Lueny Morell: Driving change in engineering education at a global scale

photo of Lueny MorellLueny Morell has had successful careers in both academia and industry. She began her academic work teaching chemical engineering in Puerto Rico, served in the university relations group at HP Labs, and has been involved in multiple engineering education change efforts around the world. Ms. Morell has truly made a lasting impact on engineering education. With extensive knowledge of effective teaching and assessment practices based in real-world engineering problems and an unparalleled passion for quality engineering education, she has earned numerous honors and awards reflecting her influence on the field.

This profile was authored by Rachel Louis Kajfez, Ohio State University, based on an interview with Ms. Morell in 2014. This profile features two extra sections, published on separate pages linked below.

Lueny Morell

Principal, Lueny Morell & Associates
Director, InnovaHiEd

M.S., Chemical Engineering, Stanford University, 1977
B.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Puerto Rico, 1974

A pass rate of 40% is not acceptable

After receiving my master’s degree, I was recruited by the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM) to teach in the Chemical Engineering Department. As a land grant institution with a strong focus on developing science, math, engineering, and technology professionals for the industrial economic activity on the island, the university was beginning to balance teaching with research. There was a real need for educational change and reform.

I was 26 when I started teaching in 1978. At the time, the first course in chemical engineering (Mass and Energy Balances) had a pass rate of about 40%, which was the expected rate for as long as I could remember, including when I was an undergraduate. Teaching methods had not changed much since my days as a student: lectures, homework, tests. True, this was not the traditional “plug and chug” kind of course; all the problems were different and required a lot of analysis and critical thinking skills. It was classified as a “departmental” course, meaning that all sections of the same course needed to be coordinated and standardized by the professors in charge (syllabus, books, exam content and times, grading, homework, etc.).

early photo of Lueny MorellInitially, I thought I was doing a good job at teaching, following my predecessors’ ways. But the pass rate in my class went stagnant at 40%, just like for my peer professors! I would be up until two o’clock in the morning, preparing the perfect lecture and carefully organizing my problems, aiming to be the best version of myself I could be. I would share problems neatly solved on the board (no PowerPoint back then), but even though the students appeared to follow the solution, they could not complete the tests satisfactorily. The pass rate remained unchanged, and the students were still not learning. As an educator teaching la crème de la crème, I became disturbed and ashamed that my students were not learning, blaming myself and my instructional methods for what was happening.

It was around 1983 that I decided to seriously engage in transforming my attitude and perspective with regard to teaching. I began reading books and attending engineering education conferences, trying to understand if others had the same concerns and how they were addressing these.  Along the way, a little miracle occurred, and I came across North Carolina State professor Rich M. Felder, who opened to me his work on learning styles, raising my awareness to the fact that, to create a rounded learning experience for others, you must first understand their learning preferences. When learning preferences clash, the communication process breaks down. On the other hand, by understanding learning styles, you can create an environment in which everyone can learn from you. Dr. Felder provided me with readings on how to incorporate novel ideas, like cooperative learning, into my classes. Some of the changes were indeed very simple and were implemented quite quickly. Then, as I started being more creative with my teaching, another little miracle occurred: my students started performing better. I realized that it was small, rather easy to implement changes—the kind that would not interfere with the amount of subject matter to cover—that would help my students learn more effectively. My teaching evolution was giving positive results!

Read more about Lueny Morell’s early teaching efforts in this supplement: “What you sow, you reap.”

A factory for change

In 1996, Penn State University, University of Washington, UPRM, and Sandia National Labs received a $2.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to revamp the engineering curriculum, with an emphasis on manufacturing. We created a program called the “Learning Factory,” where we developed a practice-based, industry-partnered option or minor with integrated outcomes assessment. We began this project as the new ABET Engineering Criteria 2000 were being developed, moving forward in alignment with what would become the new accreditation criteria. We started by listening to industry representatives about what they wanted in a recently graduated engineer, which was more than “technical knowledge.” Industry valued our students, but they needed communication, teamwork, and other professional skills that were lacking in our graduates. Industry partnered with us, and together, we essentially redefined engineering education for a sizeable number of students at the three institutions involved. Tracks with electives using the Learning Factory, a place where students learned by doing and where solutions to real industry projects were completed by teams of students, were developed. Later, industry surveys reflected that more than 97% of those industry partners surveyed (47% response rate) would hire a graduate exposed to the courses and experiences of the Learning Factory rather than a “regular” graduate.

The main goal of this program was to develop a program focused on the skill sets needed by recent graduates and to build learning experiences from these goals. We worked from the desired student learning outcomes back to the objectives, and then developed teaching/learning methods that could hone those skills. The courses we developed were very non-traditional but directly met industry needs. For authenticity, we incorporated a lot of hands-on, practice-based activities and real industry projects. I volunteered to lead the outcomes assessment strategy for the Learning Factory and had to learn how to develop the tools (surveys, focus groups, rubrics, etc.) used to evaluate the learning outcomes.

We finished our project and successfully implemented the programs at the three institutions in about two and a half years, which was faster than many of the other large engineering coalitions sponsored by NSF at that time. Afterwards, we received a small grant from NSF to disseminate the Learning Factory outcomes. This brought the team to offer workshops to share what we had learned. Raytheon and Microsoft followed NSF, and we expanded workshops on our competency-based curriculum around the world. As of today, together with my UPRM and PSU colleagues, I have given more than 90 workshops, many of them sponsored by universities, engineering education associations, and local industry.

