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Professor honored for dedication to education

May 17, 2010

Commitment to students and bringing real-world experience into the classroom earns an ASU engineering professor a prestigious international teaching award

Arizona State University faculty member Richard Farmer has won a top teaching honor from one of the world’s leading international engineering and technology organizations.

Farmer is the 2010 Outstanding Power Engineering Educator Award winner, selected through a highly competitive process by the Power and Energy Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE has more than 390,000 members from about 150 countries.

Farmer is a research professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, a part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He’ll receive the award recognizing “outstanding contributions and leadership” in power systems engineering education during the IEEE General Meeting in July in Minneapolis.

Four decades of teaching

After earning a master’s degree from ASU in 1964, Farmer began working for Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), the state largest utility company, in 1965.

A year later he was asked to teach a night course at the university for one semester. He has been working at ASU part-time for the more than four decades since then, continuing to teach after a nearly 30-year career with APS.

Farmer’s work at APS spans the full range of subjects in power engineering.  He is perhaps best known for his work on what is called subsynchronous resonance.

Involving high power flows that can result from long- distance power transmission, it is a phenomenon of resonance at frequencies below synchronous frequency due to series capacitors in long power lines. It can do extensive damage to power-transmission equipment.   

Farmer is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.  He and APS colleague Baj Agrawal wrote a book on the subject of modeling of large generators.

Breathing life into classroom

“Dick Farmer brings 40 years of industrial experience into the classroom, giving our students invaluable training that greatly enhances their education,” says Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton Chair Professor of power engineering.

Over the years, says ASU Regents’ Professor Gerald Heydt, “many of our graduates have told us it was the extensive first-hand knowledge they received from Dick Farmer about the real-world power industry that led them to successful careers in power engineering. “

Using that on-the-job experience, Farmer has “breathed life into a wide range of courses with extremely technical and intricately complex subject matter,” says ASU associate engineering professor Dan Tylavsky, “and invariably he has inspired students by creating vivid images from lifeless content.”

Fellow ASU engineering professor Ravi Gorur says he has used Prof. Farmers’ lecture notes to help him teach a graduate-level class.

Farmer’s teaching approach is to “start from facts and concepts and proceed to unravel complex engineering phenomena in simple terms” that help his students both learn from and enjoy his classes, Gorur says.

Commitment to education

Farmer was nominated for the IEEE educator award by two former ASU students, Siddharth Suryanarayanan, an assistant professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and Elias Kryriakides, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Cyprus.

Farmer brought “a rare blend of academic excellence and wealth of industry experience” to his teaching, Suryanarayanan says.

More than that, Farmer is a mentor who shows personal interest in the career development of his students. “He possesses empathy, native intelligence, patience, and a high level of energy and a commitment to education that is not easily matched,” Suryanarayanan says.

He also points to Farmer’s role in education beyond the classroom. He recalls when Farmer contributed to educating the public in times of need, such as during the California energy crisis of 2000 and the widespread power blackout in the northeastern United States in 2003.

Kyriakides notes Farmer’s continual effort to adopt innovative teaching approaches and new educational technologies.

Farmer has, for instance, helped develop new software for a computer program now used to teach courses throughout the world on electric power devices and power system analysis.

Some of the course projects Farmer developed for his students are now included in leading textbooks on power system analysis and design.

In his years at ASU, Farmer has led the development of at least nine new power systems engineering courses.

Inspiring teaching style

Mark Stapp, a 1991 ASU graduate and now an engineering and operations director at the Greenville Electric Utility System in Greenville, Texas, recently wrote a “long overdue” letter to Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, telling him that Farmer “was the best teacher I ever had.”

“What made Prof. Farmer standout was his apparent love for teaching and his approachability,” Stapp wrote. “[He] would stay late after class until all the student questions were answered.  If further research was necessary, Prof. Farmer always followed up and got back to us … [he] even gave out his phone number and allowed us to call him at home.”  

It was Farmer's “dedication and his teaching style that influenced me to pursue power engineering,” Stapp wrote. “I want to thank whoever was responsible for bringing Prof. Farmer to ASU.”

Farmer recalls his early years of teaching power engineering at ASU, “when we hoped to get just 10 students enrolled, just enough to keep the class from being closed” because of lack of interest.

Today his courses can attract more than 70 students, and the power engineering program at ASU is one of the world’s largest, with more than 80 undergraduates enrolled, and an additional 80 in the graduate program.

“The power field has really picked up,” he says. “There are jobs in the industry.”

Teaching still brings the same satisfaction, but no less work.

With frequent advances in modern engineering and power systems, and changes in educational technologies, “I have to constantly keep educating myself,” Farmer says. “But I love teaching, so I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to have one career in industry and another teaching at ASU.”