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David Blank receives Taylor Award for Distinguished Service

Professor David Blank has been awarded the 2016 George W. Taylor Award for Distinguished Service by the College of Science and Engineering (CSE). The award recognizes outstanding service to the University.

Among Blank’s more significant contributions was the creation and development of an impactful outreach initiative—Energy and U. Working with Professors Marc Hillmyer and Frank Bates, and demonstrations expert Joe Franek, the Energy and U show was created in 2006. It started as a single performance for about 200 students and parents. The original idea was to introduce K-12 students to science and engineering through a series of scientific demonstrations focused on the transformation of energy.

Under Blank’s leadership as Energy and U’s program director, content developer and performer, the show has grown into a full-scale production serving thousands of elementary school children every year. In 2014, he initiated a collaborative partnership with the Department of Theater Arts and Dance that has brought a professional quality to the show. It is now performed in the Rarig Center for 16 days every year to an audience of more than 13,000 3rd-6th grade students. The show has been performed for more than 50,000 students to date, and its positive reputation has spread rapidly with tens of thousands of students on the waitlist.

Through the generous contributions of its supporters, about $65,000 last year, from a combination of funds from the CSE, National Science Foundation, Medtronic, Schlumberger and John Deere, the Energy & U show provides transportation for the students and successfully serves underprivileged schools communities that would otherwise be unable to participate. In 2015, 65 percent of the students were from underrepresented groups in the sciences and 65 percent of the students qualified for reduced cost or free lunch, an economic indicator that is strongly and inversely correlated with the likelihood of future college attendance.

Although the entertaining and interactive show includes music, dancing and explosions, introducing the students to how fun science and engineering remains a centerpiece. Working with graduate students and using clickers to poll the students during the show, Professor Blank demonstrated that the first law of thermodynamics could be taught to thousands of 3rd-6th grade students with high fidelity and year-over-year retention. However, over time it has become clear that the greatest impact of this massive outreach effort is to present college as a future goal to a group of students that have never considered it an option.

This sentiment is echoed in the thousands of thank you letters from both students and teachers, including:

“Thank you so much for the awesome opportunity to attend the Energy and U event today. My kids loved it. I teach at a very high needs school on the west side of Saint Paul, and many of my students do not know people other than their teachers who have been to college. On the way there, one of my 3rd grade students asked, ‘Why are we going to a university? This isn't for us - I'm not going to go to college.’ On the way out, she said, ‘I want to be a chemist when I grow up!’ Showing the kids that science has fun, real world applications is the first step in inspiring them. I am so happy that your team planted the seed that she should strive to work hard and do something great in her life.”

As Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), Blank has enhanced the chemistry undergraduate teaching program. He provides exceptional service to undergraduate chemistry majors, CSE students, honors students as the honors adviser, and thousands of students from across the campus that take courses in the Chemistry Department. During his time as the DUGS, the number of chemistry majors has doubled and the program is now one of the largest chemistry degree granting programs in the country. He has improved the student experience through curricular additions, increased access to advanced courses, and more comprehensive advising.

Over the last four years, Blank successfully led one of the department’s largest curricular development projects, redesigning the first two years of chemistry for students with interests in the life sciences. With thousands of students enrolled annually, the introductory and sophomore level chemistry courses are among the largest service sequences at the University. Blank led a group of faculty in the Department of Chemistry and College of Biological Sciences to design an all-new chemistry sequence of lectures and laboratories optimized for students in the life sciences. It will launch in fall 2016.

Blank earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also was a post-doctoral research fellow. He joined the Department of Chemistry in 2000, and was promoted to full professor in 2014. He has received some of the University’s most prestigious awards for teaching, including the Horace T. Morse Award for Undergraduate Education, and the Charles E. Bowers Faculty Teaching Award.