• Winter 2012-13

    Volume 35, Number 2

    Virginia Tech Magazine, winter 2012-13
  • Mitzi Vernon

    • 2012 William E. Wine Award, Virginia Tech

    • 2012 TEDxVirginiaTech presentation, "Mapping the Invisible," accessible at

    • 2009 Edward Singleton Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, Virginia Tech

    • 2008 Dell Design Educator Award, Dell Computer

    • Advisor to more than 15 students who have won top prizes in international competitions, placed as finalists, or been awarded U.S. patents—all based on studio projects

    • Primary inventor on three U.S. patents

    • Two National Science Foundation grants (2005 and 2000) for the design of nontraditional books and exhibits for teaching science and math to middle school students

    • Co-principal on a National Science Foundation grant (2007-11) to examine the design studio as an educational model for the design of software-intensive systems

    • Past president of the Faculty Senate at Virginia Tech and member of the Virginia Tech STEM Outreach Board of Advisors

    • Master of science in engineering, product design from Stanford University; master of architecture from Virginia Tech; and bachelor of science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro


    Winter 2012-13

    Sheer Good Fortune: Literary stars shine brightly at Virginia Tech event

    Welcome to Racksburg

    Virginia Tech and the 21st-Century Land-Grant Model

    Dream Design

  • Go to digital edition   View or download PDF

  • Mitzi Vernon; photo by Anne Wernikoff.

  • Mitzi Vernon and her team, which includes School of Architecture + Design Associate Professor Michael Ermann and Ph.D. student Ana Jaramillo, created a sound field experiment to visually demonstrate that the speed of sound—approximately 1,125 feet per second—is an observable speed over a certain distance. The team created "flowers," or sound stems holding spun aluminum canopies that reflect light from clusters of LEDs that are triggered by microphones. When sound is generated at one end of the field, it travels through the stems, lighting each one up at the speed of sound. The sound-field rendering (above) is courtesy of Ben Tew (mechanical engineering '04, M. Arch. '08); the photo is by Anne Wernikoff.
  • Mitzi Vernon

    Metaphorically Teaching

    by Katie Gehrt

    Mitzi Vernon, winner of Virginia Tech's 2012 William E. Wine Award, has a gift for building connections and using metaphors that allow her students to see the world in a new way. As a professor of industrial design in the School of Architecture + Design, she takes a multifaceted approach to her teaching and research. As she explains it, "I speak three languages: design, engineering, and science."

    In the studio, Vernon is not the star of the show; she is a guide and a moderator, but not a lecturer. On a recent critique day, students presented two form projects designed to strengthen their understanding of such concepts as planes, intersections, volume, flow, acceleration, and fair curves, all of which will provide a solid foundation for the students' future work. The results of their efforts are elegant creations of wood, metal, acrylic, and illustration board.

    The entire group actively contributes to the critique, offering feedback and suggestions. The atmosphere is supportive, but Vernon is not one to encourage platitudes. She said that while it can be challenging to get the students to be critical of one another, they need that rigor to improve.

    Students describe Vernon's style as both nurturing and demanding. Jonathan Kim, a sophomore industrial design student in Vernon's second-year studio, said, "I love the way she gives feedback. It's very constructive; if you need to change something, she'll tell you, and I love that about her."

    "[Vernon's teaching] has a real emphasis on craftsmanship and not settling for what comes out first or what comes out easy, but what's truly right visually," said Martha Sullivan (M.S. architecture '06), an instructor for a computer-aided design class that relates to the work Vernon's students are doing in the studio. "What she teaches them in studio is to never settle for ‘almost.'"

    Vernon is not interested in having her students memorize answers from textbooks; she facilitates critical-thinking skills. Elizabeth Stokley (industrial design '12) said of Vernon's teaching style, "She doesn't give all the right answers, but rather all the right questions—probing, uncompromising, and practical—encouraging students to search rather than follow."

    Said Vernon, "I delight when students complete work that presents an understanding of the tenets I have tried to convey, but delight is short-lived. What I hope is there has been a transformation, that the students' thinking has shifted, unveiling more questions than when they began. I hope that they are not satisfied, but eager to press forward, recognizing along the way that they may have to keep asking the questions."

    Vernon incorporates learning methods that help students approach design challenges in new ways. When introducing ergonomics, for example, she invites Carol Burch-Brown, a professor in the School of Visual Arts, to conduct a life-drawing exercise so that the students understand the anatomy and mechanics of the hand in order to create improved form and utility in product design. Vernon's approach to teaching design covers all facets, from suiting the needs of end users to planning for the manufacturing process.

    While studying physics at Stanford in pursuit of her master's degree in engineering, Vernon discovered something about her own learning that influenced her teaching and research. As she explained, "I could grasp scientific phenomena through drawing, modeling, and metaphors."

    That ability to understand scientific phenomena as metaphors has not only strengthened her pedagogy in the studio, but also influenced her research on using design to teach scientific concepts that are abstract and invisible. Case in point: She leads Fields Everywhere, a continuing research project to develop interactive exhibits that began as a way to teach children about physics principles including gravitational, acoustic, and electromagnetic fields.

    Likewise, Vernon's teaching approach in and outside of the classroom is lighting up young minds, one at a time. From inspiring students in her classroom to energizing future scientists, Vernon recognizes that the world has many complex design problems, and that to solve them, it's important to imagine what might be possible rather than relying on what has been done in the past.

    Katie Gehrt is the communications manager for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Emily Goodrich, a sophomore English major and an intern with Virginia Tech Magazine, contributed to this story.

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