Kawai Tam, a professor of teaching of chemical and environmental engineering (CEE) at the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE) was named the recipient of both the University of California, Riverside (UCR) 2017-2018 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement and the BCOE Distinguished Teaching Award.
UCR’s Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement is given annually to two faculty members who have demonstrated a record of fostering undergraduate research or creative activity. Tam’s continued contribution to undergraduate research earned her the prestigious achievement.
In June, Tam also was recognized by her peers by earning the BCOE Distinguished Teaching Award, for which the committee praised Tam for her exceptional teaching and dedication to her students. Since 2005, she has mentored more than 220 undergraduate students and overseen numerous research projects, resulting in first place awards in 10 competitions since 2011, and six since 2015. Her teams have won 12 EPA grants since 2011 for student design competitions in addition to grants from Southern California World Water Forum, UCR, and the American Public Power Association (APPA).
“She (Tam) is so knowledgeable and everything she says has weight and experience behind it. I truly adore being her student and always look forward to it, but (sic) does she expect a lot. She is a tough professor, expecting commitment and nothing short of one’s best…. But the overall experience helps to get past that sticking point,” said an undergraduate student of Tam’s.
Through Tam’s mentorship, she provides excellent preparation for the transition of undergraduate students to future engineering careers. Her unique teaching approach devises a large number of student teams who develop research plans that result in highly successful and sustainable projects. Among them, Husk-to-Home, a design project lead by undergraduate students, won two awards at an international design competition for a material composed of rice husks. Seeking to address debilitating termite damage to villages in the Philippines, the team turned dry milk and rice husks into homes, creating a less costly, more environmentally friendly, and termite resistant alternative to particleboard. Further innovations in this project have resulted in awards in entrepreneurial competitions to help bring the technology to market.
Tam’s eye for innovation can also be seen in her undergraduate team NOx-out, a widely recognized research team who won the Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development in 2015, beating two finalist research groups from Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley. Students developed a device that attaches to a lawnmower and significantly cuts its harmful emission. Each research project is tailored to fit within the curriculum requirements of each student’s home department and may also be applied toward the design requirements of CEE’s senior design course. Tam earned a Ph.D. in biosystems engineering from McGill University and has been teaching at UCR since 1997.