Faculty Profile

Leon Liebenberg

Leon Liebenberg
Leon Liebenberg


  • Ph. D. (Mechanical Engineering), University of Johannesburg, 2003
  • M. Sc. (Mechanical Engineering), Imperial College London, 1993
  • Diploma of Imperial College (DIC): Advanced Mechanical Engineering, University of London, 1992
  • M. Eng. (Mechanical), University of Johannesburg, 1991
  • B. Eng. (Mechanical), University of Johannesburg, 1989


For the past 25 years, Leon Liebenberg has been engaged in engineering teaching, research, and community engagement. He was a professor of mechanical engineering at two South African universities (University of Pretoria; North-West University), before becoming a higher education consultant in Switzerland where he worked with colleges of engineering and technology management.

Leon is passionate about multidisciplinary research, particularly in the fields of engineering education, energy engineering, and biomedical engineering. His university research has focused on development of industrial energy-efficient technologies and cancer therapies using energy restriction methods. His published research works enjoy an h-index of 23.

Leon￿ first love is however for teaching. He co-developed and taught a unique freshman course on ￿Innovation￿, where students work in so-called ￿whole-brain￿ thinking teams when addressing technological problems. These helped show that innovation for a sustainable world can be maximised by the convergence of natural sciences, engineering sciences, and the arts.

At the UIUC, Leon is currently engaged in developing gamification platforms for use in the mechanical engineering curriculum. The intention is to promote deep learning and improved engagement of students in subject matter. Leon is collaborating with colleagues from various disciplines in this venture.

He also founded the TechnoLab technology awareness facility for junior engineering students and for school children, where the learners work in small teams to solve problems using Lego Dacta and other didactic equipment. The TechnoLab model has been adopted by several South African schools since its inception in 1997. Leon also founded the Space and Aviation Challenge for school learners in South Africa, which aimed at demystifying the aeronautical engineering profession. The Challenge was annually presented for several years in collaboration with Nasa (Houston) who offered the first prize for a learner to attend Space Camp USA.

Leon teaches a variety of subjects, including: Innovation; Statics; Dynamics; Thermodynamics; Fluid Dynamics; Automatic Control Systems; Design for Manufacturability; Mechanical Design; Heat Transfer; Aerodynamics; Aeronautics; and Advanced Heat and Mass Transfer.

Leon holds doctoral and master￿s degrees from Imperial College London and from the University of Johannesburg. Leon and his wife enjoy meeting people, engaging with local communities, reading, photography, hiking, cycling, and spending time with their cats.


Passionate instructor ￿ Team Leadership ￿ Design-thinking

Multidisciplinary Research ￿ Sustainable Development

Technical Writing ￿ Mentoring ￿ Student Engagement

Negotiations ￿ Partnership Development ￿ Gamification

Brand Ambassadorship ￿ Fundraising ￿ Marketing Strategies

Technical Presentations ￿ Public Relations ￿ Media Relations

Academic Positions

  • Senior Lecturer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mechanical Science and Engineering, Jan. 2017 - present
  • Education Consultant, Self-employed (Lausanne, Switzerland), Engineering Education, Oct. 2014 - Dec. 2016
  • Professor, North-West University (Pretoria-campus, South Africa), Mechanical Engineering, Apr. 2009 - Sept. 2014
  • Professor, University of Pretoria (South Africa), Mechanical & Aeronautical Engineering, Apr. 2003 - Mar. 2009
  • Senior Lecturer, University of Johannesburg (South Africa), Mechanical Engineering, Jan. 1993 - Mar. 2003

Other Professional Employment

  • Editorial Consultant: "Mechanical Technology" magazine, Crown Publications, Johannesburg (South Africa), 1995 - 2010
  • Project Engineer, SA Plant and Engineering Co., Johannesburg (South Africa), Dec. 1990 - Jun. 1992
  • Project Leader, Kruger Du Rand Inc., Johannesburg (South Africa), Jan. 1989 - Nov. 1990
  • Executive Officer, SAS Fleur (Support vessel), South African Navy, Simon's Town (Cape Town, South Africa), Jan. 1983 - Dec. 1984

