PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER  - What makes someone decide to become an engineer? Six highly accomplished educators tell their stories. - By Thomas K. Grose - Illustration by John Kachik

By Thomas K. Grose


ON THE COVER: THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - Six highly accomplished educators tell why they became engineers. By Thomas K. Grose - Illustrations by John KachikHere's a given: All engineers were strong math and science students while growing up. Clearly, those talents provided them with an entree to the world of engineering. But a facility with math and science offers a wide variety of career paths. At what point in their childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood did today's engineers decide that engineering was for them? Was there some signal event? A Eureka! moment? Or was it a process, a series of fortunate events? Are they the sons and daughters of engineers carrying on a family tradition? Perhaps some astute grade-school teacher pointed them in the right direction. Or maybe they were
garage tinkerers who just stumbled into it?

Wanting to find out, Prism spoke to six engineering academics and asked them for their stories, what led them to eventually don lab coats, pick up a slide rule, and become distinguished engineering researchers and teachers. We expected to hear some interesting stories well worth sharing with Prism readers. We weren't disappointed.


As a child growing up in Greenville, Texas, Wallace T. Fowler was besotted with airplanes. He kept a box of 3x5 cards detailing the specs of every plane made, and when B36s flew over his grandmother's house, he could tell which engine they had, just by the sound of their drone. So clearly, ending up as a top aerospace engineering professor was a foregone conclusion. Right?

Not really. What Fowler, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas-Austin (UT), wanted to be was a test pilot. Poor eyesight and childhood asthma dashed those hopes. And his decision to go into engineering initially resulted from the need to better communicate with two graduate engineering students he was working for.

After graduating from high school in 1956, Fowler first went to college at Rice University as a physics major. A year later, he transferred to Texas for financial reasons and changed his major to mathematics. In his junior year, Fowler began learning computer programming, and as a senior, he was hired to do some programming for a couple of mechanical engineering graduate students. But there was a communications breakdown: "I did not understand the engineering and they did not understand the numerical analysis." To improve matters, Fowler began taking engineering mechanics courses—and discovered he liked them. When he got to graduate school, Fowler switched from math to engineering mechanics. "I was hooked," he says.

Not long after earning his master's, Fowler began working on his first space-related project, which involved guidance systems for vehicles flying Earth-to-Mars, low-thrust trajectories. After completing his Ph.D. in 1965, he joined the budding space engineering program at UT. And in 1976, when he became a full professor, Fowler spent a semester working at the United States Air Force Test Pilot School—a thrilling sojourn for someone who dreamed as a kid of being a test pilot.

During the 1981-82 academic year he also taught at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. There Fowler's career was once again transformed. He was asked to teach a design course, something he had never done before. It turned out to be a great fit. "I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it's all about,' " Fowler recalls. "I had never taught design, but found that I loved the challenges of working with teams of students developing new concepts and systems to meet specified needs." Back at UT, he developed a spacecraft/space systems design course that he's been teaching ever since. His most recent class had 57 students divided into nine teams working on such projects as a Mars Rover, an interplanetary navigation system, and a system to extract water from Martian soil.

Although he is "now on the space side of the house," the 66-year-old Fowler admits it still surprises him that he's been able to carve a career out of his boyhood fascination with airplane flight.

2. Linda P.B. Katehi

On July 20, 1969, Linda P.B. Katehi decided to become an electrical engineer. There's a good reason why Katehi, 55, can pinpoint when she decided her career path with such accuracy: on that day, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. ON THE COVER: THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - Six highly accomplished educators tell why they became engineers. By Thomas K. Grose - Illustrations by John KachikKatehi was a middle school student living in a small rural community on the Greek island of Salamis, a large pine-covered tract of land in the Aegean Sea that was home to the mythic hero Ajax and the playwright Euripides. Her father was a musician, her mother a homemaker. Luxuries were scarce. They didn't have a television, so Katehi watched the NASA broadcast of the historic moon walk at a neighbor's.
"For my generation, the moon landing had a major technological and social impact," she says. It certainly affected her. But as fascinated as Katehi was by Armstrong's lunar stroll, she was even more gripped by the shots of Houston's mission control, with its banks of blinking lights and flickering screens. "That's what impressed me most, and that's when I decided not to be an astronaut, but an electrical engineer." Twelve is an impressionable age for kids, especially girls, Katehi says. "That's when [girls] more or less make up their minds about what they like or don't like and what they want to do." Which, she adds, is a good reason for members of the engineering profession to reach out to girls at an early age. Katehi was the first in her family to go to college and the first girl from her community to attend a technical school. She was helped by her math teacher, Mr. Balbouzis. He found her advanced math books, then in short supply on Salamis, and encouraged her to seek a career that utilized her math skills.

Katehi's father was initially shocked by his daughter's career goal. And though he was highly supportive, he nonetheless predicted two sad outcomes: No one would hire her, and no one would marry her. "He was wrong on both counts," Katehi recalls with a laugh.

Dean Katehi got her B.S. in electrical engineering in 1977 from the National Technical University of Athens. In 1981, she earned her M.S. and three years later her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of California-Los Angeles. Post-graduation jobs included a year-long stint as a research engineer at Greece's defense department naval lab, and assistant, associate, and full professorships at the University of Michigan. These days, Katehi is dean of engineering at Purdue University, a position she's held since 2001.

Katehi's childhood dream to work with NASA did not go unfulfilled. Earlier in her career, she worked on several agency programs, including one that led to smaller, cheaper, and lighter radio systems for spacecraft. These systems help keep spacecraft in better contact with the Houston mission control operations that so captivated her 36 years ago.

3. Legand L. Burge, Jr.

For five years now, Legand L. Burge Jr. has been doing what he calls "the deaning thing" at Tuskegee University's department of electrical engineering. Before that, Burge, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University, spent 30 years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel. That's an impressive set of achievements for an African-American male who came of age in the 1960s.

Burge, 57, credits many people for inspiring him to reach his goals. His interest in electronics first came from his father, Legand L. Burge Sr., an electronics radar technician. His father also beat the odds for a black man of the 1930s and '40s, a time when few blacks could breach the color barrier in professional work. Burge Sr. was in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and scored so high on his tests that he was trained as an electrician. After an executive order in 1948 desegregated the armed forces, he joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of master sergeant. He later continued his radar work for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Burge also credits his mother, Bobbie, for stressing education. "She was old school," he recalls. He and his brothers were encouraged to read, and television was kept to a minimum. All four of the Burge children went on to earn masters' degrees. Burge also benefited from attending Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, which emphasized academics and had a strong cadre of teachers. It was Fred Baker, an electronics teacher, who encouraged Burge to seek a degree in electronic engineering. That would be a daunting choice, not because Burge wasn't qualified—he excelled at math and science—but because a degree in electrical engineering required going to Oklahoma State University. In 1967, the year Burge graduated from high school, OSU had few black students enrolled and even fewer in the engineering school. But Burge persevered. When he earned his doctorate, he became one of the engineering school's first two African-American Ph.D. recipients.

After getting his bachelor's, Burge joined the Air Force. He admits that he expected to stay in the service for only a few years. But great jobs, promotions, and opportunities to see the world kept coming his way. So Burge stayed 30 years. "I had a great career," he says.

Aside from engineering, Burge's lifelong passion is music. He began playing piano at 4 and later took up the organ. He has played, arranged, and composed music of all types—from gospel to pop to country-and-western—and has directed choirs numbering 300-strong. Burge believes that being a musician has enhanced his engineering career, and he points out that many of his engineering colleagues are also musically inclined. He sees a connection: "Music made me a stronger technical person."

4. Janie M. Fouke

Tinkering came naturally to Janie M. Fouke. That's just as well, too, because she grew up on a farm outside the rural community of Ayden, N.C., about 100 miles east/southeast of Raleigh. That flat, sandy country was one of the state's biggest tobacco-growing areas. Fouke's family farm grew mainly tobacco, but also soybeans and corn; there were also beef cattle and hogs.

Of course, farming tools and machines break or need servicing with all the regularity of the changing seasons, and calling a repair person usually isn't an option. "You have to fix things yourself," says Fouke, who has been dean of the college of engineering at Michigan State University in East Lansing for six years.

Fouke, the first member of her family to earn a university degree, says that by the time she was 9 her parents realized she was skilled in science. For Christmas that year she got a chemistry set that proved too messy for her bedroom. Her father built her a lab in one of the farm's outbuildings, complete with plumbing and wiring. The next Christmas, Fouke was given dissecting tools and preserved animals—not the type of toys usually found in Santa's sack.

With so much of her childhood spent in her farmyard lab, it wasn't surprising that Fouke wanted to study medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC). But her mother deemed the school too liberal. "She was worried that I would wear bell-bottoms, become a hippie, and do unspeakable things." Another possibility was an English degree from North Carolina State, but her mother was wary of that place, too. So, Fouke pursued a degree in biology from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina.

Marriage and three kids ruled out going to medical school after graduation, so Fouke earned a teaching certificate and taught science to middle and high school students. That lasted two years. "I was desperate to get out of teaching eighth graders," Fouke recalls with a laugh. When she learned that UNC offered a graduate program in biomathematics and medical engineering, she jumped at the chance: Here was a program that played to her engineering skills and medical interests. She moved to Chapel Hill—now an acceptable place, given her married-with-children status—and her husband, a constitutional law professor at St. Andrews, commuted. Five years later, the next logical step would have been post-doctoral work, but the need to earn income led Fouke instead to seek a part-time job. She was hired as a research assistant by an engineer who studied lungs. It was a serendipitous collaboration. "I had a blast; I loved it," Fouke, 54, says. And it helped launch her career designing instruments to better understand the human respiratory system.

