Thole honored for technical contributions, commitment to diversity in aerospace

August 5, 2019

RESTON, Va. — Karen A. Thole, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) at Penn State, has been awarded the 2019 Air Breathing Propulsion Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Established in 1975, the annual award is presented to an individual for sustained, meritorious accomplishments in the arts, sciences and technology of air breathing propulsion systems. AIAA, the world’s largest aerospace technical society, brings together industry, academia and government to advance engineering and science in aviation, space and defense.

Throughout her career, Thole has made significant technical contributions in pioneering new cooling strategies for airfoils in gas turbine engines, which allows for higher operating temperatures and ultimately, reduced fuel consumption. She has also continually developed new programs to promote diversity and inclusion in engineering. 

Her technical contributions include founding the Steady Thermal Aero Research Turbine (START) Lab at Penn State in 2012 through a partnership with the Department of Energy and Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corporation aerospace manufacturing subsidiary. The unique testing facility currently houses a proprietary turbine design to perform heat transfer studies, instrumentation development and the integration of additive manufacturing in turbine research. These efforts directly impact the aerospace industry’s goals aimed at improving designs and efficiency for turbines used in aircraft propulsion.

She joined Penn State in 2006 to lead ME, placing a particular emphasis on increasing the number of women and other underrepresented groups in the department and ultimately, the industry at large.

To support this goal, Thole has actively developed numerous programs with several professional societies to promote a more diverse workforce. Her work in this area has included founding an industry-sponsored dinner for women at an annual turbine conference, advocating for women leaders for society positions, actively nominating women for awards and personally mentoring early career engineers.

“I am honored by this recognition from the AIAA and my colleagues who supported my nomination. My students and I remain committed to pushing forward the technology powering our air breathing propulsion systems, while supporting a diverse and inclusive workforce,” Thole said.

Thole will receive the award during the AIAA Excellence in Aerospace Awards Luncheon on Aug. 21 at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis.


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College of Engineering Media Relations

"My students and I remain committed to pushing forward the technology powering our air breathing propulsion systems, while supporting a diverse and inclusive workforce."

-Karen A. Thole, distinguished professor and department head



With more than 60 faculty members, 330 graduate students, and 800 undergraduate students, the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering embraces a culture that welcomes individuals with a diversity of backgrounds and expertise. Our faculty and students are innovating today what will impact tomorrow’s solutions to meeting our energy needs, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems. We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S.) graduate degrees in mechanical engineering. See how we’re inspiring change and impacting tomorrow at

Department of Mechanical Engineering

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The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519