Professional Highlights

  • In 2016 I was a Top 30 Finalist (out of 2300 entries) for the 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise for development of a social network game (with real-world problem-solving component) addressing sustainable development, cultural values, and lifestyle effects. The same gamification techniques and game mechanics can be used to drive student or customer engagement and change behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. I am currently investigating the incorporation of several gamification techniques to help enhance emotional learning in the mechanical engineering curriculum at UIUC.
  • At the North-West University, I Increased the number of research outputs emanating from the Centre for Research and Continued Engineering Development (CRCED-Pretoria) by 450% through intensive mentoring of postgraduate students, by recruiting new (part-time) students from various organizations, and by co-authoring research publications.
  • At the University of Pretoria, I co-developed and taught a unique first-year course in ￿Innovation￿, lectured every year to 800 freshmen engineers. The 10-month course helped students discover the power of wholebrain thinking in problem-solving, as well as the usefulness of roleplaying certain metaphorical mind-sets (personas) when tackling a challenge in teams.
  • At the University of Pretoria, I founded the research publication, ￿Innovate￿, the ￿Space and Aviation Photographic Competition￿ for school students (with Kodak SA), and the annual national ￿Space and Aviation Challenge￿ for school students (in collaboration with NASA￿s International Space School, Houston), initiatives all credited with attracting top performing students to the university and increasing collaboration between different departments within the university.
  • I founded and led the University of Johannesburg￿s TechnoLab facility, an innovative way to bring technology awareness to school students and teachers. The program has reached in excess of 60,000 students and teachers since its inception in 1997, using a unique team-based approach to solve technological problems using mainly Lego Dacta as a didactic medium.
  • During compulsory national military service in the South African Navy, I was Executive Officer of a naval support vessel, SAS Fleur, with a complement of 30 sailors and five officers.

Teaching Statement

The scholarship of teaching both educates and entices future scholars and practicing engineers. It means not only transmitting knowledge, but also transforming and extending it. I therefore believe that teaching excellence is as important as research excellence.

I firmly believe that it is impossible to think deeply about things that you do not care about. My teaching therefore attempts to help students to link emotionally with subject matter, to result in deep understanding and improved retention. I always attempt to make emotional connections first, and then to teach the underlying theory.

I often incorporate limbic and intuitive learning in engineering courses; for instance, where my students develop graphic novels (using professional software) to deeply engage with subject matter, and to better activate their limbic thinking skills. Students enjoy this type of activity, as it clearly promotes autonomous learning, team collaboration, and results in very impressive insights which are testament to deep engagement with subject matter.

I believe that knowledge gained in a course requires emotional support to be made useful and applicable in the real world. To successfully implement such emotional learning requires interdisciplinary research, which I have already embarked on. Initial collaborative ideas will focus on the leveraging of the relationship between cognition and emotion in the design of an effective engineering learning environment that engenders the needed emotional support.

I regard my teaching style as flexible, spontaneous and often-times playful, and I teach with a willingness to deviate periodically from the curricular ￿script￿. My style is furthermore interactive￿I respond to questions in real-time; high energy and fast paced￿I tend to be problem-driven in my motivation. Although I enjoy doing details on the board, I usually rather give detailed handouts (with blank spaces, for students to complete in-class. I like to include hardware and to give demonstrations wherever possible.

I immensely enjoy learning, and sharing with others what I have learnt.

