracing experimentation.

A noted expert in water treatment, Masten serves on the Michigan Corrosion Control Advisory Panel as well as the state Advisory Board of Examiners for Drinking Water. She also served as an independent monitor for lead sampling during the Flint water crisis. These experiences inform her teaching and present opportunities to bring real-world problems back to the classroom, requiring students to work within the realistic constraints of incomplete information, economics and public perception. Through these examples, she impresses upon her students the importance of understanding the complexities of engineered water systems.

Masten has made exceptional contributions to advancing the nation’s environmental engineering community, College of Engineering Dean Leo Kempel said. “Her far-reaching influence on graduate students has prepared faculty members who are now using their knowledge around the world, and she has guided MSU undergraduates to serve others through the Environmental Engineering Student SocietyEngineers Without Borders and as a mentor,” he said. “We are proud of and grateful for her many accomplishments in creating a safer and more sustainable world while fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment. She is very deserving of this honor.”

Masten is an advocate for student success and gives freely of her knowledge and time to ensure that students are supported through their academic journeys, even working to help them make connections with established professionals in their chosen career path. She has an eye on their potential and their future while supporting them through their present.

Environmental engineering senior Taylor Higgins credits Masten for her dedication to high-quality education and great connection with her students. “She engages us with relevant, real-world engineering problems that require student collaboration and teamwork, helping us build and practice skills necessary to be successful as an engineer,” Higgins said.

Masten’s exceptional work has been recognized by other recent awards, including the 2023 MSU Community Engagement Lifetime Achievement Award and the College of Engineering Excellence in Diversity Award for sustained excellence, both of which were conferred earlier this month. Her impressive portfolio of publications, presentations, patents, grants, courses taught and honors received represents her extensive contributions to engineering and public health. The impact of her dedication to teaching can be felt not only by her students but also in the broader campus community and beyond.

Story by Liz Fuller, courtesy of MSUToday.

Susan Masten is surrounded by MSU and College visitors, and students of her environmental engineering class.
Susan Masten is surrounded by MSU and College officials, and students of her environmental engineering class.