Can you give us a little background about yourself?
I grew up overseas in the Panama Canal Zone which gave me an appreciation both for engineering works’ role in global infrastructure as well as how differences in cultures affect relationships and organizations. At the end of my senior year in high school my physics teacher was responsible for giving out two awards, a programmable TI calculator for the best future electrical engineering student and a medal for the best future physics student. My teacher talked me into saying I wanted to be a EE so I would get the calculator, which is what made me study engineering rather than physics. I did all my undergraduate and graduate work at Rice University. I was a mediocre undergraduate student but grew up a lot in graduate school, and even more soon afterwards. I remained interested in physics so followed a path in devices and optics rather than coding or circuits, specializing in ultrafast optoelectronics. I then went on to postdoc at Oklahoma State University which turned into a faculty position. I remained at OSU for about sixteen years before spending some time as a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) then coming to Bucknell.
Can you tell us about your work as a Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Bucknell University?
I would imagine that being a chair in an engineering department faces many of the same challenges here as anywhere else. Part of my job, the part that takes the most time, is to be an operations manager and dealing with budgets, policies, and reporting. Another part is acting in a role somewhat similar to what I imagine a cruise ship director does, keeping people busy, focused, and having more fun than not while making sure nobody gets lost or too left out. The part I enjoy the most is trying to think strategically about the direction both higher education and electrical engineering is going and helping the program create a curriculum and learning environments that align with the envisioned future. Since Bucknell is a rather small program I still do a lot of teaching and some scholarship, both of which are also very enjoyable.
Can you give us a little background about your research interests?
My research interests have evolved over my career quite a bit. My interests and experience in ultrafast optoelectronics led me into terahertz time domain spectroscopy where I explored the properties of materials and systems in the 100’s of GHz to 1’s of THz frequency range. This was a very experimentally intensive research area, and I am most comfortable in a lab both building working on experiments. I am very much an introvert so the lab was always a comfortable place for me. Here my goal always was to develop new ways to look at phenomena that might result in insights that make complex things simpler to understand. Compared to a lot of the people that surround me I’m not that smart so I really value simple explanations and schemas.
In the years before I became a program officer at NSF I started doing a lot more work on engineering education, and my time at NSF really changed the focus and scale of my interests. I enjoyed working with policy and the challenge of thinking more systemically. So right now I am trying to look at education more systematically. When Chuck Vest was president of the National Academy of Engineering he framed the frontiers of engineering as the small and the fast—what my work in optoelectronics was—and the large, complex, and distributed. The latter category includes transportation and energy infrastructure, engineered system that are vital to our continued prosperity and survival. I’ve come to realize that our education system is also this type of infrastructure, maybe the most complex of all of them. If it fails our fall is no less certain, so understanding new ways to think about this system is a real challenge for me.
What are you currently working on?
I am doing a few projects right now on the educational infrastructure level, particularly looking at effective ways for engineering education to change and reconceptualize itself. I continue to keep involved in policy stuff at some level as well. We’re building a new Maker Space, the MakerE, that lets students explore electronics and I am spending a lot of time helping to develop that space and finding resources to sustain it. I am also fascinated by the Internet of Things and have the same feeling I that I (and I think a lot of others) had back in 1994 when the potential of the internet really started to become apparent and we realized a lot was about to change in ways that were really unpredictable and really exciting. I am working with a former student on starting a small IoT related company around an area I think has amazing possibilities but is not widely recognized; I won’t say any more than that. Speaking of the internet, I am much more cynical about the internet and what its impact on society broadly is now than I was in 1994. That cynicism has led me into the philosophy of engineering because I see too much predominately utilitarian focus on means rather than reflection on ends and I want to better understand what others’ think about the larger role engineering plays in the betterment of human life than the myths we continually tell ourselves.
Do you participate in professional organizations? Can you tell us about it?
I’ve always been part of one or more professional organizations since I was a graduate student, one of which is IEEE. I was never really a joiner so didn’t make societies a big part of my career for a long time. Honestly I sort of liked the role of iconoclast. However recently as I have become more involved at policy levels I value membership more. I am on the IEEE Education Society Board of Governors and also an associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Education. When I was more active in optics I was a member of the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society. I am most active in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) right now since that most overlaps my policy interests in higher education. I’ve been active recently in helping ASEE members think through responses to proposed changes in the criteria that engineering degree programs must meet. In my own opinion the proposed may inadvertently act to de-professionalize engineering and thus make engineers more of a commodity.
