Chris Swan Named New Associate Dean of Tisch College

Engineering professor and longtime advocate of service learning will lead efforts on faculty engagement, community outreach and student programming
Chris Swan
“I have always felt inspired by Tisch College and its mission to infuse the university culture with the values of community engagement,” says Chris Swan. Photo: Kelvin Ma
February 1, 2016

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Chris Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is stepping into a new role as associate dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service starting Feb. 1.

An MIT-educated engineer whose expertise is in soil behaviors and reusing waste, Swan is a long-time advocate of service learning, an approach that marries community service and instruction. He has done research on the impact of civic engagement on engineering education and evaluated the benefits and barriers for engineering faculty who employ community engagement in their teaching and research. He succeeds Miriam Nelson, N85, N87, who has been appointed deputy chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

“I have always felt inspired by Tisch College and its mission to infuse the university culture with the values of community engagement. I’ve seen those values at work at the School of Engineering,” says Swan, who has been involved with Tisch since its beginnings and was one of its first faculty fellows.

“Engineers impact society—their designs have civic purpose,” he says. “We better prepare our students when we incorporate civic-based learning into our curricula. I look forward to championing these ideas and exploring new academic possibilities across all our schools.”

Swan came to Tufts in 1994 as an assistant professor, determined to make education “as real as possible” for his students. “I had worked for three years for a national engineering consulting firm before attending graduate school, and I really wanted to bring what I had learned from that experience into how I taught so to motivate my students.”

He first tried the service-learning model in 1999, when he challenged his students to develop plans to restore three pollutant-contaminated lots in Boston. As he suspected, his students discovered that solving problems went beyond their mastery of technical skills. They also needed “professional skills,” such as listening to neighbors to understand their needs and expectations, communicating ideas and working with local governance.

“The real key to that service-learning experience was that it was authentic,” he says. “I was keen on making a connection between technical skills and the processes of civic engagement and reflective learning. Engineers are problem solvers—they want to come up with a solution. They can immediately go through the process of designing something, but first they have to listen closely to all the community stakeholders to widen their assessment and reach the best solution.”

In 2008, Swan received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to assess the impact of service learning. When he compared student teams that combined problem solving with community service and reflection versus those that did not engage in service learning, he found that civic engagement helped students develop a “holistic approach” to their design process, which in turn made them better able to assess problems from many perspectives.

“Chris has a tremendous record of service to the students, faculty and community of Tufts University and a long history of collaboration with Tisch College,” says Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the college. “Working with the team at Tisch College, Chris will lead our efforts on faculty engagement, community outreach and student programming. I know he will continue to champion the development, implementation and assessment of community engagement efforts in engineering education and all disciplines throughout the university.”

Swan has won awards for teaching excellence and served as associate dean for undergraduate curriculum development and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In 2013 and again in 2015 he was named professor of the year in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

He is also a faculty advisor to Tufts Engineers Without Borders. He has held appointments in the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and sits on the faculty advisory board of the university’s Center for Enhancement in Learning and Teaching. He is a member of the American Society for Engineering Education, serving as program chair for the community engagement division.

Swan’s engineering research focuses on the development of reuse strategies for waste materials, including synthetic lightweight aggregates, a construction material made from waste plastics and ash from coal-burning utilities. He will continue to teach an introductory course in civil and environmental engineering.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.