James Madison University

LOGO: JMU School of EngineeringAbout this series: This is the seventh 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.

Problem Solving Approach Lured Pierrakos to Engineering Career

Math and science interested Dr. Olga Pierrakos early in her education, but thoughts of becoming an engineer didn't enter the picture until she started college in pursuit of a biology degree, the first step on the way to medical school.

Those plans changed when she tired of the biology coursework. Pierrakos, an assistant professor of engineering, said she didn't care for all the memorization and wanted to do something more applied. Since one engineering department had a track in biomedical engineering, she decided to go in that direction, figuring medical school would still be possible.

PHOTO: Olga PierrakosFrom the start of her engineering course work, Pierrakos said she "fell in love" with the way engineers think and solve problems. Engineering research also appealed and so she stuck with it.

"I knew that I liked research and I knew I liked teaching so it kind of made sense to pursue a Ph.D. so I could become a professor, so I could do both of those things," she said.

She continued doing post-doctoral teaching and research at Virginia Tech, where she earned her degrees, until January 2008, when she came to JMU to help start the Department of Engineering as a founding faculty member.

"To me, that was exciting," said Pierrakos, who moved from her native Sparta, Greece to Richmond when she was 10. "I knew it would be a lot of work, but this idea that we could shape what engineering education would be like was very exciting and motivating."

Among her research interests is engineering education design. Much of the curricula, she said, are 50 to 60 years old, and coming to JMU provided an opportunity to retain the strengths of the existing curricula and to change what needed to be changed. Strengths of the JMU program include balancing theory and practice. Having a design course almost every semester so students experience the practice of engineering through real-world and authentic problem-based learning pedagogies, as well as having a project management component in many courses, makes the program stand out, she said.

PHOTO: Olga PierrakosPierrakos said she enjoys the challenge of teaching undergraduates, who enter the program from diverse backgrounds and, in many cases, don't have a grasp of what engineering is and what engineers do. Drawing from her own experience, Pierrakos tells them they can do pretty much anything, from medicine, to politics, to science to education. "They can find a career path in engineering that fits who they are."

The other aspect she enjoys about teaching at JMU is the opportunity to continue her research and to translate the research into the classroom. "That's one of the great things about JMU, it's flexible, nobody puts boundaries around what you do, this is true cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration. And that's what we tell our students, don't put boundaries where they don’t need to exist, you can do anything with engineering."

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