Outstanding Teaching in Environmental Engineering and Science

Erin Surdo may not [yet] be known to many of you—she only joined the faculty in 2013—but each of you probably remember at least one significant teacher, maybe even before you got to the University, that made a lasting impression. Teachers can make a significant impact on students, and Erin Surdo is such a teacher. 

“And when I can see the human being first, 
I am able to develop an honest student-instructor relationship
that helps support learning.”  
– Erin Surdo

Erin Surdo, Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, received the 2023 AEESP Award for Outstanding Teaching in Environmental Engineering and Science, presented annually to one recipient across the country. The award recognizes professors who have demonstrated a significant commitment to teaching. Surdo’s colleagues nominated her, noting her outstanding contributions to curriculum development, teaching, outreach, and advising within CEGE. Since joining the faculty, she has taught eight different courses.

A few comments from her colleagues and former students highlight what makes Erin Surdo an outstanding teacher. 

“Erin is an outstanding teacher, advisor, and leader. Her presence elevates all that we do in our department. Erin’s total focus on students and student success suggests that her impact will only increase with time.”  — CEGE Department Head Paige Novak

“Great faculty members are more than good teachers and advisors. Dr. Surdo exceeds others with her determination to support and care for the wellbeing of students.”  – former student

“She is very knowledgeable about private, public, and academic opportunities in the field of environmental engineering. Having worked for the companies BP Amoco Chemical Company and the biotech startup BioCee, she can help students identify careers in private and academic fields. Dr. Surdo assists students beyond simply picking classes, she also makes sure students are receiving the support they need for success.”  –former student

Surdo also developed CEGE 3541Environmental Engineering Laboratory, which serves as the cornerstone of the environmental engineering major. Surdo created the laboratory exercises and manual for the course, creating an excellent, hands-on learning experience that has proven very popular with students.

“Dr. Surdo inspirationally presented the material and motivated students to reevaluate their perception of resources. Truly, the most inspiring class I took in college.”  – former student

Surdo also developed the course CEGE 4563Pollutant Fate and Transport: Processes and Modeling, co-teaching it with a mathematician, Vaughan Voller. The course strives to combine computational methodologies with an understanding of environmental processes. The course is a great success in large part because of Erin’s skill in making environmental chemistry dovetail with computations seamlessly.

“Prof. Surdo’s course materials (slides, exercises, etc.) are outstanding. Prof. Surdo is beyond outstanding in her preparation of class examples and projects. She makes full use of her environmental and chemical engineering skills to develop materials that are truly “real world” and give students experience solving problems that have meaningful and relevant solutions within the environmental engineering arena. Erin’s engineering background pays dividends because she is able to tie her answer into wider aspects of the field of practice. Erin is an outstanding and passionate teacher, >excelling in all elements of the role. She fearlessly takes on new challenges to maintain the relevance of environmental engineering and science education through coupling fundamental knowledge with emerging data science tools. Her teaching activities provide significant enrichment to our department and our environmental engineering graduates.” — Colleague and co-teacher Vaughan Voller

Surdo also serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Environmental Engineering, the chair of the CEGE Undergraduate Studies Committee, and faculty adviser for the Minnesota Environmental Engineers, Scientists, and Enthusiasts (MEESE) student organization. Surdo has served as an adviser to hundreds of students. 

In her own words… Erin Surdo – Teaching Philosophy Statement

“As a graduate student in the late 2000s, I developed a teaching philosophy focused on problem- based learning. Problem-based learning is a student-centered approach that works particularly well in engineering, training future engineers to work in groups to solve multi-dimensional, open-ended problems. I also stressed the importance of establishing a casual, welcoming classroom environment where all students felt confident to engage and participate. Years later, I still abide by this philosophy by using hands-on activities and project-based assessments in my teaching and by fostering a nurturing classroom environment.

“Hands-on activities are a surefire way to engage students in problem solving….The hands-on nature of a laboratory class means mistakes will be made. This is where problem solving truly begins. Students learn how [to] identify errors and make decisions about how to handle the data they collect, learning important skills they will need in their engineering careers along the way.

“Students in my classes know they are free to ask questions and answer each other’s questions. I often find myself saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it and we’ll talk about this again next week.” My students often come back the next week having “looked into it” as well. It levels the playing field and humanizes both the instructor and students. And when I can see the human being first, I am able to develop an honest student-instructor relationship that helps support learning.”