ASEE PRISM - October 2000
ASEE Today
Meet Wally Fowler - ASEE President 2000-20001

By Susan C. Hegger

Wally FowlerThe new president of the American Society for Engineering Education laughs easily. He has a self-effacing, light-hearted manner that belies a--shall we say--stellar career, with a galaxy of achievements.

Wallace T. Fowler has been with the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin since 1965. A professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, he holds the title of Paul D. and Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professor in Engineering and is a member of the UT Austin Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Fowler is also the associate director of the Texas Space Grant Consortium. He has a long association with NASA and is currently working on the mission plan for the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment project, which is scheduled to launch out of Russia in late 2001. Two satellites, 220 kilometers--or about 136 miles--apart will map the Earth's gravity fields with the aim of developing a more precise picture of the distribution and flow of mass within the Earth and its surroundings.

With a longtime research focus on the design of spacecraft, aircraft, and planetary exploration systems, Fowler could easily be considered a man with his head in the clouds. But the truth of the matter is quite the opposite. Wally Fowler is a down-to-earth educator with a passion for teaching--perhaps one reason he has received recognition for his teaching on more than 15 occasions. He recalls with relish a colleague's description of his teaching method: "Fowler gets down in the sandbox and pushes the students up from beneath." Teaching, Fowler says, "is not a job. It's fun."

This kind of hands-on, direct engagement makes him an apt choice for ASEE president. John Weese, last year's ASEE president and a longtime friend, praises him as a man of "abundant energy, many good ideas, a lot of foresight" and a rapport with young people--i.e., perfect for the job.

Like his predecessor, Fowler's major goal is trying to recruit more young people into engineering education. "I look at engineering faculty nationwide," says Fowler, "and I see an awful lot of gray hair. Recruited when Sputnik went up, a lot of these faculty are now approaching retirement. The pipeline to replace them is not full."

The problem isn't attracting bright, young students into engineering. "Tons of people go into engineering," says Fowler. It's getting them to pursue doctoral degrees and a career in the academy, especially when the "hurdles for promotion in the academy have gotten higher" and opportunities in the private sector are so appealing. No wonder many of the best and the brightest entertain visions of becoming "Dellionaires," an Austin term for dot-com computer millionaires.

Fixing the problem won't be easy, but Fowler suggests there are two essential ingredients. The first is "making ASEE more relevant for younger faculty members." That means doing a better job of involvingthem in the life of the organization through their active participation in committees. Younger members are the source of the new ideas that will keep the profession vibrant, he strongly believes. That's why he was especially enthusiastic about the sessions at the St. Louis convention where various faculty members did seven-minute demonstrations of how they teach.

The second ingredient is to set up more student chapters and work to increase student membership and interest. The emphasis on the young seems to suit the president's temperament. By his own admission, he's certainly energetic. He plays handball three times a week, which is one way of expending pent-up energy. He also seems to thrive on a jam-packed schedule. "I don't know how to say 'no'," he says. "It usually comes out 'yeah' or 'OK.'"

But like the young, Fowler looks ahead to the future. His mind moves quickly from today's students to tomorrow's technological challenges, then back to education's role in building the bridge between the two. Perhaps because of his years in the space program, his conversation is peppered with references to futuristic inventions--phones incorporated into wristwatches and "conference call" holograms that reduce the need for travel. Then he'll switch gears and talk about the need for all-tech solutions--high-tech and low-tech--to the problems of Y6B, the world's population of six billion.

So does Wally Fowler have any hobbies? Is there anything he likes to do for relaxation? That's the only question that seems to stump him. "I used to fly airplanes," he says after a moment's hesitation. "But I haven't flown in 15 years." Why not? He never had the time to really keep up with it. "I won't fly unless I fly enough to be safe," he says. "I believe in the old saying that goes: 'There are old pilots, there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.'" And then he chuckles.

 Susan C. Hegger is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.

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