Like father, like son. That’s true of a number of engineers,
and David Wormley, the dean of engineering at Penn State and the
president of ASEE, is no exception. His father was a mechanical
engineer and a factory manager for John Deere when David was growing
up in Dubuque, Iowa. “I used to walk through the factory on
quite a few Saturday mornings and was interested in both the design
and manufacturing part of engineering, so when the time came to
make my decision, it seemed natural to go into mechanical engineering.”
He assumed that, like his father, he would one day end up in industry.
That changed when he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The fact that he chose MIT was the result of one of those seemingly insignificant events that sometimes carry life-changing possibilities. A representative from the university came to Dubuque to give a talk when Wormley was in the ninth grade. “I remember looking over at my friend,” Wormley recalls, “and we said, ‘Well, let’s go to MIT. It sounds like a great place.’” Three years later, when Wormley was trying to decide where to go to college, he remembered that information session and applied to MIT. At the time, he was living in Germany where his father managed another John Deere plant. He was accepted and headed to Boston in late summer of 1958. A surprise was in store. “A couple of days into the fall semester I was walking along the Charles River and looked up and there was my friend from Dubuque. He had come to MIT to study engineering, too.”
Wormley spent the next decade racking up his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Along the way he developed a love for teaching that steered him away from industry and into academia. “I helped develop courses in systems and dynamics and taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and enjoyed it very much. There was always a good opportunity at MIT to be involved in both teaching and research.” He joined the teaching faculty at his alma mater in 1968 and moved up through the ranks, becoming department head and associate dean of engineering, before leaving to become Penn State’s dean of engineering in 1992 where he has been ever since.
The work, he says, is multifaceted and challenging. “There are lots of elements to it. You’re working with faculty, department heads, as well as university administration to advance engineering education and research in your college.” That requires a good understanding of the cultural differences of the various disciplines. “Different disciplines have different ways of doing things. This not only applies in your college but throughout the university. You have to articulate the college’s goals and aspiration to your own faculty, as well as to your university administration, to alumni, donors and industrial partners.”
According to Jim Melsa, dean emeritus of Iowa State’s College of Engineering and president-elect of ASEE, Wormley has both the requisite intellectual and social skills for the job. “First of all, Dave is not only a deep thinker but a charming individual as well. He makes you feel important even though he’s in an important position himself—the type of person you’d like to go to dinner with. Also, he leads in a way so he accomplishes what he is trying to achieve but people at the end think ‘We did it ourselves.’ He convinces people that his vision is their vision, and they go about working diligently and pleasantly for him. He is a leader who leads very quietly—and very effectively.”
Partnership With Industry
One of the areas where Penn State has taken an aggressive role is in promoting close cooperation between industry and the university. Wormley points to the Learning Factory, which began shortly after he arrived at Penn State, as a great example of this partnership. The program, created in conjunction with faculty from the University of Washington, Seattle, and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, is used for many industry-sponsored projects, where industry defines what the objectives are and students take an idea and follow it right through to prototype. The lessons students learn in the Learning Factory are invaluable. “It’s important for students to have ideas, conceptualize them and evaluate them. We hope to expand the Learning Factory to accommodate even more students in the future,” he says.
Penn State also offers a wide array of co-ops and internships. Although the university is not one of the few schools that have co-ops as a requirement to graduate, Wormley says many of his engineering students are keen participants in the program, including a growing number who work abroad in Europe and Asia. “International experience is becoming more and more important all the time,” he says. “One of our themes is that our graduates should aspire to become world-class engineers, and one attribute of that is to become more aware of the world around. Many projects now are jointly undertaken by U.S. engineers with Asian and European engineers. This international experience will give them a much broader global perspective. Also, in the future our engineers will not only be competing with these graduates from places like China and India and Europe but co-operating with them as well.”
Despite all the changes in teaching engineering over the course of his years at Penn State—Wormley points to a greater focus on written and oral skills as well as an emphasis on the entrepreneurial and innovative aspects of engineering—one thing has remained the same: “People who graduate with a strong foundation are going to have a lot of options.” They will be the ones, Wormley says, who will be best able to adapt to the ever-changing demands of a rapidly evolving profession. “The half-life of engineers now is five years. You have to stay up-to-date with technology, either through distance courses offered by universities or short courses offered by industry. Companies tell us that most new graduates can expect to change jobs three to five times in their lifetimes—if not more. They may also develop in other areas. I just got an e-mail from a colleague saying that the largest percentage of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies come from the engineering discipline.”
He says the challenge of attracting enough students from K-12 into engineering has been well chronicled by the National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” “We have to have strong cooperation between science and engineering faculties with K-12 students and teachers so students get an appreciation of how they can contribute to society by a career in engineering. This has to happen early because we already losing students by middle school and junior high.”
In his role as ASEE president, Wormley says he has emphasized this as the Year of Dialogue. “We’re organizing so that every single regional meeting of ASEE will have discussions of elements coming from “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” We will also be looking at the changes that we should be making in engineering education so that our students will learn better and learn what is appropriate.” A second goal, he says, is to expand ASEE’s activities to communicate and cooperate with people around the globe so we can reach out to our colleagues from around the world. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”
Sharing ideas is something that Wormley has already encouraged far
beyond the grounds of Penn State. From 2002 to 2005 he served as
chair of the Engineering Deans Council (EDC), a group that puts
on a public policy forum in Washington every February with leaders
from industry and academia to talk about pressing issues in engineering
education and to exchange best practices among the schools of engineering
in the United States. Paul Peercy, dean of engineering at the University
of Wisconsin, says that Wormley fulfilled that role admirably. “As
chair of EDC, David fostered an open, collaborative and cooperative
spirit among deans of colleges of engineering. He’s a visionary
leader, and his work as chair was further evidence of that.”
Wormley and his wife, Shirley, have two children. Linda, the older of the two, has carried on the engineering tradition into a third generation; she graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on biomedical and worked as a physical therapist. His younger daughter, Janet, earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and political science and later earned an MBA before taking a job in finance. What spare time he has is devoted to reading, tennis and hiking in the hills of Pennsylvania, something he says is particularly enjoyable in the fall.
Even though he has accomplished many objectives in his 14 years at Penn State, he still feels “there’s a lot of things left to be done.” He points to the need to encourage more women and minorities to study and teach engineering as one particular goal. There is also the continuing challenge of graduating engineers who can truly contribute to society in today’s global context. “These are big challenges,” Wormley says, “but the future of America’s success as a center of engineering excellence depends upon our fulfilling both of these objectives.”
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.