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Heller named outstanding educator

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 08 - October 17, 1996

The Virginia Society of Professional Engineers (VSPE) has presented the 1996 Pletta Award to Robert A. Heller, the Frances J. Maher professor of engineering science and mechanics (ESM) at Virginia Tech, in recognition of his "outstanding teaching and public service in the commonwealth."

The Pletta Medal was presented to Heller last week during the annual meeting of the Tech College of Engineering's Committee of 100, an alumni group.

The award was established in 1991 in honor of Dan H. Pletta, a nationally renowned engineering educator who was a member of the Tech ESM faculty from 1932 to 1972. Pletta, who died in August at the age of 92, continued his work in engineering ethics and professionalism until the time of his death.

The Pletta award is sponsored by the VSPE, Virginia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Central Virginia Section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers/Virginia Council, and Consulting Engineers Council of Virginia.

Heller, who received his B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering and Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from Columbia University, joined the Tech faculty in 1967. As a teacher, he has written books, produced educational films and television tapes, and taught and developed new courses at the undergraduate as well as graduate level. He has served for seven years as chairman of the ESM Graduate Committee.

He received the Outstanding Educator Award from the Tech ESM society in 1979, a second teaching award from the society in 1981, and the Frank J. Maher Outstanding Educator Award from the ESM department in 1982. The American Society for Engineering Education presented the Western Electric Fund Award for Excellence in Instruction of Engineering Students to Heller in 1982.

He received a Fulbright Scholarship for work at the Technical University of Vienna, Austria, from 1989 to 1990. The Technical University of Budapest, Hungary, awarded an honorary doctorate to Heller in 1993.

In 1995, Heller was named the Frances J. Maher professor of ESM.

As a researcher, he has generated about $3 million in funding and has published in several national and international journals and presented findings at numerous professional meetings.

Since the early 1970s, Heller has been active in several professional and community organizations. For three years, he organized the "Science Spectacular" show for high-school students at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. He also served for several years as a trustee and member of the board of directors for the science museum, which presented him with the Catalyst Award in 1987.

Heller's wife recently endowed a scholarship in his name in the ESM department, funded with contributions from his friends and former students.