Innovating vehicle technology possible with new mechanical engineering faculty

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
August 28, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Herschel Pangborn, a State College native, is returning to Penn State in January 2020 as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Through his research in dynamic systems and control, Pangborn strives to understand and innovate energy systems through a birds-eye view, with a focus on the algorithms governing energy management in electrified vehicles ranging from aircraft and automobiles to naval ships. He also conducts research on energy system design and climate control for buildings.

“In my research, we see a vehicle not as a collection of independent black boxes, but instead as a network of electrical, thermal and mechanical interactions. We develop multiple control algorithms that communicate with each other to coordinate decision-making across the entire vehicle.”

— Herschel Pangborn, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

“I use a model of a system to predict its behavior, and then create algorithms that use the model to make decisions about how to maximize performance and efficiency,” he said. “During operation, these algorithms use feedback from sensors to course-correct, ensuring that the system behaves as desired.”

Looking to break down the barriers between research fields in renewable transportation and sustainability, he plans to use his systems-centric approach to forge new technology.

“Traditionally, electrical engineers have designed the electrical systems of a vehicle and then handed them off to mechanical engineers to figure out how to keep them from overheating. As systems become more electrified, this sequential process limits performance and efficiency,” he said. “In my research, we see a vehicle not as a collection of independent black boxes, but instead as a network of electrical, thermal and mechanical interactions. We develop multiple control algorithms that communicate with each other to coordinate decision-making across the entire vehicle.”

This work inherently spans several disciplines, including mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineering. As a mechanical engineer, Pangborn plans to draw on his own multidisciplinary research experiences, as well as the significant expertise and resources at Penn State, to make his mark in dynamic systems and control.

Outside of his research activities, Pangborn studies and teaches martial arts. To him, the philosophies guiding martial arts parallel the principles of engineering education.

“In martial arts, the techniques we learn must be executed at the correct time and in the correct manner to be effective for self-defense. In short, they’re safety critical,” he said. “It’s often the same in engineering, where conditional knowledge of how to select analysis methods and make appropriate assumptions is just as important as factual and procedural knowledge.”

Guiding his teaching approach, those are the overarching lessons he hopes to impress upon his students. A passionate educator, Pangborn was recognized at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a “Teacher Ranked Excellent by their Students” in 2018.

“My goal is to incentivize students to continuously improve their knowledge,” he said. “For example, students in my classes are given the opportunity to correct mistakes on homework to earn back half the points they lost. This encourages them to be proactive in reflecting on their learning and identifying ways to improve.”

Pangborn is no stranger to the department, having completed his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Penn State in 2013.

“I grew up on this campus,” he said. “Returning as a faculty member brings a longstanding vision of mine to fruition.”

After earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2019, he is ready to make Penn State his home once again.

“I believe very strongly in the mission of the University and the department, and I’m excited to contribute to it,” he said. 

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Last Updated August 28, 2019