Richard Felder: Traveling off the well-paved career path

FelderThis profile captures the pivotal points in the career trajectory of a conventional chemical engineering professor who left the beaten path to follow his passion for engineering education…and has never looked back. It also includes his opinion on keys to education transformation in engineering education and concludes with advice to graduate students. This profile is written for audiences that range from those considering getting involved with engineering education to those already working in some part of the proverbial “trenches.” Anyone along this spectrum has the potential to benefit from the unconventional experiences of this remarkable pioneer, Dr. Richard Felder.

This profile was authored by Jeremi London, Purdue University, based on an interview with Dr. Felder in 2014.

Dr. Richard Felder

Hoechst Celanese Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina State University

Co-Director, National Effective Teaching Institute
American Society for Engineering Education

Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Princeton University, 1966
B.Ch.E., Chemical Engineering, City College of New York, 1962

From a newly-minted chemical engineering Ph.D. to a lifelong scholar in engineering education

I haven’t had a routine faculty career, to put it mildly. I started out as a conventional chemical engineering professor, but thanks to several critical events, I veered from that well-paved career path and stumbled into a career focused on teaching, learning, and educational scholarship. While this less-traveled road is still not as well paved as the usual one, it’s a lot more navigable than it was when I took it. I hope my experience helps others to avoid a few of the potholes.

I finished my doctorate at Princeton in 1966, joined the chemical engineering faculty at North Carolina State University in 1969, and have been there ever since.  For my first 15 years on the faculty, I mostly did what all of my colleagues were doing—working hard to build my research program and also teaching courses. My only deviation from normalcy was when in 1972 I decided to coauthor an undergraduate textbook with Ron Rousseau, the only other untenured assistant professor in the department. Most of our senior colleagues told us we were crazy to even think of doing that before getting tenure. We could have written 20 or 30 research papers in the five years it took to write the book, and the book would only count as one publication. By the time we realized what we had gotten ourselves into, we had put too much time in on it to back out. What our colleagues told us would normally be good advice. Most new textbooks disappear within two or three years of publication. We got lucky. Elementary Principles of Chemical Processes took over the market for introductory chemical engineering texts within three years of publication and has held that position ever since. It’s used by roughly 80% of the chemical engineering departments in the U.S. alone.

As an assistant professor, I enjoyed research and was reasonably successful at it, but teaching was my passion. I knew the game, though. To get tenure, promotions, merit raises, and respect from my colleagues, I’d need to continue bringing in the grants and publishing the papers. Then one year, I wandered into two education sessions at the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) conference and saw talks given by two legends of engineering education: Jim Stice of the University of Texas and Don Woods of McMaster University. I don’t remember exactly what they were talking about, but they gave me the idea that there were other and better ways to teach than pure chalk-and-talk. What struck me even more, though, was that these two engineering professors were clearly focusing their careers on education and not technical research. I probably said to myself, “Can you do that?” and the seed was planted for my subsequent career shift.

Meanwhile, as much as I loved teaching and as much as the students seemed to enjoy my lectures, I wasn’t happy about their lack of engagement during class and their disappointing test grades. My next major turning point came during a sabbatical at the University of Colorado when I reconnected with Linda Silverman, a childhood friend who had gotten a doctorate in educational psychology and was on the faculty at the University of Denver. As she told me what researchers had discovered about how people learn, I realized that my impeccably constructed lectures that clearly articulated every last detail of the course content were not on the list of things that promote real learning.

When I returned to N.C. State after the sabbatical, I started reading papers by Stice and Woods and other engineering education pioneers. (I’m old now and I’m proud to be on the list of pioneers, but those guys and some of their colleagues got there well before I did.) I also started digging into the literature of educational and cognitive psychology and making changes in my teaching based on what I was reading. For example, I found out that students learn in different ways, and when you teach in a way that favors just one style, you risk losing students who would be outstanding engineers and scientists. Once I realized that, I started providing more variety in my teaching methods. I added short, in-class activities to my lectures and put some real-world, open-ended problems in my assignments. I didn’t tell the students everything they needed to know in the lectures but made them figure some of it out themselves, individually and in teams. I got serious pushback from some of them who wanted me to just tell them precisely what they needed to know for the exams. Over time, I gradually learned how to turn the resistance around, persuading the students that they were learning more and becoming better prepared for their future workplaces by taking some responsibility for their own learning.

Around that time, I began writing papers about what I was discovering and doing, and people at other universities who read them started inviting me to give seminars and workshops about it. I gave them individually at first, and then I met and married Rebecca Brent, an award-winning education professor who knew a lot more about pedagogy than I did. We started giving workshops together and have now given more than 300 of them on every continent but Antarctica. I also cofounded the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) National Effective Teaching Institute with my mentor and role model Jim Stice. We gave the first one in 1991, Rebecca joined us in codirecting it a couple of years later, and we’ve now given it to well over a thousand engineering professors. I continued doing my technical research for several years after I began to write education-related papers and give teaching workshops, and kept both engineering and education balls in the air until I got my promotion to full professor. At that point, I figured that if my department head and colleagues didn’t like what I was doing, the worst they could do to me was deny my 0.5% annual merit raise. I let my graduate students finish their dissertations, didn’t take on any new ones, and made education the sole focus of my subsequent career.

