Karen Thole

Karen Thole

Professor and Department Head
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA, United States
Karen Thole
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Dr. Karen A. Thole was born in Breese, Illinois USA on July 11, 1960. She holds a Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a Doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. After receiving her PhD, she spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Thermal Turbomachinery at the University of Karslruhe in Germany. Her academic career began in 1994 when she became an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1999, she accepted a position in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech where she was promoted to Professor in 2003 and was recognized as the William S. Cross Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 2005. She was appointed as the Head of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University in July 2006. Dr. Thole has published over 180 peer-reviewed archival journal and conference papers and advised over 60 masters theses and doctoral dissertations.. She founded the Experimental and Computational Convection Laboratory (ExCCL) in which studies of convective heat transfer are conducted with an emphasis on cooling of gas turbine airfoils. Research accomplishments include: the development of a novel fillet design, now used in turbine designs, to reduce heat transfer arising from vortices; and guidance for microchannel cooling through the acquisition of detailed data. Over $10M in funded research has been acquired since 1995 from the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, United Technologies, Siemens Power Generation, Solar Turbines, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Dr. Thole directs the Penn State Center of Excellence for Pratt & Whitney. She is a Fellow of ASME and serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the International Gas Turbine Institute, as the Vice Chair of the ME Department Head Executive Committee, as a member of the Vision 2030 Committee, and as the Chair of the Committee on Honors. She has been recognized by the U.S. White House Champion of Change for recruitment efforts in STEM and by Penn State’s Rosemary Schraer Mentoring Award.

B. S. 1982 Mechanical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign M. S. 1984 Mechanical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Ph.D. 1992 Mechanical Engineering, University of Texas, Austin
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to host a field trip to my place of employment.
  • I am willing to be contacted about potential job shadowing by interested students.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Dr. Karen Thole

Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines because it was one of the first engineering disciplines many years ago.  Many of the other engineering disciplines, such as aero, electrical, bioengineering, and others actually grew out of mechanical engineering.  When employers come to the Penn State campus and are looking for engineers, over 95% of the time those employers have mechanical engineers on their list of people to hire.  The reason for this is because mechanical is such a broad engineering discipline that  companies know that mechanical engineers can be plugged into many different areas.  Civil engineering was developed many years ago primarily to work on the infrastructure such as bridges, roads, etc.  The discipline has evolved, however, since that time to include other areas such as environmental, construction, geotechnical, structures, water resources, etc.  I would say that the job possibilities may be a bit more narrow, but if you know that you are interested in the construction field, for example, it might be better to major in civil with a graduate degree in architecture.  

Dear Tierra from Md: It is very exciting to hear of your interest in mechanical engineering. I will attempt to address a few of your questions: It is difficult to say what mechanical engineers do not do in terms of jobs. Our Penn State mechanical engineers do so many things: they work on designing new hospital buildings, new airplanes, new wind turbines, new surgical instruments, energy efficient buildings, comfortable chairs, and so much more. We have some mechanical engineers who are now designing a kindle for the blind! Mechanical engineers not only design many exciting products, they also venture into managing large projects and companies; become patent attorneys; research exciting breakthroughs such as those needed in energy storage; and even become medical doctors! And, yes, mechanical engineers do a significant amount of computer programming, which they use as a tool to predict things like how fast our stomach dissolves medication, how to design better airplane wings, and how to make cars that require less fuel. MEs do lots of computer programing, but with an intention of making predictions for better products. Finally, I?????????m not exactly sure what you mean by an IB degree. As an aside, we do not require this, but do have a strong emphasis in our program on making sure the MEs that we educate have a ?????????global view of engineering?????????. For example, our Penn State ME students are now working with students in China, Singapore, and Korea to come up with better designs requested by many companies. This is an exciting program and our students are getting a much better view of the world through working in multi-national teams. I hope this is helpful and I wish you the very best of success. Hopefully, I will see you at Penn State one day enrolled as an ME student! Professor Thole

Dear Kelly,

Thank you so much for your questions regarding ship design. This is certainly an exciting field and one that is looking for more engineers!

My suggestion to you is to major in mechanical engineering. You cannot go wrong in choosing that major since it is a broad field that includes so many different topics, including ship design. One of the areas in which you would take numerous classes is fluid mechanics, as you major in mechanical engineering. In that course you learn about the stability of ships; how to best design a ship that requires the least amount of fuel as it is powered through the sea; and how to best design the power source for the ship. I also suggest majoring in mechanical engineering because you can never predict the future of jobs and your likes/dislikes. You cannot go wrong in majoring in mechanical engineering since nearly all companies requiring engineers need mechanical engineers in particular.

I hope that helps and I wish you the best in your career choices.