Mark Pierson, a former U.S. Navy officer who now spearheads the nuclear engineering program in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, has earned the highest college-wide accolade given to a professor by the engineering students, the Sporn Award for Teaching Excellence in Engineering.

“His background as a Navy officer specializing in shipboard nuclear reactors helps students connect to the material presented in the classroom. He has the ability to offer many concrete examples as to why theory is relevant in the real world,” wrote one of his nominators, Jessica Piness of Charleston, S.C., a materials science and engineering major.

“He does a spectacular job of making sure that the students understand the key concepts in his classes and that they don't get lost in the complicated mathematics and derivations,” added Chris Kryworuk of Virginia Beach, who has taken six of Pierson’s classes.

“Most importantly, Dr. Pierson truly cares about how students do after graduation and uses all the connections and resources he has to get students a foot in the door with companies in the nuclear industry,” Kryworuk said.

Each year, The Student Engineers’ Council of Virginia Tech calls for nominations for the Sporn Award for Teaching Excellence in Engineering from the students. The council then holds a meeting when students present the top candidates to the entire group. Students speak on the behalf of each finalist. The election follows discussion.

The award will be presented at the student leadership luncheon on April 20.

“There were several great nominees this year, each exemplifying a superb dedication to undergraduate education. Dr. Pierson goes above and beyond, and the [Student Engineers' Council] is pleased to help commend his excellence,” said Caitlin Proctor of Stafford, Va., the council’s awards and scholarship chair, a civil engineering major.

“Dr. Pierson is very deserving of this award and works long hours to make sure he has ample time for all of his students as well as reviving the nuclear engineering program at Virginia Tech. He tries to be as accessible as possible to all of his students by having a copious amount of offices hours, being available by appointment and responding to e-mails usually within 24 hours which will sometimes be as late as 12 a.m. on weekdays,” Kryworuk said.

“I want to personally thank all of the students for their support for nominating me for the [Sporn Award for Teaching Excellence in Engineering]. It is a great pleasure to be a recipient of this award and means a lot to me because I have to be nominated by the students and voted for by the students. The only drawback to winning such an award is that now I have to live up to it and try to improve my teaching and mentoring even more. I am glad that I am able to make some difference in my students’ lives. That is my ultimate goal,” Pierson responded when learning of the award.

Pierson started his career as a division officer on a ballistic missile submarine. After five years, he was named chief engineer and head of the engineering department of a second ballistic missile submarine.

In 1989, Pierson joined the staff of the director of naval reactors, a joint Department of Defense/Department of Energy organization founded by Admiral Hyman Rickover. In 1992 he was named executive officer, second-in-command, to a fast attack submarine.

From 1994 until 1997 Pierson served as the submarine maintenance program officer for the director of submarine warfare on the chief of naval operations staff at the Pentagon. In 1998, he was named deputy department head of the engineering, materials, and physical sciences department, and program officer for nuclear ballistic missile submarine security, for the Office of Naval Research. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2001.

He started working on his graduate degrees at Virginia Tech, earning a master’s in 2000 and his Ph.D. in 2005, both in mathematics. He was hired at Virginia Tech, and moved to the mechanical engineering faculty in 2007. Pierson is the current adviser of the Virginia Tech student section of the American Nuclear Society.

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