The final major step in my movement away from engineering and into education came in 1989, when I came up with an idea for a research study. I had been reading meta-analyses of thousands of studies showing that when done properly, active and cooperative learning led to major gains in students’ development of knowledge and skills. Most of the studies were one-shot affairs: instructors used a learner-centered method in a course, it worked, and the students never saw the method again. I wondered if students would get even more benefits if they were repeatedly taught with active and cooperative learning, and I decided to teach five consecutive chemical engineering courses to a cohort of students, starting when they were sophomores and ending when they were seniors. My hypotheses were that this cohort would show better academic performance, greater retention, greater self-confidence, and more positive attitudes toward chemical engineering than a comparison group taught traditionally. I wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), got the grant, carried out the study, confirmed the hypotheses, wrote the papers and educational research became an important part of the rest of my career. My project officer on the grant was Norman Fortenberry, who is now Executive Director of ASEE. Norman told me years later that my grant was the first engineering education research study funded by the DUE. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that in 1989—if I had, I might never have submitted the proposal.

Keys to education transformation in engineering education

What do I believe leads to transformative change in engineering education? I don’t have a definitive answer—I don’t think one exists—but I can nominate several necessary conditions. First, there has to be a reasonably widespread sense that change is needed. If most people in the field believe that everything is working well, persuading them to change course is a very hard sell. Second, convincing empirical evidence is needed that any proposed change has a high probability of improving whatever deficiencies are thought to exist. Third, implementing the change should not require a sudden major expenditure of time and effort by mainstream faculty members and large sums of money from administrators. Unless these conditions are in place, I don’t think innovations are likely to go much beyond the initial innovators and a small number of early adopters.

Two additional factors affect the likelihood of transformational change in engineering education. A positive one is ABET, with its prescribed outcomes that can’t be addressed effectively with traditional lecture-based teaching methods.  A negative factor is usually the first thing to be mentioned when the subject of educational reform comes up: the imbalance between teaching and research in the faculty incentive and reward system at most universities. As long as research productivity is rewarded with promotion, tenure, merit raises, and high-profile recognitions like election to the National Academy of Engineering, and teaching effectiveness is rewarded with low profile awards with minor stipends and certificates that may or may not be framed, widespread faculty adoption of significant changes in pedagogy will be slow in coming. Many engineering faculty members who are open to change and would be willing to adopt new methods are unwilling to do it because they believe (correctly) that it could hurt their chances for career advancement.

Something else that would speed up educational reform would be to routinely provide teacher training to graduate students, postdocs, and new faculty members.  When you try to tell experienced faculty members to change how they’ve been teaching for years and offer them evidence that the changes will improve their students’ learning, some may do it but most won’t. When you propose the same thing to new and future faculty members who aren’t already locked in to ineffective traditional methods, you have a much greater chance for success.

A pioneer’s advice to engineering graduate students

When I made my decision to shift the focus of my career from chemical engineering research to engineering education, there were few people I could go to for advice on what it takes to do that successfully. Over time, I discovered several things that would have been useful to know much sooner. One is a recipe for having a successful, rewarding career: identify something you are both passionate about and good at, then find someone who will pay you to do it.  Another realization is that educational research is harder than traditional engineering research. Unlike tensile test specimens and even fruit flies, students are infinitely variable and it’s impossible to control or even identify all the factors that may influence what they learn. Even though good educational research is hard to do, it’s definitely doable. Use outcomes from repeated studies conducted in different environments to make, support, or refute research claims, and make sure your results are compatible with what modern cognitive science has shown us about what makes learning happen.

If you are a graduate student interested in pursuing an academic career, take time to reflect and determine whether you want to do educational research—and if you want to do it, whether you want to do it immediately and make it your primary career focus or carry out mostly engineering research and some educational research, increasing your emphasis on the latter after you get tenure. Then, seek an institution that will allow you to follow your chosen career path. If you decide to focus on education from the outset, you may have a limited number of possible positions and they may come with heavy teaching loads, but if you know that teaching and educational research are what you really want to do, go for it. You only have to find one good position.

Another challenge you may face is that your engineering faculty colleagues may not consider your educational research credible or important. To counter the frustration and discouragement that may result from being discounted like that, go to engineering education conferences and education sessions at your professional society conferences. Sitting in sessions, listening to people talk about the same things you are passionate about, and chatting with them in the corridors and comparing notes is like an adrenaline shot. It gives you the boost you need to go back into the trenches for another year.

I believe the best career decisions I’ve made in my life came when I looked inside myself, got clarity on what I loved to do, was good at doing, and thought would make a useful contribution to the world, and then found a way to do it for a living. I could have made a lot more money going into industry instead of education, but I knew that teaching would be more satisfying to me and so I chose to do it. I could have brought in more grants and published lots more papers and maybe gotten tenure and promotion sooner if I hadn’t decided to write an undergraduate textbook. I believed the book would be a more important contribution than the technical papers I might have written, though, and so I wrote the book. I could have continued doing engineering research for the past 30 years, but I knew that I would enjoy myself a lot more and perhaps make more useful contributions by switching my focus to education, so that’s what I did. I had many colleagues telling me that I was crazy to make all of those off-beat decisions instead of following the conventional engineering faculty pathway, but I listened to my heart, made my choices based on what it told me, and have never regretted a single one of those decisions. My advice to my younger colleagues is to try to do that. There are no guarantees that you’ll always make the right choice, but the odds will be strongly in your favor.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • What risks would you take to advance engineering education scholarship and/or practice if you knew the odds were strongly in your favor?


Photo provided by Dr. Felder.