On May 2, 2022, faculty gathered for the annual spring celebration of Dean’s Awards for Excellence at the Inn at Virginia Tech. The College of Engineering is celebrated across the commonwealth and the country for the high quality of its programs in engineering education, research, and public service.

The Dean's Awards for Excellence recognize the contributions of faculty in these areas, and emphasizes how their work benefits undergraduate and graduate students.

This year, two Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering faculty were honored by Dean Julia Ross.

Assistant Professor Wencai Zhang received the Excellence for Outstanding New Assistant Professor Award. Zhang is fast developing a world-class reputation in work related to the recovery of rare earth and critical minerals – minerals necessary for wind turbines, batteries, global low carbon transition, and other new technologies. He is examining the extraction of these minerals from mineral waste streams, food waste streams, and tire waste streams. 

Recovery of these minerals in the United States is challenging, which makes Zhang’s use of waste streams for this purpose especially compelling.

Zhang’s research funding total at Virginia Tech is $3.25 million, with a personal share of $1.72 million in under three years. He has published 46 journal articles — 20 of them while at Virginia Tech. He is also actively translating research into practice. He holds two patents in China and has four pending in the U.S.

Wencai is also active in the classroom and as a mentor. He teaches two undergraduate courses and is developing a graduate course in hydrometallurgy, which is key to sustaining a world-class mineral processing program. He led the department’s undergraduate design team last year, helping them finish third in an international competition.

Aaron Noble receives award
Aaron Noble (center) received a Dean's Award for teaching excellence. He was congratulated by Dean Julia Ross (left) and Department Head Kray Luxbacher (right). Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech

Associate Professor Aaron Noble received the Certificate of Teaching Excellence for his work with students.

Noble enhances his courses with guest speakers, including industry and government experts in related, but non-technical fields, such as business and natural resources. The classesthen follow up with activities and assignments that take these conversations further. He emphasizes the importance of effective communication, even in technical classes, withassignments covering a broad range of communication media and how to target specific audiences.

Over the past three years, Noble has developed a new Leadership for Responsible Mining course for sophomores. It exposes students to leadership principles through the context of sustainable development in the minerals industry. The lessons help students understand the ethical implications and societal impacts of their technical decisions.

Noble strives to know each of his students as individuals to better meet their needs.

In addition to awards, mining was recognized for its collaboration with Ben Chambers, associate professor of practice in the Department of Engineering Education, who received a Dean’s Award.

Department Head Kray Luxbacher and Academic Advisor Michelle Crotto were part of a project, wherein Chambers developed a video game to help students explore different engineering majors. Together, the partners were awarded a CETL High-Impact Grant for the Minecraft Museum of Engineering and Mining Wing

Eleven undergraduates helped build the museum last spring, and three students are continuing to develop it this semester. It features more than 100 exhibits showcasing all majors and minors in Virginia Tech Engineering.