What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?
Since I’m an introvert I find the most challenging part of the job the large number of meetings that I need to attend since at the end of a day where I don’t get enough alone time my energy is pretty thoroughly drained. Another area I find to be a challenge is simply managing the endless minutia of keeping a department running and trying to respond to requests in a reasonable time. Sometimes I feel the invention of email counteracts all the good engineers have done in the world. By far the two most satisfying things are getting to think strategically and getting to work with students. I am continually amazed at what students can do, the way they balance a lot of competing demands, and how effortlessly they navigate the world. I hear so much negativity about education and today’s students these days. From my perspective this negativity is completely misplaced. Working with students gives me a lot of hope for the future. I also like having to continually think ten or twenty years out which is what running an engineering department in a time of intense technological and social change takes. It will be at least a decade by the time the freshmen in my program are really hitting their stride in their careers, and it is a great responsibility to try to figure out how to make their, and their parent’s, investment in their education pay off in terms of their career success and future well being.
What about your field or being an engineer or computer scientist do you think would surprise people the most?
It is awfully presumptuous to speak for a whole field or all engineers. One of the things that has surprised me personally as I have grown and changed is how much I have had to learn from the humanities and social sciences. That was an area that when I was a student we talked about as “soft skills” and like perhaps a lot of other engineering students I didn’t really put that much effort into the classes I had to take. But as the scope of problems I address has grown I find myself blown away by authors like Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich, Amartya Sen, and others. They have thought through problems that have a lot to say about the technologies we develop, how they are used, and whom they serve. Another thing that has surprised me is just how connected we all are. I think in the early part of one’s career it is necessary to be selfish, to make a name. I certainly was. But as you move forward you inevitably find yourself spending more of your time trying to make things better for others. I don’t think I realized how much others did for me when I was young. Perhaps both of these are connected for without constantly working to see the world and human’s role in it from a broader perspective I think it is very hard to be an effective advocate, mentor, and leader.
What do you usually do during your free time?
This phrase you use, “free time”, what is that? Seriously… I try to stay in shape which is taking more time as I get older. I’ve been a road cyclist for many years, but haven’t competed in a while. I broke my hip in a wreck some years ago and figured that was a sign that it was time for that phase of my life to end but still try to get in at least 100 miles a week in except during winter. The wreck coincided with raising children, so a lot of my free time now goes into watching My Little Pony episodes with my daughter, doing family on-line adventures in the video game Terraria, having Nerf battles with my son, and other things pre-teens enjoy. Being a graduate student for many years made me frugal, my wife would say cheap, and since my work life is pretty cerebral so I do a lot of home projects on the weekend rather than contract them out. I also taught myself to cook in graduate school and that interest waxes and wanes. I am fortunate to live in a small town that has amazing social and cultural opportunities, microbreweries, and a lot of interesting and crazy people so there is always more to do than I have time for.
Few years from now, what direction do you see yourself?
That is a really good question. So far I have made a pretty major shift in my career every twelve years and it is time for another one. I don’t really know what is going to come next but am getting pulled into more artistic endeavors, have a lot of interest in Making, and see a lot of potential for ways that narrative can be cleverly integrated into engineering education. So I am not too worried since the next phase should be interesting as well. If I were to sit down and put together a completely impractical wish list I think it might be fun to start a completely new type of university since I have been playing with some ideas there and have some friends who are thinking along the same lines, spin off a company since that is something I haven’t tried yet, or take the time to write a book. Right now I am keeping really busy and also feel like I am moving forward so I am content to wait and see what develops for now.
As a professor, what words of encouragement would you give to your students?
It is hard to think of some pithy advice since most of the students I know don’t need my encouragement nor am I confident enough in the future or my own wisdom to encourage them in a particular direction. That would likely just encourage the same mistakes I’ve made. I would say read, for there is a lot of good advice out there. Perhaps I’d encourage them to read Polonius’ advice to Laertes in act 1, scene 3 of Hamlet. I’d likely encourage them towards kindness rather than cleverness in their engineering endeavors. In my own life I’ve tried, but often failed, to be balanced, to find the middle path. I would encourage the same for them since balance allows agility which I think is a great virtue in today’s world. Above all I would encourage them to be adventurous, to have fun, but to also realize what you define as fun will change as you yourself change and grow. Finally I always counsel hope. The world is not as unforgiving and strict as they’ve been led to believe, the heroes not as mighty, the villains not as evil. We all need to write our own stories, so make yours one you want to read.
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