2012 Erick Nilson Award: Dr. Dan Jensen, U.S. Air Force Academy
Soon after Congress mandated that the U.S. Air Force Academy hire civilian professors instead of maintaining their traditional “all military faculty,” the Engineering Mechanics Department hired Dan Jensen as one of the first civilian faculty at the Academy. “Dr. J,” as his students began to call him, soon began to build a reputation across the faculty for his quality research and excellent teaching. His Department Chair said, “Dr. Jensen is the quintessential ‘teaching’ professor; hands-down the person I’d want in front of my own children to teach, motivate and inspire.”
Dan soon received the Outstanding Academy Educator award from his department. Afterward, the AFA nominated Dan for the Boyer International Teaching for Excellence in Innovative Teaching Award, which he won. Within two years, Dan had garnered the Seiler Research Award for Best Engineering Researcher at the Academy. Add to this Dan’s published articles (over 100 refereed publications); it is not surprising that he was quickly promoted to full professor.
More accolades would follow. But what’s not recorded in these professional acknowledgements is the accompanying personal and Kingdom impact that Dan has had on his colleagues and on the 30+ cadets he’s discipled over the years. As soon as Dan arrived at the USAFA, he joined the Cru leadership team, began to work with the Christian faculty luncheon, and to invest in a small group of Christ-following cadets—many of them majoring in Engineering Mechanics.
He teaches monthly at the Cru meeting, leads a weekly small group Bible study with new generations of cadet leaders, and lives out his deep commitment to Christ before his fellow faculty and the hundreds of cadets he teaches each year.
The former Cru director at the academy described Dan’s influence: “I know personally a dozen young officers in the Air Force who are walking with Christ on active duty, sharing their faith and building spiritually into other officers. All admit that they learned to love Jesus and others because ‘Dr. J modeled it for us.’” In another reflection on Dan’s influence, a former student (now an F-16 pilot) wrote the following recommendation:
When I first heard that Dr. Dan Jensen was nominated by the AFA for Colorado Professor of the Year, one word instantly came to my mind—PERFECT. Not because “Dr. J” is a perfect man—he’d be the first one to tell you that he’s not—but because he embodies every attribute of the quintessential teacher. I use the word “teacher” because the word “professor” almost solely connotes the classroom, yet anyone who knows Dr. Jensen would tell you that his character and mentorship have helped develop his students as much, if not more, personally as professionally.
This summer, Bridget, Dan’s wife and partner in ministry, organized a mission effort in the Dominican Republic. Dan spoke at the University of Santa Domingo, helping expand the local Cru movement and begin to establish a long-term AFA Cru partnership. At the same time, Dan opened discussions with academic and nongovernmental personnel about the possibility of developing an engineering project in which USAFA cadets would design playground equipment to harvest energy to power lights and possibly water purification equipment for the more disadvantaged communities in the DR and elsewhere.
Dr. Jensen recently won the 2012 Erick Nilson Award, which Faculty Commons gives annually to an outstanding Christian professor. This award is named for agronomy professor Erick Nilson, leader of the faculty ministry at Kansas State University in the 1980’s. Following his death in 1990, Dr. Nilson’s family set aside funds for Faculty Commons to annually recognize “the men and women of God that He is raising up to forward His cause at the university.” Like previous award winners, Dr. Jensen is an outstanding example of what it means to be a Christian professor.