Meet Basil Baltzis: a Master Teacher

Basil Baltzis, a professor of chemical engineering, has won a host of teaching awards during his 27-year long career at NJIT.

Professor Basil Baltzis has taught at NJIT for more than twenty-five years, and during that time he has distinguished himself as a scholar, a researcher and a teacher.

He has a gift for explaining difficult concepts to students and his passion for chemical engineering is infectious. He is a patient, kind and considerate teacher, and year after year his students praise him in their teacher evaluations.

Baltzis joined NJIT in 1983. He received a bachelor’s degree from the National Technical University of Athens, a master’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. All his degrees are in chemical engineering. He teaches in the Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Engineering.   

He’s also an active researcher who in recent years has focused his studies on improving the environment.  In one of his research projects, he used a technique called bio-filtration to treat volatile compound emissions.  His project was so successful that in 1999 NJIT honored him the Harlan J. Perlis research award.

Over the course of his career, Baltzis has won five teaching awards. He was among the first to receive the NJIT Excellence in Teaching award and the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) Excellence in Teaching Award. In 1998, the NJIT Alumni Association gave him a Teaching Excellence Award, and in 2000 he received the NJIT Master Teacher Award. This spring, NCE gave him the 2010 Excellence in Teaching Award.

In this interview, Baltzis talks about teaching chemical engineering – how it’s changed over the years, the careers it leads to, and why he still loves the field he first discovered as an undergraduate student.  

Can you describe your teaching style?
I don’t lecture much. Rather, I divide students into teams and give them problems to solve. This way they learn from each other, as well as from me.  While they work in teams on their problems, I go around the room and coach them. That keeps them engaged.

After you received your recent teaching award, you thanked your students. Why thank them?
To be a good teacher, you must love learning.  If you stop learning, you can’t be a good teacher. I learn from my students, from how they approach problems.  So that’s why I thanked them.

What is it about your teaching that students seem to like?
I like to teach young people, and I hope that shows. I also always assure that my classes are open, friendly and tolerant. My students know they can ask me any question, no matter how seemingly silly it seems.

How do you teach chemical engineering? Do you first teach the theory and then the practice of it?
In the courses I am involved with, I teach my students the basic principles and theory. But our students take a number of lab courses, where they see how the engineering actually works. We have mixers, exchangers, pumps and computers that control the processes and help students learn to measure and calculate different things.  Students also have the chance to work on hands-on research projects with their professors.

You’ve taught here for 27 years: What about chemical engineering has changed over that time but what principles have remained the same?
All the engineering principles are the same. But what is fascinating is that these principles are now applied to totally new fields such as bio-engineering, nano- technology, pollution prevention and pharmaceutical engineering.  Computers and automation have also obviously changed the processes and applications of chemical engineering and made the field even more interesting and powerful.

Is chemical engineering a good major for students who want good careers?
Chemical engineering is one of the very best careers for students.  There’s a big demand for chemical engineers in a number of huge industries such as pharmaceutical, petroleum, food, as well as chemical production.   They are also well paid.

What kind of jobs do your chemical engineering students commonly get?
Some work as chemical engineers in the above industries, and many of them climb the corporate ladder and become top business managers. Others go to medical school and become doctors, whereas others go to law school.  Some of those become patent lawyers, who protect the rights of a company’s products or processes. As engineers, they understand a corporation’s products and processes so are best able to protect them.  Others work on Wall Street and use their engineering and modeling skills to analyze potential future investments. Overall, chemical engineering is a rigorous but versatile major that leads to a variety of well-paying careers. 

What kind of high school students should consider majoring in chemical engineering at NJIT?
A high school student who has an inclination for math and chemistry should consider chemical engineering. High school students who like to solve problems and tinker with products or processors would also make good chemical engineering majors.  Today, chemist and chemical engineers work closely together to create products, but generally speaking, a chemist synthesizes a new product on a small scale. And a chemical engineer takes that product and mass produces it.  So if that interests you, by all means you should major in chemical engineering. 

What were you interested in when you were in high school?
I liked math and chemistry. I had no idea then what chemical engineering was. A high school counselor told me I should consider studying chemical engineering since it combined math and chemistry.  He was right. I enjoyed chemical engineering so much in college that I stayed and got a Ph.D.   

And what do you still enjoy about it?
I am still amazed by the inventiveness of chemical engineers.  Think, for example, of post-its. They stick on one side but when you remove them they aren’t messy. The invention of this seemingly simple product is an example of novel chemical engineering. And think about how crude oil -- a thick mucky substance -- is refined into gasoline. That’s a classical example of chemical engineering at work. And now we are refining alternative fuels from plants. That too is chemical engineering at work, helping to preserve the environment. That’s very exciting.   

Do have advice for high school students you still haven’t decided what to study in college? 
My advice to young students is to pick a major that you really have, or seem to have, a passion for. Do not try to plan that far ahead, because all fields change quickly. Work hard; persevere when confronted with challenges, keep an open mind and you will almost certainly succeed.  

(Robert Florida, University Web Services)