Assistant dean, director in engineering retires after 37 years at Penn State


By Tessa M. Pick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After 37 years of employment at Penn State and numerous professional achievements and contributions to the University, Tom Litzinger, assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation and director of the Leonhard Center in the College of Engineering, will retire in May 2022.

“Tom has made a lasting impact on the College of Engineering,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “His drive and passion for improving the educational experiences of our students and the instructional skills of our faculty and staff is something the college will continue to benefit greatly from for many years to come.”

Litzinger started his Penn State journey in 1973 when he arrived at the Penn State Altoona campus to begin his collegiate career. He transitioned to University Park after two years and earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1977. He was the student marshal of his class.

“After taking a nuclear science course in high school, I knew I was interested in nuclear engineering,” Litzinger said. “I was able to live at home and work while attending Penn State Altoona, so the affordability of Penn State really attracted me.”

Litzinger joined General Electric after graduating from Penn State. While working for General Electric, he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1981. After completing his master’s, he began graduate studies at Princeton where he earned a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering. He joined Penn State as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in 1985.

Litzinger became an associate professor in 1990 and a professor in 1995. Two years later, he was named director of the Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education, a role he’s held for 24 years.

“The overarching goal of the center is to enhance engineering education at Penn State,” Litzinger said, explaining that the center was founded with an endowment from William and Wyllis Leonhard. William Leonhard graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Penn State in 1936, and he and his wife made several significant gifts to support engineering education and students at Penn State. “With the generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Leonhard, we are able to create resources for the engineering community that help advance our mission. The income from the Leonhard Center endowment is used to support innovations that come from faculty and departments and to support initiatives that align with the college’s strategic direction. The projects range from improvements to individual faculty members’ courses and teaching methods to major curriculum changes.”

In 2014, Litzinger was named assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation. During his seven years in this role, he guided the college through numerous successful accreditations and worked to improve the educational experiences of engineering students.

In addition to his administrative roles, Litzinger also conducts research in combustion and engineering education. His research in combustion focuses on alternative fuel effects on gas turbine emissions, reduction of diesel soot by oxygenated fuels, fuel composition effects on deposit formation in spark-ignited engines and combustion stability of advanced rocket propellants. In the area of engineering education, he has conducted research on problem solving, conceptual learning, self-directed learning and the intellectual development of engineering students. 

“I discovered combustion as a field when I went to graduate school at Princeton, and I found it appealing because it combined my interest in thermal fluids with my interest in chemistry,” Litzinger said. “Entering engineering education was a serendipitous journey. Former College of Engineering Associate Dean Carl Wolgemuth offered me the opportunity to join Penn State’s team in the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership, and it really opened my eyes to the world of scholarship around education.”

Litzinger and his wife, Mary Ellen Litzinger — who graduated from Penn State with a doctoral degree in education and served as a librarian, strategic planner and faculty member in her 30-year career at Penn State before retiring in 2011 — have gifted over $250,000 to the University, including an Open Doors Scholarship in the College of Engineering and a Renaissance Fund Scholarship. In 2018, the couple also established the $1.2 million Mary Ellen and Thomas A. Litzinger Endowment at Shaver’s Creek to support the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center at Penn State.

“I want to help students who need financial assistance like I did, and my wife and I want to support initiatives that are important to us personally, like Shaver’s Creek,” Litzinger said. “I would also say the underlying thing for us is gratitude — we are both Penn State graduates, and we both had rewarding careers here. We wanted to give back to the place that made that possible for us.”

Litzinger has been honored with numerous awards throughout his career, including the Premier Teaching Award in 1992, the Outstanding Research Award in 1994, the Penn State Teaching Fellow Award in 2004 and the Distinguished Service Award in 2011, all from the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society. He also received the Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching in 1998 and is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“This is going to sound cliché, but I am going to miss the people at Penn State the most,” Litzinger said. “I have worked with some wonderful people in the college and around the University. It’s the best thing about Penn State, and it’s what makes us who we are.”

Christine Masters, assistant dean for academic support and global programs, is currently chairing a search to fill the role of assistant dean for teaching and learning and director of the Leonhard Center. More information is available here.


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College of Engineering Media Relations

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Tom Litzinger, assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation and director of the Leonhard Center in the College of Engineering, will retire in May 2022. IMAGE: PENN STATE COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING