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FEATURE
Lives of an Engineer - For Walter Buchanan, IBM mainframes, the Saturn V rocket, Navy service, and the law were just a prelude to the “constant stimulation” of teaching. + By Pierre Home-Douglas - Portraits by Wyatt McSpadden

After a career spanning rocketry, wartime service aboard an aircraft carrier, teaching, research, and consulting, Walt Buchanan could be a walking advertisement for lifelong learning. Over four decades, he earned five degrees in fields as varied as mathematics and languages, law, engineering, and higher education. He gained four of them, including a Ph.D., while working full time, so he can appreciate the financial burden facing today’s students. As ASEE president, he’s intent on finding ways to make engineering education more affordable.

Now department head and J.R. Thompson Endowed Chair Professor of Engineering Technology at Texas A&M University, Buchanan, 70, grew up on a family farm in central Indiana. The prospect of spending his adult life rising at 5 a.m. to milk cows didn’t offer much appeal, so he focused instead on academics. A high school teacher turned him on to what would be a lifelong love of mathematics, and after graduation in 1959, he enrolled in Indiana University as a major in pure math, expecting that he would eventually earn a Ph.D. in the subject. One of the requirements for the program was studying two foreign languages. Buchanan chose German and Russian. The latter made him an ideal candidate at the height of the Cold War to work at the National Security Agency. After graduating and spending a year as an aerospace engineer with the Martin Co. in Denver, Buchanan applied for a job at NSA and was waiting for his top-secret clearance to come through when a job became available at Boeing in New Orleans. The company was building part of the Saturn V rocket that was the backbone of the Apollo program. Buchanan served as a liaison between engineers and programmers, working on the venerable IBM mainframe 7094 computer.


From law to engineering

One of his fellow workers at Boeing fired Buchanan’s imagination with tales of life on the high seas, so he quit the company and joined the Navy. After officer training in Newport, R.I., he was commissioned in the spring of 1966 and spent two years on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, including stints in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.

While a naval officer, Buchanan participated in several courts martial involving subordinates. The brief encounters with the legal system inspired him to study law after his active duty ended. Working at the Indiana tax board during the day, he attended Indiana University at night, earned his J.D. in 1973, and joined the Veterans Administration in Indianapolis as an attorney. But after a few years, he could not see himself doing the same work for the next 25 years. “It just didn’t interest me enough,” he says.

Thinking he would go into patent law, Buchanan enrolled in a B.S.E. program in interdisciplinary engineering at Purdue University – again, taking classes at night. He enjoyed it so much he never went back to law. “I like to tell people that I used to be a lawyer, but then decided I wanted to do something useful for society, so I became an engineer!” Before completing his degree he began teaching an evening course in engineering technology. Finally, he found his career. He added a master’s degree, also from Purdue, while working at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis as an electronics engineer, before joining the electrical engineering technology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 1986. He earned a Ph.D. in higher education from Indiana University in 1993. “My only regret is that I did not figure that I wanted to teach earlier,” he recalls. “It’s just that when the initial enthusiasm wore off with those other jobs, I didn’t feel like continuing. That has never been an issue with teaching. There is a constant stimulation, a constant excitement where you are creating and disseminating knowledge.” In 2003 he was awarded the ASEE James H. McGraw Award, which recognizes outstanding service in engineering technology education.


“My only regret is that I did not figure OUT that I wanted to teach  earlier . . . There is a constant stimulation, a constant excitement where you are creating and disseminating knowledge.” — WALTER BUCHANAN


A new image for technologists

Colleagues hope Buchanan, one of a very few ASEE presidents with an engineering technology background, can correct what they see as a flawed impression: that the field is basically engineering lite. As Robert English, professor of engineering technology at New Jersey Institute of Technology, puts it, “There is a perception that engineering technology is the stepchild of engineering. In the past it has often been given short shrift – that it steals jobs from engineers. I think Walt can help change that opinion.”

Part of the problem, Buchanan says, is simply one of nomenclature. “Engineering technology should be called applied engineering and engineering should be called engineering science.” He explains, “Up until Sputnik, what we would call engineering technology was engineering, and after Sputnik they added math and science and something had to give.” Some of the technology-based laboratory courses were dropped from the engineering curriculum. Buchanan argues that with the focus on more hands-on education, engineering technologists are able to hit the ground running when they are hired in industry. “It typically takes less time for them to gear up.” He also points out that around 35 of the 50 states allow someone with an engineering technology degree to obtain a professional engineering license.

Throughout his career, Buchanan has worked hard to make engineering technology more visible and create more of a collegial atmosphere among its professors. In 1995 he set up the Engineering Technology Listserv. As Lawrence Wolf, former president of Oregon Institute of Technology, recalls, “I didn’t have a clue what a listserv was at the time. Email was pretty new, and I thought it was just clogging up my inbox. But I soon realized there was a flood of information it provided that I would otherwise have missed.” Bob English adds, “Engineering technology was pretty disjointed at the time. There was no way to communicate other than at annual meetings. And now suddenly you had access to want ads, discussion points, ideas on what textbooks could be used for new courses, and a host of other resources. It contributed greatly to engineering technology.” Today, the Engineering Technology Listserv has more than 4,000 members in 54 countries, including not only universities and colleges but also corporations, organizations, and government agencies. Buchanan also serves on the editorial or advisory boards of the Journal of Engineering Education, the Journal of Engineering Technology, and the International Journal of Modern Engineering.

In the past 20 years, Buchanan has worked in universities all over the United States, while also consulting, performing research, and publishing. He was dean of engineering and industrial technology at the Oregon Institute of Technology, chair of engineering technology and industrial studies at Middle Tennessee State University, and director of the School of Engineering Technology at Northeastern University, where he returns every year and treats his former faculty to dinner. “He is so loyal that way,” says Tim Johnson, associate professor of electrical engineering and electronics at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He adds that Buchanan welcomes those with differing views. “If we had a difference of opinion, we would debate and discuss and give our reasons. We may not still agree, but there was no offense taken. He has a way of letting you express yourself and sometimes helping you express yourself better.”

Other former colleagues praise Buchanan’s sense of humor and laid-back nature. “He is an unusual combination – a low-key, high-energy person,” OIT Professor Marilyn Dyrud states. Adds Dan Jennings, Texas A&M professor of industrial distribution: “I guess all of us have some kind of hidden agenda, but Walt is very open. That old cliché ‘What you see is what you get’ is the way Walt is.”

Buchanan’s focus on the cost of obtaining an engineering degree stems from concern over mounting student debt. At more than $1 trillion, it now surpasses credit card debt. “This simply is not sustainable,” Buchanan argues. One of his goals is to attract more community college instructors to ASEE and encourage more students to enter engineering and engineering technology programs from two-year schools. He points, as an example, to the agreement Texas A&M has with nearby Blinn Community College. Students can take courses at A&M and then transfer there after two years to finish their degree. “Quite frankly, if I were a parent of a high school student today and my kid got into Texas A&M, I’d be tempted to have him or her go into Blinn first. They’d save $10,000 on their tuition costs.”

With virtual meetings and website information, Buchanan hopes ASEE can increase involvement by community college members who cannot obtain travel money for annual meetings and conferences. “This could be worked on a lot more. It could be more the norm than the exception, as it is now.”

 

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

 


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