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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY: BANGALORE-JOLT - INDIA’S RAPID HIGH-TECH GROWTH HAS FUELED A HUGE DEMAND FOR WELL-TRAINED ENGINEERS. STARTUPS, INDUSTRY, RETURNING EXPATRIATES AND EVEN A SPIRITUAL LEADER—THE ‘HUGGING SAINT’—OFFER INNOVATIVE WAYS TO FILL THE VOID. BUT ARE THEIR EFFORTS ENOUGH? BY LUCILLE CRAFT
FEATURE: 2 FOR 1 - IN PUTTING ITS BUSINESS AND ENGINEERING SCHOOLS UNDER ONE ROOF, PENN STATE BEHREND AIMS TO FOSTER CREATIVE TEAMWORK WHILE MAKING ITS STUDENTS ATTRACTIVE TO INDUSTRY.  BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EDUCATOR FOR THE REAL WORLD - JIM MELSA WANTED TO CHANGE HOW ENGINEERING IS TAUGHT, EVEN IF IT MADE HIM ‘A PAIN IN THE NECK.’ BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: LAUNCHING A CAREER - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Saving the Marriage - BY PAUL PEERCY

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Walking the Line - Ethics courses give students an understanding of the dilemmas they will face in the workplace—and the confidence to make wise choices. BY ALICE DANIEL
JEE SELECTS: The Case for Inductive Teaching - BY RICHARD FELDER AND MICHAEL PRINCE
ON THE SHELF: Stunning Growth, Stubborn Problems - BY ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
FEATURE: EDUCATOR FOR THE REAL WORLD - JIM MELSA WANTED TO CHANGE HOW ENGINEERING IS TAUGHT, EVEN IF IT MADE HIM ‘A PAIN IN THE NECK.’ BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS - Photographs by James GodmanFEATURE: EDUCATOR FOR THE REAL WORLD - JIM MELSA WANTED TO CHANGE HOW ENGINEERING IS TAUGHT, EVEN IF IT MADE HIM ‘A PAIN IN THE NECK.’ BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS - Photographs by James Godman  


Take the road less traveled by, poet Robert Frost once advised. It’s counsel that has certainly stood ASEE President Jim Melsa in good stead throughout his long career in engineering, particularly when, as department chair at Notre Dame in the mid-1980s, he relinquished the comfort and security of a senior university post to carve out a new career in industry. “My wife said, ‘Do you really want to give up tenure?’ But I figured that industrial experience would ultimately make me a better dean when I returned to academia in five years or so,” recalls Melsa, 69. His sojourn in business actually lasted a decade, but Melsa finished his career in stellar fashion at the same university, Iowa State, where he first studied engineering almost four decades earlier.

The son of a laborer in a meatpacking plant in South Omaha, Neb., Melsa knew from an early age that success in school was his ticket to a better way of life. None of his family had been to university, but he couldn’t imagine packing his lunchbox every day for a stint at the local factory. A summertime job in construction between high school and university confirmed that view. “The first day on the job I was on the end of a jackhammer drilling holes through a wall. After a day of that, I knew why I wanted to go to college.”

“I think I’m relatively good at putting myself in a student’s head and saying, ‘What do they know now and what can they know?’”

Melsa chose Iowa State for undergraduate studies because “it was relatively close, my dad grew up near there and I knew that it was a good engineering school. Plus I had a full-ride scholarship.” Melsa applied to Iowa State as a physics student but switched to engineering after he registered. “Engineers make things happen and create wealth and so forth. Not that there’s anything wrong with physics,” he quickly adds, “but I think I made the right choice.”

As he neared graduation, and after speaking with professors, Melsa lined up a job with RCA that would allow him to attend graduate school while working part time and collecting a full-time salary. With his new wife, Kathy, he moved to the University of Arizona in the summer of 1960 and started work on his Ph.D.