Research Statement

I believe that research should be the distinguishing activity of the professoriate. It is that activity which gives a professor the sense of contribution and leadership. This is not to detract from activities such as teaching, design, and other professional activities, but to give them perspective. The concept of professor as guide, and the goal to encourage students to achieve, carries over into my research students as well. I have high expectations of my research students, and I would like my students to have high expectations of themselves as well. In this respect I believe that a flat management style works well in the university research environment, where I perform several tasks with the students as opposed to mere delegation of work. I regard it of importance to writing and publishing high-quality research papers, for publication in highly rated journals. I do not view publishing as a requirement imposed by the system, but rather as a way for me to gain acceptance of our research group￿s ideas while also telling the world of the results of my, my colleagues￿, and our students￿ hard work. When supervising graduate students, I prefer a personal, rather than remote, relationship. This is modelled on the relationships I have had with my own advisors, and I find it important to spend significant time in both professional and social settings. A major reason for this is to help students discern that a criticism of their work is not the same as a personal criticism. Methods to ensure effective interaction include regular lunches with students, Friday milkshakes, regular field trips to industry, and social events such as barbeques or attending sports events. For the first five years of my academic career I focused on teaching and on community development initiatives, and I only seriously started with doctoral research in 1997, which entailed the experimental investigation of refrigerant condensation inside smooth and micro-fin tubes, combined with flow visualization and the generation of flow regime-based heat transfer and pressure drop correlations. A novel method for performing objective flow regime predictions was developed, based on the use of the power spectral density distribution of the condensing pressure signals, combined with the use of the Froude rate parameter. The doctoral work has received wide acclaim, and I had the privilege of delivering six invited keynote lectures on the research findings with co-author (and research suprvisor) Prof. Josua Meyer. One of the keynote lectures was with co-author Prof. Josua Meyer at the 13th International Heat Transfer Conference, Sydney, Australia. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have enjoyed the association of Prof. Josua Meyer, who not only guided me into the fascinating world of heat transfer, but also introduced me to world leaders in the field of heat transfer research, e.g. Prof John Thome (EPFL), the late Prof Art Bergles (Maryland, Rensselaer, MIT), Prof Tony Jacobi (UIUC), Prof Wesley Harris (MIT), the late Prof Detlev Kr￿ (US), and Prof Adrian Bejan (Duke). I am also privileged to have made the acquaintance of, and collaborated with, Prof Geoff Spedding of the University of Southern California. He too is regarded as a world leader in his research field (low-speed aerodynamics; digital particle image velocimetry). I have also had the opportunity to make acquaintance with other established and eminent local and international research leaders in heat transfer and general mechanical engineering: The late Prof W Stoecker (UIUC), Prof P Hrnjak (UIUC), Prof T Newell (UIUC), Prof RK Shah (Rochester, retd.), Prof J Sheer (Wits), Prof B Skews (Wits), the late Prof G Pozzoli (Wits), Prof E Mathews (NWU), Prof P Rousseau (NWU), the late Prof DF van der Merwe (UJ), the late Prof EA Bunt (UJ), Prof JJ Kr￿UJ), Prof AL Nel (UJ), Prof M de Paepe (Gent), Prof Y Takata (Kyushu), Prof C van der Geld (Eindhoven), Prof CO Popiel (Poznanska), Dr M Kedzierski (NIST), Prof R Radermacher (Maryland), Col (USAF ret) Pete Young (MIT), and Prof H M￿Steinhagen (Stuttgart). All these people have greatly encouraged me due to their own research or professional successes, and hence significantly influenced my research career and goals. Where the first 10 years of my academic research career focused on heat transfer engineering, between 2009 and 2014 I focused on modelling of the energy metabolism of cancer tumors. My biomedical engineering colleagues and I developed a non-toxic cancer therapy based on glucose-hemodiafiltration. In vitro trials show this technique to be very promising, either as a stand-alone cancer therapy or in concert with chemoradiotherapeutics. This will soon be evaluated in a patient clinical trial. As an independent education consultant in Switzerland, I began consolidating ideas about incorporating ￿learning through play￿ in engineering programs. Some of my gamification ideas were pilot-tested at ETH (Zurich) and at the Business School Lausanne, with great success. And, since joining the UIUC in 2017, I have also started implementing and evaluating these playful (emotional learning) strategies in mechanical engineering courses. The UIUC students are also very receptive to the ￿playful￿ learning concepts; they quickly realize that play is just a way of deliberately operating things in a constrained system in a gratifying way. Students also soon appreciate that serious play requires greater attention, generosity, respect, and investment than its supposedly more serious alternatives do. And when engaging in serious play, students make the world their own, they express themselves in it (via graphic novels, or videos, or kinetic sculptures), they make it personal. Play seems to be the brain￿s favorite way of learning. I am currently immersing myself in the field of play pedagogics. To play is however not the goal, but rather to use play as a tool to help students discover and appreciate the structure of things. And when students engage in serious play, it usually results in them having fun. I regard fun as the feeling of finding something new in a familiar situation, or the feeling when deliberately manipulating a familiar situation or object in a new way. I immensely look forward to delving into playful, fun, emotional learning strategies with colleagues from around the UIUC campus (and wider). And to help students (and faculty) realize that fun is not only about enjoyment, but perhaps more about careful and deliberate work. Playful learning is not a distraction or escape from the world, but an even deeper and more committed engagement with it.