Following the success of the Learning Factory and the launch of the ABET EC 2000 criteria, in 1998, I became Assistant to the Dean of the College of Engineering at UPRM. On my first day at the job, the dean told me, “Since you have experience in curriculum innovation and outcomes assessment, you’re going to be in charge of the process to get us accredited by ABET in 2002.” In 2003, while on a leave of absence from UPRM, I learned that indeed I had been able to lay out the foundations to successfully prepare all the programs of our College of Engineering to gain ABET’s accreditation.

In 2006, the Learning Factory team was awarded the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Prize. What a wonderful, unexpected reward to our ideas, time, and efforts! All was fun and celebration, and then I suggested that rather than keeping the cash award that came with the prize (some say it was sort of a Nobel Prize in engineering education) we instead give it back to our universities. My husband nearly fainted when he learned this. But the way we saw it was that we never expected to receive this kind of recognition, so why not give it forward to our schools!

The workshop that changed my life

photo of Lueny MorellOne thing I am most proud about is sharing my experiences with others and catalyzing positive change in their careers. Thus I have made space in my life to offer workshops sharing the learnings of engaging in curriculum innovation, creative teaching methods, and building and nurturing university-industry-government relations for win-win outcomes. Through these workshops, offered around the world together with my colleagues since 1978, we have impacted hundreds of professors and a greater number of students.

But the workshop that impacted me the most was one I did in India in 2008. It was a five-day event, organized by the India-U.S. Collaboration in Engineering Education (IUCEE) group. At the time, I was president of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES), and IUCEE was one of my key projects. Its aim was to enhance engineering education in India and the U.S. concurrently, so they brought several U.S. experts (like Rich Felder, Rebecca Brent, and myself) to give workshops to scores of faculty members as the foundation for the initiative.

During our workshop, we talked about curriculum innovation, teaching, and learning in engineering, and specifically about competencies and how to develop them. There were over 100 engineering professors and deans in our session, from all over India, and they were all so eager to learn. In a way, it seemed like Christmas to them. They truly saw this as a gift, as an opportunity to enhance the way they taught to eventually graduate engineers that would heighten technology and engineering as a foundation for sustainable development in India. In my experience, university professors can sometimes be arrogant and disengaged about new ideas in teaching. This time, I was especially impressed by the eagerness and humility of this group of educators. I also saw the great opportunity that India has for the future and marveled at what could change in just a few years. Each day, this group of educators discovered and relished the ideas being shared by the workshop team, and I felt blessed to be there and experience the change—another little miracle.

That workshop really changed my life. Since then, I have volunteered my time to help schools in India and in other countries, as well. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to catalyze the discovery of change and innovation in one college of engineering near Mumbai in Maharashtra, and I can compare the process to planting a small seed and watching it grow through the owner’s care and interest. The ideal of dedicating one’s life to help others explore and take ownership of the process of change can be a strong source of vigor. To me, collaboration and giving forward to others the blessings one receives are essential for global progress.

In the end, I think we need to reach out to the world and understand what is going on across the globe in science, education, and especially in engineering. We need to partner with other countries, and we need to develop the talent to handle global challenges. Our problems are no longer U.S. problems or Brazilian problems or Asian problems. They are global problems, and we need to collaborate to their solutions, sharing ideas, resources, and people. For example, we should look to Singapore and other countries where they “get it” as it pertains to how to develop and sustain knowledge-based economies. It is a small country, but they invest in technology and education as principal pillars for economic development. It is talented people in science, mathematics, and engineering who establish policies that develop infrastructure, communication, technology, and engagement in research. When you invest in other things first before education, you do not develop as fast or as effectively.

How to make a lasting impact and be successful

Over my career and life, I have heard many insightful and formative pronouncements, but one in particular that has become my mantra is St. Francis of Assisi’s dictum: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  I would just add, “Be enthusiastically passionate about it.”

Do your best and always give more than you are asked. And don’t worry about results. One can only be in control of the action, not the result. If the effort does not yield the results expected, make any necessary adjustments and keep trying. Envision, imagine, but above it all, act! If you worry, guessing what will happen ten years from now, you are going to neglect what you are supposed to be doing today. So do what you are supposed to do now and do it well, with gusto. If you give more than you are asked, things will start happening—sometimes not in the time you want them to happen, but certainly when they really need to happen. Give not what you have in abundance, but what you have least. So, if you are busy, give your time. I assure you that if you give to others what you think is your valuable asset—your time—and start believing that other people’s time is even more valuable than yours, then (mysteriously) you’ll have time to spare. The outcomes enjoyed by others and their expressions of gratitude will confirm that it was what you needed to do.

When I started going to India, my job and my health were at critical stages. It was an exhausting journey, it was also extremely hot and humid, but I was experiencing the happiest moments in my life, surrounded by the most enthusiastic and generous group of educators I have ever met. India and many other similar experiences about catalyzing learning unmistakably convince me that teaching is the most rewarding profession in life. You give of yourself into teaching and in so doing you change the life of your students. Wow!  When your students become professional engineers with the little you gave them, they in turn can change the lives of so many others, paying it forward many times. Amazing miracle!

Read more about Lueny Morell’s recent work in engineering education in this supplement: “The icing on the cake.” It details her vision of engineering education at New Engineering University at the University of New Haven, where she was Provost & Chief Academic Officer at the time of her interview in 2014.

A final note

When the possibility of engineering as a career first came about to me, it was vehemently rejected by my high school career counselor. She was clear that engineering was “not for ladies.” She could not have imagined it then, but that was all I needed to change a crummy paradigm! By the way, my counselor was a nun, thus corroborating that “God moves in a mysterious ways.”

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Consider your interests in engineering education. How might your work in these areas be informed by understanding other nation’s engineering education systems and contexts?


Photos provided by L. Morell.