Finding A New Love

Things went well in his first year at RCA, and Melsa could well imagine eventually joining the company full time once he completed his degree. Fate had other ideas. He and Kathy lived in a duplex next to newly minted professor Andy Sage, from whom Melsa took a course in the spring semester. The young professor was sufficiently impressed by his student to offer him an instructorship and graduate assistantship. The pay was pretty close to what Melsa was making at RCA, but now he could concentrate on research—and what quickly developed into a new love: teaching.

“It was a little terrifying at first getting up in front of a group of people,” Melsa admits, “but I ended up loving it. I loved the interaction with students. You learn a tremendous amount. That old saying is true: If you want to learn something, teach it.” Melsa believes a defining quality of a good teacher is the ability to view the world through a student’s eyes. “I think I’m relatively good at putting myself in a student’s head and saying, ‘What do they know now and what can they know?’ I can’t use all of those wonderful theories because they aren’t there yet.”

His first teaching assignment was a compulsory electrical engineering course for mechanical engineering students. It introduced him to a problem that he feels has long plagued engineering education: “These disciplines we’ve created don’t correspond to real-world problems. One of my friends says, ‘The world has problems, and we have departments.’ The fact is, there is no electrical engineering. There is no mechanical engineering. There are problems, and we solve them with whatever tools we have available.”

Meanwhile, life on the home front was a little hectic. Kathy had finished her degree in English and history, later going on to complete a master’s degree in early childhood education, and also became a Montessori directress. “She probably could have taught the courses,” Melsa says. “She’s a wizard with kids, as well as being a very smart person.” Two children had been added to the mix; four more were soon to follow. Melsa was now teaching courses, taking graduate courses and working on his thesis. “There wasn’t a lot of sleep as young parents.”

After he completed his Ph.D., Melsa joined the faculty at the University of Arizona, remaining until 1967, when he got another call from Andy Sage. Southern Methodist University in Dallas was looking for new professors, and Sage suggested Melsa apply. “They offered a 50 percent salary raise, so the decision was pretty easy to make,” Melsa laughs. It was a good time to be a young professor. “There were lots of federal dollars available for research; I had good graduate students. I was directing six or eight Ph.D. students, as well as writing books. It was great.”

Business Beckons Again

JIM MELSA - Photograph by James GodmanBut eventually Melsa decided it was time to move up the academic ladder. In 1973, he accepted a job as chair of electrical engineering at Notre Dame with the goal of turning the South Bend, Ind., university into a center of research. It was a daunting task. “There were some senior members of the department who had never been to Washington to see the National Science Foundation, for example. I put them on a plane and said, ‘Go and tell them about your research. You’re doing great work, and you can get some funding.’ I had the advantage that there were a lot of faculty positions opening up. I hired young, research-oriented professors.”

Starting in 1983, Melsa began spending half his time as department chair and half time directing a research lab affiliated with the telecommunication company Tellabs Inc. “It was the world’s worst arrangement,” Melsa recalls wryly. “Both sides think you work full time for them, and both sides pay you less than half. Plus you get shortchanged on benefits.” Eventually, when Tellabs made him a full-time offer, Melsa had a decision to make: stay with the comfortable life of a chair at a prestigious university or embark on the uncertain waters of a career in business.

Melsa went for the latter and didn’t regret it for a moment. He left Notre Dame in 1984, and two years later took over the research and development organization at Tellabs’ headquarters near Chicago. It was a big change for a lifelong academic. “Now I was in the real mesh of things, working with practicing engineers designing circuit boards and software. The factory was phoning up saying nobody can manufacture this garbage you’re designing. The customer was calling up saying there’s problems with the boards--all those things professors don’t have to deal with.” The experience was invaluable for Melsa’s future return to university life. “There is too much disconnection between the real world of engineering and academia,” he says. “It’s like going to a doctor who has never seen a patient. We need to make the boundary between practice and academics more porous so people can make the transition more easily.”

Mike Birck, founder and current chairman of Tellabs, had no doubt that Melsa could make the transition. From the beginning, he knew Melsa would bring important qualities to the company. “Our R&D was mostly D at the time,” Birck says. “We were pretty good at implementing something but not so good at characterizing it analytically. Jim was very good at that. Plus he had contact with other people at Notre Dame who were also skilled on the analytic side.”

