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Faculty Profile: Patsy Brackin

August 4, 2014

Brackin 400

Kind Mentor: Mechanical Engineering Professor Patsy Brackin, PhD, is director of Rose-Hulman’s Operation Catapult program, which provides pathways for high school students toward careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. (Photo by Dale Long)

“We get to use labs. I get to use the wind tunnel. I don’t have a wind tunnel at home!” exclaimed a visiting high school student this summer during  Rose-Hulman’s Operation Catapult science and engineering career exploration program. That excitement is shared by the program’s director, Patsy Brackin, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering.

“I was blown away when I came here,” says Brackin, who started as a Catapult faculty project advisor before becoming director in 2004. “We let high school students use the facilities. They just couldn’t do this somewhere else.

“They use the wind tunnel, the machine shop, the distillation lab, everything,” she adds.

Brackin loves working with the young minds visiting campus for the three-week summer program. She has only missed one summer since arriving at Rose-Hulman in 1995, and that break came because of a educational sabbatical.

“Operation Catapult is a great program,” she says. “There’s nothing like it in terms of giving students a true engineering experience—and there’s no grading. We get to encourage the students to do their best.”

Brackin says the intense program has students learning and working 7 ½-hours a day, giving them a better picture of what science and engineering is really like.

“Everything they do culminates with their project. It’s a hands-on experience. They work with other people and they learn through observation,” Brackin says. And, she adds, they learn that they are making assumptions without even realizing it. Through trial and error they can find the truth of those assumptions.

Brackin took a different route to her role as one of Rose-Hulman’s most popular professors. She earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and then went to work for Chicago Bridge & Iron Company for six years. She achieved her professional engineering certification. 

An opportunity to teach evenings at Christian Brothers University came unexpectedly, and that’s where she caught the teaching bug. She taught design, which wasn’t part of classes when she was in college. “I loved it,” she says.

From there she asked the college if there were any full-time openings. There were, so she left engineering practice for engineering education. And, soon she returned to school as a student at Georgia Institute of Technology to earn her doctorate in design methodology.

Eventually, Brackin found her way to Rose-Hulman, where she not only teaches and directs Operation Catapult, but also is director of the Home for Environmentally Responsible Engineering (HERE) program, an interdisciplinary freshman-year hands-on approach to learning about sustainability and the importance of social, environmental, and financial concerns in all science and engineering challenges. She has encouraged several students toward sustainable engineering design careers.