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ASEE Today

Filling Four Shoes & Doing It Well

Duane Abata has lots of energy. He's going to need it as ASEE's new president and Northern Arizona's new dean.

-By David Brindley

OK., here's a riddle. Given these hints below, can you come up with a name?

  • A member with a long history of activism in ASEE and an ambitious agenda for the year ahead.
  • A successful professor of engineering with decades of experience and a promising new appointment as engineering school dean.
  • An experienced CEO and entrepreneurial spirit with two start-up companies under
    his belt.
This exercise is much too easy for most ASEE members. Obviously, the answer is Duane Abata, the society's newly elected president. In addition to the impressive list of accomplishments above, Abata is also a down-to-earth, affable, regular guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor. “I would like to think I was elected because of the statement I wrote on the ballot,” Abata says, with just a hint of a smile. “But maybe it was because my name begins with an ‘A,' and they just checked the first name off.”

More likely, ASEE members were already familiar with Abata through a number of positions he has held and years of dedication to the organization. A member since 1977, Abata was so eager to attend his first annual conference that he drove from the Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., to New Orleans—a nearly 3,000 mile round-trip—with his wife in the front seat of their Jeep Cherokee and his 3-year-old son bouncing in the backseat. From that zealous start, Abata soon became active in the North Midwest Section and got involved with the Graduate Studies Division, working his way up as secretary, treasurer, program chair, director, and chair. He has also served on the ASEE Board of Directors as chair of the Professional Interest Council.

What most people don't know about Abata is that he pins his lifelong interest in science and engineering to a pivotal moment in his childhood, a moment that came flooding back to him on a recent visit to the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the lobby, Abata stumbled upon the original bathysphere, the four-and-a-half-foot ball of steel used in the first manned deep underwater exploration of the sea in 1934. Seeing the small vessel brought memories of his second-grade primary-school teacher in 1957 telling stories of the historic descent. “Miss Brue had us draw it with colored crayons and fish floating by and a man peeking out a window. This is the first time I've actually seen it. I have an emotional attachment to that thing, a hunk of metal,” Abata enthused. “I don't know if I was interested in science and math because of the way my brain was put together, or because of Miss Brue, but she might have a lot to do with why I'm an engineer today.”

Regardless of its origin, Abata took that interest and ran with it, earning a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He then joined the engineering faculty at the Michigan Technological University in 1977, where he pursued research in cross-disciplinary exploration of energy and held a variety of leadership positions, including interim dean of the college of engineering. A tenured full professor, Abata has been recognized for distinguished teaching with numerous awards from students, faculty, and from the State of Michigan.

In 2001 Abata took a leave of absence from his teaching duties for a two-year appointment to the National Science Foundation, where, as program director in the Division of Engineering Education and Centers, he monitored 50 research centers in varied disciplines and subjects throughout the United States. Of his work at NSF, Abata says it has been a good opportunity to examine what's happening in engineering education from the perspective of looking at proposals, learning about all the programs, and finding out what educators are doing across the country. He says the experience has been unbelievable.

It's hard to top such an exciting appointment, but Abata did just that in August when he became the new dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at Northern Arizona University. With his duties as dean and president of ASEE, it's going to be a challenging year, but one that Abata is looking forward to. In particular, he's eager to pursue some ambitious goals for ASEE.

As Abata sees it, “ASEE is really a forum to present educational techniques, educational procedures, for all facets of engineering. That's what it's done throughout the years, and that is our first and primary function.”

Beyond that, however, there are several initiatives that the new president seeks to emphasize during his tenure. In addition to promoting gender equality and greater minority representation in the engineering education field, Abata hopes to expand the number of students in the engineering pipeline by promoting science interest in the classroom —at the university, high school, and even kindergarten level. Abata's own second-grade experience with the bathysphere—the “Ah-Ha!” moment when science took hold of his imagination—shows how powerful and lasting these early experiences can be.

Now there is a major thrust to really reach out and down, so to speak, into K-12 schools. “We're seeing a lot of practices and things that people are doing to stimulate interest in science, mathematics, and engineering, as far down as kindergarten,” says Abata. “Grants are available for sociologists, psychologists, and engineering educators to come together to talk about and to examine the research on how a young mind thinks. How to put things together in such a way so that an individual, a young student can begin to understand and really be excited about science and mathematics. This outreach will help ensure the flow of young brilliant minds that thirst for scientific challenge and to know about engineering, are aware of the things we do, and are excited to learn about the profession and becoming not only engineers but, more important, future educators of engineering in the academic environment.”

Similarly, Abata hopes to increase the global reach of ASEE by working with similar societies in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. To that end, Abata is looking forward to meeting with global partners next year in Beijing at the third international conference co-sponsored by ASEE.

Last but not least is one goal that Abata is especially passionate about: Fostering an entrepreneurial spirit among engineers. It's also a goal that he speaks to from experience. During the past eight years, Abata has founded two high-tech companies, serving as CEO for one. He also helped form the first entrepreneurial constituent committee, now a division, at ASEE.

I'm very much interested in entrepreneurial development,” Abata explains. “Engineers in general tend not to be risk takers. I think a lot of that has to do with our educational process. We just haven't developed that component of risk taking, of business spirit, in the engineering schools.”

In many respects, reaching out and discovering new opportunities has been a recurring theme throughout Abata's life. And that sense of wonder and enthusiasm animates him today as much as it did when he was a second-grade student learning about the deep ocean: “It's just phenomenal what you find when you reach out beyond your own world.”

