By Mary Lord
GROWING UP POOR IN A LARGE FAMILY,
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO PROFESSOR JACKIE SULLIVAN FORGED A
REMARKABLY SUCCESSFUL CAREER, FROM CLIMBING THE CORPORATE
LADDER AT EDS TO TURNING YOUNGSTERS ON TO ENGINEERING.
It's a blistering summer morning. But climate control
remains far from the minds of the young Denver-area teens,
minorities, girls, and low-income youngsters. They happily
huddle in a cramped classroom, brainstorming cool features
for the remote-controlled model "green" houses
they must then construct. One group dismisses doorbells ("too
boring!") in favor of an automatic doggy door. Others
envision escalators, hot tubs, even a disco ball. Rock music
wafts from a corner. This is engineering education?
The intense woman with piercing blue eyes surveying this
creative cacophony clearly thinks so. Distinguished only by
a nametag, "Jackie" moves from bench to bench,
prodding imaginations toward solar panels and energy conservation.
"What uses a lot of power in a house—365 days
a year?" she asks three boys designing a Hawaiian mansion.
"Bingo! Hot water."
The students, 9th graders in the Denver School of Science
and Technology's inaugural class, don't know this
unassuming University of Colorado-Boulder professor helped
launch their new charter school or pushed to ensure enrollment
of underserved populations. They don't realize this
weeklong "Creative Engineering" workshop is just
one of many such outreach initiatives she coordinates to get
kids jazzed about engineering. Nor do they have a clue about
her business and academic accomplishments, which include nine
years as the top woman on the technical side of EDS.
And that's just how Jacquelyn F. Sullivan, the founding
co-director of the innovative Integrated Technology and Learning
Program at UCB's college of engineering and applied
science, wants it. "Please go easy on the me part,"
she begs, calling herself "a great conductor"
of talent rather than the program's sole star. "I
subscribe to the concept that there is no ‘I'
The team in question is the energetic band of fellow professors,
graduate students, and staff that orchestrate one of the nation's
most imaginative engineering-outreach programs. Offerings
include college prep engineering design classes in which Native
American high schoolers build stereo speakers, "Girls
Embrace Technology" camps, and teacher workshops that
utilize GPS locators—and these are just a summer sampling.
The goal of all this: to coax more girls, minorities, and
other underrepresented youngsters into engineering by starting
early and making it fun and relevant to their lives.
The team may supply the sweat, but Sullivan's vision
drives the mission. If she is a crusader, it's because
her horizons were once limited, too. Growing up poor on a
Michigan dairy farm, Jackie never dreamed she would wind up
an engineer and scholar. "Academics were not on my screen,"
Indeed, just getting through school was a challenge. Chores
began before dawn, and none of the Sullivan children could
dash down their dirt road for the bus until they milked all
72 cows. Heeding her 5th grade teacher's advice to think
of education as "a way out," Jackie would read
books in the unheated attic or under the blanket of the bed
she shared with her sister.
Though she "blew the roof" off standardized tests,
Jackie never earned great grades in high school, preferring
to play guitar in a girl band. When she sought college advice,
the guidance counselor tried to steer her toward secretarial
school. At the time, recounts Jackie, "I didn't
have a clue about what I was going to do." Farm life
instilled traits that helped fuel an interest in engineering
and a passion for helping underdog kids. "I was lucky,
resourceful, and resilient," she says. Running the dairy
operation—Jackie's reward for coaxing more milk
from the cows than her brothers—honed her strong work
Jackie enrolled in Olivet College, a tiny liberal arts college
150 miles from home. Just 17, she arrived with no study skills
and probably would "have blown out mid-year" had
her biology professor not noticed that she knew all the answers
in class. He began assigning her daily research questions
that he then quizzed her on the next afternoon. Before long,
Jackie discovered she not only knew how to study and "could
compete if I decided to, but that I could set the curve in
class." She soon was earning A's and assisting
the professor. "It's all about confidence,"
A DEFINING EVENT
The experience—and reading Rachel Carson's environmental
classic, Silent Spring—whetted Jackie's interest
in protecting the environment. And that led her to the environmental
field, which is "all about imagining a better world
and going about creating it." After getting her bachelor's
degree she applied to the University of Michigan intending
to study the effects of Agent Orange in aquatic ecosystems.
