Hansen retires after distinguished career with ABE

January 27, 2020

Dr. Alan Hansen, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, retired on December 31, 2019.

Dr. Hansen joined the department in December of 1999. Prior to joining this department, he established a successful academic career at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where he earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1975, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering in 1978 and 1990 respectively.

In 1981, Hansen made his first visit to the ABE department, where he spent time with Professors J. Kent Mitchell and Carroll Goering. He took his first sabbatical in 1987, and he and his wife, Jan, came to Illinois for six months. Hansen came with his family (now with two small children) again in 1993 when he worked closely with John Reid. He returned for a third sabbatical in 1998.

“People say you should visit different places on sabbatical, but I always thought Illinois was the best place to come,” says Hansen. “Those trips really cemented my connections with the department, and when Dr. Goering retired in 1999, I applied for his position. The department knew me well, and I believe they thought I would be a good fit.”

Hansen’s career in teaching, research, and public engagement has been exemplary. When he began here in ’99, he realized teaching in South Africa was very different from teaching in the United States.

“Grading in South Africa places much more emphasis on the final exam – it can be seventy to eighty percent of a student’s grade. Here, homework, lab reports, activities, and exams motivate students to be engaged through the whole semester,” he says. “The final exam is then a yardstick that reflects their achievements and their knowledge of the materials. I think it works much better.”

Hansen feels it is important to help students develop the skill of problem solving. “I never had anyone tell me that there could be a deliberate process of how you solve a problem,” he says. “So early on I developed a lecture with a slide show I called Creativity and Problem Solving. It includes defining the problem, generating solutions, deciding what the best solution is, implementing the solution, and evaluating the solution. It gives students the tools to think more broadly about a problem and I believe it’s a critical skill.”

In 2004, Hansen conceived a widely acclaimed study abroad program that teams U of I students with their peers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Illinois students travel to South Africa, and the groups collaborate on capstone design projects to solve locally identified problems. The program is a model for faculty-led, project-based study abroad programs.

Hansen is a native of Zimbabwe, and this program afforded him the opportunity to return to South Africa. In addition to the study projects (for which students can get credit through independent study), they have also been able to visit game reserves, the mountains, the beaches, crocodile farms, sugar cane mills, and go zip lining. Hansen made six such trips from 2004 to 2014, and then passed sponsorship of the program to another ABE professor, Paul Davidson,

In other work with students, Hansen began advising The Illini Pullers shortly after the club was established in 2000, and he was with them when they did their first pull in 2001.

“The philosophy for the Pullers from day one was to allow them to ‘stand alone,’ as it were,” says Hansen. “Other ¼-scale tractor clubs at other universities get credit for course work associated with activities within the club, but we didn’t want to have any sort of extrinsic motivation for them. That usually implies that faculty advisers will be providing input and guiding them in terms of the projects, and how independent is that? How much of it is really just the students?

“In our case,” he continues, “it’s all about the students. Almost a sink or swim kind of mode. They have full ownership of what needs to be done, so my role as adviser has been minimal.” Under Hansen’s guidance, the Pullers have had a tractor at the International ASABE ¼-Scale Tractor Design Competition every year, including two first-place wins in 2009 and 2010.

For his teaching efforts, Hansen has earned numerous awards, including the Undergraduate Teaching Award, given by the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. He was the recipient of the USDA’s Regional Food and Agriculture Sciences Excellence in Teaching award, and he has received the Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence from the College of Engineering, and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching from the College of ACES. Hansen has also been a “Teacher ranked as excellent by the students” more than 45 times over the last twenty years.

Hansen is nationally and internationally recognized for his expertise in research and outreach that includes biofuels, off-road machinery systems, engineering, land preparation, resource utilization, data collection and analytics in both temporal and spatial scales, and agricultural machinery and tool design for small-scale application.

As a principal or co-principal investigator, Hansen has received more than $12 million in funding. In 2005, he collaborated with the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering to obtain competitive funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish the Graduate Automotive Technology Education Center of Excellence.

Hansen was a co-PI on a BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute project initiated in 2008, addressing Engineering Solutions for Biomass Feedstock Production.  He provided leadership regarding systems informatics and analysis, and harvesting.  His research successes in the harvesting area resulted in his continued receipt of funding for close to 10 years.

More recently, Hansen was the project lead for a 4-year, $4.7 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, when Illinois was chosen as the lead institution of the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium for the Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab. This project helped develop tools, technologies, and methods that best suit smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso. Innovation and field hubs in these countries help farmers, especially women, be more productive while benefiting the local environment and economic well-being of rural communities.

Hansen has received the Paul A. Funk Recognition Award from the College of ACES. This is the college’s most prestigious award, given each year to recognize outstanding achievements and exceptional service to the college. In part, the college stated that Hansen’s ‘cross-cultural considerations and opportunities in the education of future engineers have become a distinctive focus of his work, with excellence spanning teaching, research, and public engagement in the best tradition of the land-grant university.”

Hansen has been inducted into the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers as an ASABE Fellow, where he was honored for his outstanding national and international contributions to education and research in agricultural and biological engineering. He is also a full member of the Club of Bologna, a world task force devoted to the development of agricultural mechanization. The club includes the most prominent international experts on mechanization, who address the development of the agricultural machinery sector in various countries. There are 49 countries represented with 122 members, and Hansen is one of only five U.S. academics in the club.

Finally, Dr. Hansen served as interim head of the Department of ABE for more than two years, beginning in January of 2017, and ending in May of 2019, when Dr. Ronaldo Maghirang was appointed Head. Dr. Hansen’s leadership was much appreciated through this time of change and growth.

Congratulations and best wishes on your retirement, Al – we will miss you!