David Brindley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at


The ASEE/NCS 2004 Spring Conference hosted by Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., April 1-3. Entitled "Excellence in Engineering/Technology Education and Research," the conference will feature technical sessions with papers presenting the latest teaching innovations in engineering/technology education, laboratories, and research; exhibits, workshops, and an awards banquet will also be held. Both hardcopies and electronic forms of abstracts—maximum one page, in PDF—should be sent by December 15, 2003, to Hossein Mousavinezhad, ECE Department, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008, (269) 387-4057, Fax (269) 387-4096, For more information, visit


About People

Melvin P. Corley was named national outstanding adviser by Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society, for his work with students. Corley, a professor of mechanical engineering at Louisiana Tech University since 1980, has served as chief adviser to the society's Louisiana Gamma chapter since 1998. Students and peers have credited Corley for the Gamma chapter's recent rise in stature. He received his bachelor's in mechanical engineering at Louisiana Tech and earned master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Texas-Austin.

David A. Peters, the McDonnell Douglas Professor of Engineering and chairman of the department of mechanical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has been named a fellow of the American Helicopter Society International (AHS). Presented at the society's annual national forum held this past May, the AHS Fellow Award recognizes those whose work to further the interests of the vertical flight society was outstanding.

Ainissa G. Ramirez made Technology Review magazine's list of the 100 top innovators under the age of 35. The magazine is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ramirez, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Yale University, earned a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Her research interests include the study of micro-electromechanical systems, optoelectronics, and the mechanical properties of thin films.

Ross G. Spiegel was recently awarded the lifetime member plaque by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). CSI is an individual membership technical society with nearly 18,000 members, including architects, specifiers, engineers, contractors, product representatives, building owners, and facility managers. Spiegel has been a member of CSI for 25 years and served as its president from 2001 to 2002.


Gary Martin, assistant dean at the School of Engineering at the University of the Pacific, has published a book entitled Welcome to the Professional World. For the book he interviewed hundreds of new professionals and their supervisors. Involved with career guidance since 1983, Martin teaches a course that prepares students for entry into the professional world. He is also active in studying diversity in the workplace and co-operative education best practices.


ASEE's Role in Iraqi Engineering

Not surprisingly, the war in Iraq has had a devastating effect on that country's engineering schools. Professors connected to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party have lost their jobs, deeply affecting departments at some schools. Some are appealing, arguing that they had to join to protect their families or advance their careers. The lack of electricity in some areas is a huge problem. Communication is poor and there's very limited access to the Internet—that is, when a computer can even be found. Many have been stolen. Laboratories have been looted, and many engineering books and technical documents have been burned. Iraqi engineering schools had a host of problems before the war, but the recent fighting has made things worse. Engineering professors have been unable to travel to international conferences since the mid-1980s when the Iraqi government stopped providing the funding.

ASEE executive director Frank Huband, along with officials from other engineering societies, has been meeting with officials at the State Department to determine how engineers—including deans and professors—can help rebuild Iraq, including its engineering capacity. Hank Hatch, former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, is heading another effort. Some proposals under discussion include bringing a few Iraqi engineering deans to the Engineering Deans Institute to discuss their needs, and arranging a conference, perhaps in Jordan, for Iraqi and American deans. “The needs of our Iraqi counterparts are great, and we hope to make the full extent of our resources available and help them any way we can,'' says Huband.


Engineering, GO FOR IT !

America owes much of its global leadership to science and technology. The foundation of that technological supremacy has been the K-12 science and math classroom. However, the foundation is showing alarming signs of weakness. The number of college students completing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines has been decreasing since the mid 1980s. Recent reports from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that American students continue to lag behind other nations in math and science proficiency. And in many cases, the people who could be teaching the nation's schoolchildren are working in other, more lucrative and prestigious fields.

To reverse this trend and maintain a competitive edge into the future, the ranks of STEM students need to grow. But increases in gross numbers alone will not be enough. Tomorrow's technical workforce must include more women and minorities to more fully represent the interests of an increasingly heterogeneous society. Last year, ASEE launched the EngineeringK12 Center to support the work of engineering educators seeking to promote science and math at the primary- and secondary-school levels. The center's mission is to attract more and better prepared students to the field of engineering.

ASEE is uniquely positioned to engage in general engineering outreach. “We are the only group that encompasses all the engineering disciplines, and that gives our efforts greater relevance to larger numbers of people,” says Eric Iversen, the center's managing director.

As part of that ambitious agenda, ASEE has published a 64-page guidebook designed to get high school students excited about engineering. Called “Engineering, Go For It”, it's being distributed to high schools across the nation this month. The book covers many innovative and dramatic aspects of engineering, including the role that electrical engineers play in creating the electronic music made popular by pop stars like Britney Spears and Fatboy Slim. There are stories about how engineers are developing amazing tools to fight terrorism and how the environment is much cleaner today, thanks to engineers. “This publication is the anchor of our public awareness efforts,” says Iversen.

Along with increasing awareness, the EngineeringK12 Center is also cataloging existing outreach programs run by academic and corporate members of ASEE. Part of a broader effort to provide useful knowledge to K-12 teachers and their engineering educator partners, this catalog is the first step in developing tools to improve outreach programs. Work will soon turn to developing a methodology for evaluating the performance of these programs and determining the benchmarks of excellence. ASEE will eventually make this information available to outreach program coordinators for internal evaluation.

On the principle that an engineering education starts with a child's first lesson in science or math, the center works to build relations and promote exchanges between primary- and secondary- teachers and engineering faculty members. ASEE is creating a community of educators by discounting society membership to K-12 educators and schools, forming a K-12 division within the society, and holding discussions among the leaders in engineering education outreach. “We want ASEE to be the one-stop shop for efforts across the country seeking to build the technical workforce of the future,” says Iversen.



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