But the program wouldn't send a woman to Vietnam for
fieldwork. So she emerged, at the age of 25, with a Ph.D.
After working her way through school, Jackie left academia
for industry, planning one day to return. She quickly found
her niche on engineering's frontier, first at the Idaho
National Engineering Laboratory, where she launched the environmental
division, and later at the Denver office of EDS leading large
teams of software engineers. Among her projects: helping General
Motors develop just-in-time manufacturing. "I couldn't
believe people paid me to do work I loved," Jackie says.
It seemed that she always ended up in charge. "I'm
good at seeing the big picture, for what can be done, not
what needs to be done," she explains. Her genius lay
in sizing up customer needs, then building the team that could
solve the problem.
The call back to campus came in 1990, when UCB's engineering
college dean asked Jackie to take over a foundering water
resources engineering research center. "Clean it up
or shut it down," he charged her. She had a great job
at EDS, but Jackie relishes challenge and this was a doozy:
a complex water-management decision support and modeling system
for the Colorado River that involved considering everything
from fluid dynamics to complex Western water policy.
Jackie saw that to rescue the research center she had to
redeploy talent and hold everyone, including herself, to tight
deadlines and budgets. That same vision infuses every nook
of the Integrated Technology and Learning Laboratory, the
hands-on engineering facility she co-led the creation of in
1992. The dean wanted a facility that would encourage interdisciplinary
collaborative learning. What emerged was a wholesale revamping
of the undergraduate program to put first-year students onto
the design-shop floor.
Jackie and a team of faculty members spent a year on the
educational concept. They visited cutting-edge programs nationwide,
and had architects tour the San Francisco Exploratorium to
get a feel for the kind of interactive, engaging projects
that would spark student interest. The result may be the most
whimsical engineering building on any campus. Hands-on interactive
exhibits abound. Articles about student inventors and women
engineers vie for wall space with exhibits explaining fluid
Jackie brought to academia from industry (along with customer
focus) a focus on results. While she encourages her colleagues
to take risks, and—yes—make mistakes, ("I
screw up every day," she says), in the end her team
must deliver. Thus, along with all these K-12 outreach initiatives
comes a commitment to measure how well they work. Are kids
going into engineering after taking pre-college courses? Do
single-sex classes for girls boost confidence and interest
in pursuing science, math, and engineering? Jackie needs to
justify these programs to sponsors, and if they aren't
effective, she will shut them down. Case in point—killing
off a science of sound and acoustics camp that all the engineers
thought sounded cool but received a lukewarm reception from
Her K-12 engineering team continues to roll out new projects.
Their latest passion: TeachEngineering.com, a digital library
of standards-based engineering lessons and hands-on activities,
searchable by grade and discipline. Using engineering as a
vehicle for the integration of science and math, teachers
won't have to reinvent the wheel.
Meanwhile, Jackie has been wrestling with home-front challenges
as well. Diagnosed with breast cancer this past spring, she
underwent her last radiation treatment—jetting to ASEE's
annual meeting just 14 hours later, giving one of the mini-plenary
talks on K-12 engineering. She insists that cancer hasn't
slowed her, apart from causing her to pause and wonder why
she drives herself so hard. Beyond sending her first daugher
off to college this fall and planning a kayak trip in a remote
corner of Canada, Jackie says she hasn't thought much
about the future. A photo of the cattle ranch near Steamboat
Springs, Colo., offers one clue. She and her husband plan
to retire there one day. With no milking, great views, and
a three-hour drive to Boulder, it won't be hard to keep
Jackie down on this farm.
Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington,