New Leonhard Center director, assistant dean in engineering named


By Ashley J. WennersHerron


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sarah Zappe first stepped foot into the Penn State Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education as a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology. Now, 17 years later, she has been named the center’s next director, as well as assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Engineering. 

“Dr. Zappe, an educational psychologist by training, has significant experience in engineering education and deeply understands both the challenges and advantages of pursuing and applying technical and professional skills to make an impact,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “A well-respected national expert in developing and accessing innovative approaches to instruction in engineering, Dr. Zappe will bring unique value to the college and the University in her new roles as an assistant dean and as the director of the Leonhard Center.” 

The Leonhard Center provides the resources and support for consistent assessment, improvement of engineering education and implementation of innovative teaching at Penn State. The center also helps accelerate the development and dissemination of novel approaches to address challenges faced by undergraduates, graduates, staff and faculty in engineering. It was endowed in 1990 by William and Wyllis Leonhard. William earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Penn State in 1936. 

“The Leonhard Center has been a part of my life for a while,” said Zappe, who is a research professor and has served as the director of assessment and instructional support for the center since 2007. “During my graduate assistantship, I became very interested in how the technical field of engineering dovetails with constructs such as creativity and empathy, especially in engineering entrepreneurship — which is an example of the type of work the Leonhard Center fosters and facilitates. Seeing how the center has grown and changed over the years has been amazing.”

The center uses its endowment to fund workshops and consultations for faculty, provide support for faculty to implement new approaches to teaching and provide funding to faculty and departments for education innovations and curricular revisions. In total, the center funnels about half a million dollars back into the college each year, according to Zappe. 

“There are no other engineering education centers like us in the country, with such a generous endowment,” Zappe said. “These resources make us unique. When people think of engineering faculty development, they think of the Leonhard Center.” 

Zappe said she plans to help expand this culture of assessment, innovation and improvement in her other new role as assistant dean of teaching and learning. In this role, she will work with the college’s other deans, including Tonya Peeples, associate dean for equity and inclusion, to advance equity and inclusion efforts as part of the college’s strategic plan. Such work includes developing and implementing equity as a central theme in engineering education and creating more inclusive classroom environments, according to Zappe.  

“The college is very connected to the engineering education research community through attending the American Society for Engineering Education annual conference as well as other conferences,” Zappe said. “We are researching and staying apprised of major international and nation trends to see where we can lead as an example or to incorporate what has been modeled elsewhere to continue evolving engineering education.” 

In addition to internal stakeholder feedback, Zappe said that the center and college are considering hiring an external evaluator to assess how they are meeting the needs of faculty and instructors and to identify areas for improvement. 

“We’re proud of our workplace climate in the Leonhard Center, and we’re working to share how we pursue such a welcoming culture with other units,” Zappe said. “Part of that is cultivating open communication and transparency in our work in the center, the college, the University and beyond.” 

Zappe credits her predecessor and current director, Thomas Litzinger, with establishing the center’s approach to their work. Litzinger is also the assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation in the college. 

“I am delighted to leave the Leonhard Center in Sarah’s more than capable hands,” Litzinger said. “She is a thoughtful, creative leader who will take the center in new, exciting directions.”

Litzinger, who has held the directorship since 1997, will retire in May. 

“Tom has been my mentor and my friend for years, so the transition is bittersweet,” Zappe said. “I have so much respect for Tom and his passion for this work, which he has imparted to me. Under his leadership, the center and its scope of work have evolved in necessary and exciting ways. I’m thrilled to continue leading that growth.” 

Zappe said she plans to work with her team to reflect on the progress of the center and the college so far and begin assessing where to grow next. 

“The team is key: Every aspect of what we do is a team effort,” Zappe said. “Collaboration is critical when innovating new approaches to engineering education challenges. Our mission is only achievable through teamwork, and we have an awesome team.” 


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