College of Engineering Technology’s George Zion paves a steady pathway to engineering for undergraduate students

Gabrielle Plucknette-DeVito

George Zion interacts with Joe Crandall during the first-year course, Computational Problem Solving. Zion, a professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering Technology in RIT’s College of Engineering Technology, is a 2019 Eisenhart awardee for outstanding teaching. He is also director of Project Lead The Way, the national pre-engineering program for high school students.

George Zion saw the gulf teenagers had to leap from high school to college and thought he could help them manage that hurdle. Although he sees this generation of young people as more technologically prepared, he learned early on that young people starting college need both a knowledgeable teacher and reliable mentor.

This approach would carry Zion through his years as a young faculty member, who began teaching at RIT in 1984, into his more seasoned years in RIT’s College of Engineering Technology. He is being honored with a 2019 Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching for his ability to build bridges for students making the significant transition from high school to college to careers.

“I’ve been teaching principally freshman for the last 10 years. I prefer to teach freshmen,” said Zion, a professor in the Department of Computer, Electrical and Telecommunications Engineering Technology and RIT’s director of Project Lead The Way, a national pre-engineering program. “It made me realize, what we see are freshmen only six months past being high school students, and we expect a huge paradigm shift from high school to the college environment.”

He saw the need for a better transition for these new students and started focusing teaching on the first-year courses. At nearly the same time, Zion’s son, Sean, was graduating from high school and would begin his college career. Zion began seeing teaching through his son’s eyes, and that would influence his own development as a teacher. 

“I went through this mantra of ‘I want to be the professor I want my son to always have.’ Students bring different strengths and weaknesses and vast life experiences to the classroom. You can’t treat them equally, but it’s essential to treat them equitably.”

To Zion, the difference is in information, experiences and opportunities.

“There is a much wider world out there for them and many more opportunities. With academic programs that simply did not exist 20 to 30 years ago, we expect someone who is 17, 18 years old coming in to college as freshmen to say ‘I want this major.’ Once exposed to all these new ideas, their eyes widen,” he said, adding that he becomes not only a teacher but an adviser, even if it means guiding that student to a program that suits them better.

Zion teaches the foundational courses in computational problem-solving to help students analyze and solve complex engineering problems. With research interests in engineering education and curriculum development, Zion balances both RIT classes with his Project Lead The Way responsibilities. The pre-engineering program provides coursework for high school students and serves as a training initiative for high school teachers to help them develop their own classes with the most up-to-date STEM information. Zion began working with the organization in 1997. During his 2007 sabbatical from RIT, he re-wrote and updated PLTW’s digital electronics sequence, which is used across the country. In 2017, he received his Ph.D. from the Curriculum, Instruction and the Science of Learning program, based at the University of Buffalo. Zion’s dissertation was “PLTW’s Long-Term Effects on Engineering Academic Success.”

Even for all his accomplishments as an engineer, faculty-researcher and a member of the RIT Academic Senate, one of Zion’s proudest moments came recently when the Eisenhart awardees were announced. Sitting among the group, one of the senators from the College of Health Sciences and Technology (CHST) shared with him an email that said, ‘Sean’s dad won the Eisenhart!’

“I’m not George Zion, just Sean’s dad,” he said proudly about his son, a graduate of CHST’s biomedical science program and currently a doctoral student at Stanford. “That’s my place here! I’m just Sean’s dad, now! Perfect, and it’s a proud place for me to be. If I’m remembered as Sean’s dad, that’s great!”

Zion will be honored during the Celebration of Teaching and Scholarship at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16, in Ingle Auditorium.

Faculty Friday

Each Friday, we’re highlighting an RIT faculty member on Instagram Stories with our Faculty Friday series. For the next three weeks, we’re highlighting the three Eisenhart Award Winners. See George Zion's Instagram Story.

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