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New NMSU chemical engineering department head will bring unique approach to the job

Dia de los Muertos celebrations, YouTube redux of "The Shining," and Sterno-roasted s'mores will certainly be mixed with the more serious business of running the New Mexico State University chemical engineering department as Professor David A. Rockstraw takes the helm as department head mid-July. Rockstraw plans to apply the same unorthodox and enthusiastic tack he uses in life to his new job, and he'll likely do it, sometimes, in Rollerblades.

This is a head-and-shoulders photo of new NMSU Chemical Engineering Department Head David Rockstraw.
Professor David Rockstraw has been named head of the New Mexico State University Chemical Engineering Department. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"I have as much fun at work as I do outside of work," said Rockstraw.

Rockstraw has been having fun at NMSU since he joined the chemical engineering department in 1995. All fun aside, he has a solid engineering and academic background.

"Dr. Rockstraw is an accomplished teacher and researcher," said College of Engineering Dean Ricardo B. Jacquez. "He brings a great deal of enthusiasm, experience and passion to this position. I am excited about this appointment and I look forward to working with him as a member of the College of Engineering leadership team."

Rockstraw received a bachelor's degree from Purdue University and a doctoral degree from the University of Oklahoma, both in chemical engineering.

"I started out as an astrophysics major and my father suggested I look at job opportunities and salaries in the field. There were no opportunities in astrophysics, but there were in engineering," said Rockstraw. "My decision to study chemical engineering was initially financially driven. I didn't really understand what chemical engineers do until my senior year. Then I realized there were no limits. I wanted to do more and went on to graduate school."

Prior to joining NMSU, Rockstraw spent more than eight years in industry with E.I. duPont de Nemours Co., Conoco Corp., Ethyl Corp., and Kraft, Inc.

"I really believe my time spent performing industrial research that included designing and building chemical production facilities around the world enhances my ability to train students to prepare for their career," Rockstraw said.

Rockstraw learned intimate details of the leading chemical process simulation software, Aspen PlusŪ, during his time in the industry, and has used that background to promote the development of a unique curriculum that incorporates significant use of this software. These efforts led to Rockstraw being awarded the first AspenTech Educational Innovation Award in 2004.

As a young father, Rockstraw didn't like all of the traveling that his corporate jobs required. His wife, Louise, recommended that he aim for a teaching position at New Mexico State University.
"The first time I had ever been here was when I came for my interview. I immediately fell in love with Las Cruces and it has been the best decision I have ever made," he said.

At NMSU, he has developed a research program as diverse as his industrial background, focused in the areas of materials, separations, and reaction kinetics. His work has yielded three patents. He was recently recognized by NMSU as a Distinguished Achievement Professor and in January 2012, he received the College of Engineering Foreman Faculty Excellence Award.

In 2010-11, he served as chair of the Professional Engineers in Higher Education interest group within the National Society of Professional Engineers. During his tenure as chair, Rockstraw worked toward promoting of the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam as an assessment tool within accredited programs a priority. In 2009, he received an Engineering Education Excellence award from the group.

Rockstraw, a licensed professional engineer in New Mexico, works as an expert witness on litigation involving chemical process forensics and patent and trade secret assessments. Rockstraw was the lead expert for the prosecution in the matter of Norit Americas vs. ADA, Inc., testifying for more than 20 hours in a case involving the theft of trade secrets and resulting in a verdict in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

He decided to pursue the department head position upon recognizing that five of the nine-member chemical engineering faculty had three or fewer years of experience.

"I decided that I needed to step up," he said. "We have some great faculty members and I'm really excited that I had a hand in hiring the six newest people on the faculty."

"Over the past five years we have redefined our undergraduate curriculum and I would like to do the same now for our graduate program. The new faculty are being successful in attracting large and prestigous research grants to study advanced materials, energy, and bioengineering topics. Our graduate program will need to be flexible to be able to accommodate an influx of solid student researchers with appropriate backgrounds to perform this highly diverse government-contracted work."

Rockstraw reserves his greatest enthusiasm, however, for the students.

"My goal as department head is to continue to do what I did as a faculty member - empower the students," he said.

Rockstraw serves as the adviser to NMSU's student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers which has been recognized as Outstanding Student Chapter for four consecutive years and was honored for Outstanding Student Chapter Website in 2009.

The group had 100 percent participation from chemical engineering students during the 2010-11 academic year, and remained in the high 90 percent plateau last year. Instilled with Rockstraw's philosophy of mixing work with pleasure, the AICHE students logged more than 600 hours of community service during the past academic year. They also have a bowling night and an annual Dia de los Muertos costume party, among other social events.

"These kinds of activities bring the students together as a family," he said. "It provides a support structure that lays the groundwork for success. They get to know each other and they call on one another for help with homework."

Rockstraw's sense of fun extends into the classroom. He formerly had a 10-year stint as a coach and director of his children's in-line hockey league, so he routinely skated to class and taught on wheels. While advising students he pulls out a Sterno can and roasts marshmallows to make s'mores. Students get extra credit for producing chemical engineering-related YouTube videos.

"The intent is to occasionally get the away from studying and to free their minds," Rockstraw said. "The students who finish the chemical engineering program are very driven and work hard. I want them to have fun, too."