US academic gains fresh perspective teaching in NZ

18 September 2023

A visiting American academic from Cornell University has found teaching engineering at a Canterbury university a culturally and professionally enriching experience.


Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality Education.

Professor Alex Woltornist is an Erskine Fellow at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC), one of about 70 international senior academics to become lecturers at UC each year through the University’s which marks its 60th anniversary this year.

“The different perspectives you get, and the cultural learnings are so important,” says Professor Woltornist, who is a Professor of Practice and the Director of the Master of Engineering Programme at Cornell University in New York.

“I really like finding out how other countries and universities are doing certain things. There’s a sustainability focus in everything they do here at UC, and I don’t think we’re as far along that path yet in the United States.

“The Chemical and Process Engineering programme at UC has always focused on developing engineers who can apply their skills to real-world problems. My intention is to apply learnings from this experience to my teaching back home.”

Professor Woltornist, who has an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, has been in Ōtautahi Christchurch teaching UC Engineering students in their final year of study. He will spend about two months here before returning to his home in Maine.

He worked for about 40 years in the pharmaceutical industry in the US, including in the fields of vaccine manufacturing and supply chain management, and feels his strength is in providing real-world knowledge to students.

“My expertise is in biotechnology and lean manufacturing, connecting the theory of chemical engineering with the practical applications. I also have a keen interest in preparing the students, before they graduate, in non-technical skills such as project management, teaming, ethics, and innovative thinking – all the soft skills associated with engineering.”

He has been working with UC students completing their final-year Chemical Engineering design projects and is impressed by their efforts.

“I’ve been providing technical advice and acting as a sounding board for the teams. I do the same thing with the seniors at Cornell but here at UC the projects are more open-ended and it’s a lot more about self-discovery. The students here are very diligent and they want to learn.”

Professor Woltornist says the objectives of the UC design projects are different from those at Cornell. “They’re very much sustainability-focused and planet-friendly, and their aim is to help local communities. I’ve noticed a big difference here from the US, but we are making significant strides towards that direction.”

He has also been holding professional development sessions attended by groups of engineering students, providing career advice and getting them ready for job interviews.

“My aim is to bridge theory and practice which is what students need nowadays. I want to help them hit the ground running. I’ve also been approached by many students to meet and discuss typical career paths from an American perspective.”

The process of getting to UC to take up the Erskine Fellowship was seamless, he says. “Everything was flawless in terms of getting here and being settled in at my apartment. The programme has been running for a long time and I think they’ve got a great process in place. The Chemical Engineering department has been a great host.”

He was offered a bike, helmet and vest by a colleague and has been riding to and from work each day for the first time in his life. He has also been exercising at the University of Canterbury’s RecCentre.

“Since I arrived, I’ve learned what a ‘bickie’ is,” he jokes. “Everyone is friendly, and it’s been such a pleasure. I’ve been attending other lectures to find out about delivery of content to students. I’ve noticed they do a nice job of tying the theory to the hands-on application at the time they teach the theory, which is a bit different to what happens many times in the States.”

Professor Woltornist visited Aotearoa New Zealand with his wife in January 2020 and was keen to return. “I love New Zealand. We’ve been to a lot of different countries but until coming here three years ago we never knew what we were missing. There’s no place on the planet like New Zealand. Being able to immerse myself in the culture here was a big draw to the Erskine programme.”

His only regret is not being able to stay longer, but he plans to holiday in New Zealand for a week with his wife after the fellowship ends.

The was established in 1963 thanks to the generous bequest valued at £250,000 from UC alumni John (Jack) Erskine, a friend and collaborator of fellow Canterbury student Ernest Rutherford. Erskine’s bequest enables up to 70 visiting international distinguished academics from business, engineering and science faculties to lecture at UC each year.

Over the unique programme’s 60 years, UC has hosted over 2000 Erskine Fellows and more than 500 UC academic staff members have received Erskine grants to travel to overseas institutions.

UC Tumu Tuarua Akoranga Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Catherine Moran says the Erskine Programme has been “enriching” teaching at the University for its six decades. “It really is invaluable and has contributed so much to the quality and diversity of our teaching at UC. We are very proud to have this amazing resource that connects us with people and expertise from around the world.”

  • Alex Woltornist

    Professor Alex Woltornist from Cornell University, New York, is an Erskine Fellow at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC).

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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