Chance also played a role in the next step in Fouke's career: teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After applying to the university's Case School of Engineering, which historically had not hired many women faculty, Fouke got a letter expressing interest. When she read it, Fouke realized that someone had mistaken her gender—the letter greeted a "Mr. Jamie Fouke." She figured once the mistake was cleared up, she wouldn't have a hope. But in the end, Fouke got the job and stayed at Case Western for 18 years. During that period she spent four years as the first director of the Bioengineering and Environmental Systems Division of the National Science Foundation.

5. James L. Melsa

It was a Latin teacher who helped place James L. Melsa on the road to electrical engineering. The classics teacher at his high school in Omaha, Neb., noted Melsa's talent for math and science and began suggesting science fiction books to him. The teacher was himself a fan of sci-fi literature. "Books like 1984…it was something that intrigued me," recalls Melsa, 66, who retired last year after nine years as dean of the Iowa State University College of Engineering.

His interest in the wonders of science helped convince the young Melsa that he belonged in the lab. When he applied to the Iowa State physics program, Melsa, the first in his family to go to college, realized that to be the kind of physicist he wanted, he needed a Ph.D. Yet at that point in his life, Melsa didn't feel he could plan his career beyond a bachelor's degree, so he switched to electrical engineering. It came close to physics, he says, "and it was a salable skill."

Nevertheless, upon graduation in 1960, Melsa was still interested in graduate school. He applied and got into MIT and several other schools. But he was also newly married and needed to earn a living. RCA offered him a job that let him attend graduate school two days a week at the University of Arizona (UA).

That's when Melsa met his next mentor. When he and his wife moved to Tucson, Melsa discovered that Andrew Sage, a professor of electrical engineering, was a neighbor. Melsa took Sage's course and so impressed his professor that Sage negotiated a position for Melsa as a part-time graduate student and full-time instructor at UA—at a salary nearly equal to what RCA was paying. Melsa eventually earned his master's in 1962 and his doctorate in 1965 from Arizona. During his career, he also taught at Southern Methodist University and the University of Notre Dame—where he was also chairman of the electrical engineering department. Melsa spent 11 years at Tellabs Inc. in Lisle, Ill., working in a variety of posts, including vice president of strategic planning and advanced technology. He and Sage went on to write a number of books together.

Certainly Melsa has no regrets that he chose electrical engineering over physics. "It was a great career," he says. Ironically, Melsa only rarely reads science fiction these days, though he's still a fan of sci-fi movies and TV shows.

6. Walter W. Buchanan

It's been hypothesized that the future of work in America will be a series of careers, bolstered by ongoing, life-long education. Few workers in the future, including professionals, will remain in one career for life. If that theory proves correct, then consider Walter W. Buchanan a pioneer.

Buchanan is currently a professor at and director of the School of Engineering Technology at Northeastern University. But he was 43 before he found his true calling teaching engineering technology. Moreover, he received his doctorate 12 years ago, 30 years after earning his first bachelor's degree.

Certainly he was strong in math. Indeed, his first degree was a B.A. in mathematics with a double major in Russian from Indiana University. Buchanan then worked for several years in the engineering units of the aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Next came a four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy, where he spent time as a gunnery officer aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam.

After Vietnam, Buchanan went to Indiana for a law degree. He practiced administrative law for several years after graduating, "but I got bored with it," he recalls. He considered a move into patent law but instead took a job as a researcher at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis. He also began taking night classes in engineering at Purdue, eventually earning his second bachelor's in 1982 and his master's two years later. "I like to tell people that I used to be a lawyer but then decided that I wanted to do something useful for society, so I became an engineer." His moment of revelation came in 1983 when he was asked to teach a course in engineering technology. "I loved it," Buchanan says. "My only regret is I didn't discover it sooner."

Buchanan's new career also gave him opportunities to live in various regions of the United States, which he enjoyed. Buchanan has taught engineering technology at the University of Central Florida, Middle Tennessee State University, the Oregon Institute of Technology, and Northeastern University in Boston, where he's been since 1999.

Buchanan says his years working in industry benefit him in what he does now, especially since engineering technology emphasizes grooming students for a life in the workplace, not academia. If today's students end up having a variety of careers while accumulating a number of degrees along the way, then Buchanan serves as the perfect role model.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.


A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Keeping Things in Perspective - By Henry Petroski
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
TEACHING: Making Them Want to Stay - By Phillip Wankat & Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: The Write Time and Place - By Robert Gardner
LAST WORD: Inside Washington - By Jim Turner

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