James Madison University

LOGO: JMU School of EngineeringAbout this series: This is the sixth installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.


Model Railroad Put Nagel on Track to Become an Engineer

Considering his attraction to model railroading as a child, it's no surprise Robert Nagel ended up becoming an engineer­—albeit not the kind that operates trains.

Nagel, an assistant professor of engineering at JMU, wasn't just interested in piecing track together and watching trains run in circles.

"I built a large number of the buildings. I made all of my landscaping. It really was more than just the trains," said Nagel, who is in his second year teaching in the Department of Engineering. "I did all the wiring, all of the electrical. I had all of them connected to different grids so you could flip things on and off. I had wires running up above ground on telephone poles and some of it was underground. It was pretty intricate."

PHOTO: NagelNagel was also fond of woodwork and became interested in building and painting miniature chests.

"I got to a point where I was asking for tools for Christmas. My Christmas gifts were woodworking tools and I got into folk art and stuff like that and painting everything too," he said.

These days, Nagel keeps busy renovating a house for him and his wife, Jacquelyn, who is also an assistant professor of engineering at JMU.  "I guess it’s sort of the same, just bigger," he quipped.

Always strong in science and math, Nagel earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Trine University in Indiana and then went to the University of Missouri for his graduate work. While in college, a pair of engineering internships helped influence his decision to teach rather than go into the industry.

"I’d go in everyday, and you’d see those people sitting in their cubes and they didn’t seem happy, they didn’t seem motivated, they didn’t seem like they were there because they wanted to be there," he said. He also had picked up a bit of teaching experience as a graduate assistant, although he said he did a "terrible job" teaching students nearly his age.

"I got good reviews, but the reviews were like: 'can speak English fluently,'" he joked, noting that many of the other teaching assistants were non-native speakers.

A second teaching opportunity solidified his interest in teaching. This time, he was the teacher of record and could plan his own lectures and do the grading.

PHOTO: JMU students"I found that tremendously rewarding, to think about what you want the students to learn, how you want them to learn it," he said. "And again I did terrible the first couple times. But I taught it six or seven times and by the end I was really comfortable, I really enjoyed getting in and watching their faces, seeing what was going on, seeing them learn."

His experience at JMU has continued to be rewarding. Under his guidance last year, students designed and built a bicycle for an area high school student with cerebral palsy. The student, who has difficulty controlling his leg muscles and walks with a cane, was able to complete a 5k event on the bike this fall.

"Being able to have those kinds of projects in a class, makes the class, really makes the class," Nagel said.

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