Melsa’s work at Tellabs saw him shift from vice president of strategic planning and advanced technology to vice president of strategic quality and process management, building in quality rather than just inspecting quality. He also pulled a stint running the data products branch. “All of these things were new experiences and great learning,” he says. His old mentor and colleague Sage wasn’t surprised by Melsa’s ability to move between industry and academia. “You could certainly recognize, even in the early years, that here was an extraordinarily talented guy, capable and motivated to produce very good work.”

Melsa says he might have stayed longer in industry were it not for a letter he received from his undergraduate alma mater, Iowa State, seeking a dean of engineering. At first, Melsa wasn’t interested. “I was really happy at Tellabs. I had a nice house, and I was making more money than I ever thought I could make.” But Iowa State continued to pursue him, and in November 1994 he went for an interview. “I told them, ‘If you hire me, I’m going to be a pain in the neck. We’re going to stop talking about teaching and start talking about learning because teaching without learning is meaningless. We’re going to refocus on industrial practice for students and faculty, and focus on leadership and international experience. If you don’t want to do those things, then don’t hire me.’ ” He adds, “I sort of expected to be thrown out. Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t. The president loved it; the provost loved it; and the faculty, amazingly, loved it too.”

Birck said the loss of Melsa didn’t come as a bolt out of the blue. “I hadn’t dwelled on the prospect, but I knew (education) was something that he was pretty steeped in. So when it finally came to pass, I wasn’t surprised—not that I was particularly happy about it, but I knew that it was something that he had long aspired to, plus the fact that it was his alma mater.”

One of the changes Melsa introduced at Iowa State was block budgeting, with each department chair granted a specific amount of money. “I didn’t want to hear about when someone needed to do such and such. ‘Get it out of your block budget,’ I told them.” The new budgeting offered tremendous flexibility for the department chairs and faculty, says Melsa. “It empowered them, requiring them to be leaders. And most of them became much better leaders as a result.”

One of the achievements of which Melsa is most proud is Hoover and Howe Halls, the $62.5 million engineering teaching and research complex built while he was dean. He even enjoyed raising the money. “I was fundraising from people who were a lot like me: people who had money but had come from farms or small towns in the Midwest, people whose lives had been immeasurably improved by engineering education. They came out of Iowa State with a great education and preparation for a successful, lucrative career, and they were ready and willing to pay back.”

A Gift for Fundraising

Ted Okiishi, associate dean of the college of engineering at Iowa State, recalls when Melsa first interviewed for the dean’s job. “He didn’t know whether he’d be good at fundraising, but boy, he turned out to be dynamite. He really hit it off with donors. Jim is such a likable guy. Big smile, very warm, very easy to converse with and become friends with. As he met with these donors, they said, ‘This is a guy we love, and this is the guy who is the dean of the college we graduated from. How much do you want?’ It was magic.” Okiishi sees Hoover and Howe Halls as testimony to the strength of the engineering college at Iowa State and an enduring legacy of Melsa’s stewardship. “They had been planned before he came, but during his time, the buildings got built, occupied, dedicated—the whole works.”

Melsa retired in 2004. Since then, he has spent much of his time volunteering and consulting in the worlds of education, engineering and beyond. He and Kathy are trustees of a new Catholic elementary school in Naperville, Ill. The Melsa Foundation, founded in 1996, has given back in innumerable ways to the community of Ames, home of Iowa State. In 2004, the foundation donated $50,000 to ACCESS, an organization that deals with domestic violence and sexual assault. At the time, the director of ACCESS, Kathy Greenfield, told the Iowa State Daily that the Melsas “are single-handedly making a huge impact for low-income families and families in danger in Story Country.”

ASEE President Jim Melsa has followed varied, sometimes diverging, paths during his lifetime. And that, as Frost wrote, has made all the difference.

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

 

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