Cal Poly Mechanical Engineering Professor Who Inspired NASA Astronaut Wins CSU Faculty Award
James LoCascio is among 23 California State University faculty members honored by Chancellor’s Office for innovation and leadership in the classroom that improves student success
SAN LUIS OBISPO — James LoCascio’s father, an immigrant from Sicily, worked three jobs to support his family in New York City – two in upholstery shops and one driving a taxi.
“When he retired from upholstery, he drove cabs full time until he had a stroke when he was 80 years old,” said LoCascio, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
Despite his lifetime of work, the elder LoCascio always wanted a better life for his children, telling his son and daughter they would eventually go to college so they would not have to work as hard as he did.
“My background has always made me aware of what it means to be a first-generation mechanical engineering student,” LoCascio said. “This has helped me bond especially with my first-generation Hispanic students. It always amazes me, the change in attitude when my first-generation students realize I was also a first-generation student.”
LoCascio’s impact on students was just part of the reason he was recently honored with the California State University Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award (FILA). The award, presented to one person from each of the 23 CSU campuses, acknowledges faculty who have demonstrated leadership at the program, department, school, college or university level to improve student success and outcomes in courses with traditionally low success rates or persistent equity gaps.
The award includes $5,000 for each recipient and $10,000 for their department.
LoCascio’s impact through the years is well known.
“As I meet with engineering alumni, so many of them tell me that their classes with Professor LoCascio had a profound impact on their lives,” said College of Engineering Dean Amy S. Fleischer. “He has a lasting legacy through his students.”
When LoCascio started his Cal Poly career in 1981, then-Gov. Jerry Brown advocated for minimal state government, saying public employees were partly compensated by “psychic income” — or the fulfillment you get from the job.
“For years, I would joke with my colleagues about working for psychic pay,” LoCascio said. “In fact, I have an email folder, ‘Psychic Pay.’ This is where I put emails that I have received from former students over the years.”
Some of that feedback has come from NASA astronaut Victor Glover — who LoCascio calls his “Million Dollar Psychic Check.”
Glover, slated to travel to the International Space Station in a high-profile mission, is a former LoCascio student, who offered comments in favor of his former teacher’s nomination. Glover is training for Crew-1, the first post-certification mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — the second crewed flight for that vehicle — and a long duration mission aboard the International Space Station.
Even though he initially failed LoCascio’s fluid mechanics class, with his professor’s help, Glover took it again and earned an A.
“Jim’s belief in me helped me to believe in myself and was evinced in my grades and, most important, my effort since then,” he wrote.
In turn, LoCascio uses Glover’s story to inspire other students.
LoCascio has helped other CSU programs, and he does outreach to help younger students get excited about STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, education. His dedication to helping his other family — those in the engineering field — traces back to his upbringing and his father, the cab driver who began working at age 7.
His father, a union man who became a U.S. citizen at age 36 in 1942, always read three newspapers a day, LoCascio said. And today that memory has an impact on LoCascio’s students.
“For years now, I regularly email my students articles from the New York Times on a variety of topics, including, but not limited to, engineering ethics, energy, engineering innovation, energy policy and relevant obituaries,” he said. “You would be surprised the impact this has had on my students.”
In the photo at top, Cal Poly Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor James LoCascio, seen here with a 7-foot statue of Thomas Edison at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, received the California State University Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award. It honors faculty at each of the 23 CSU campuses across the state who have demonstrated leadership at the program, department, school, college or university level to improve student success and outcomes in courses with traditionally low success rates or persistent equity gaps.
Contact: Pat Pemberton
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September 5, 2019
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