John Lindenlaub: Seeking alternatives with patience and perseverance

Photo of John LindenlaubJohn Lindenlaub was a professor at Purdue University for over 35 years. John fell in love with teaching during his master’s program at MIT, and his commitment to teaching only increased throughout his career. His research on adapting technology for education was ground breaking and has been adopted by many educators since then. He was very involved with the IEEE Education Society and the ASEE Educational Research and Methods division, and he was on the steering committee of the first Frontiers in Education conference. He continues to be involved with engineering education and community service projects through his affiliation with the EPICS program at Purdue.

This profile was authored by Stephanie Cutler, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Worldwide, based on her interview with Dr. Lindenlaub in 2014.

Dr. John Charles Lindenlaub

Professor Emeritus
Purdue University

B.S., Electrical Engineering, MIT, 1955
M.S., Electrical Engineering, MIT, 1957
Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Purdue University, 1961

Change is difficult, but persevere.

I have come to realize that trying something new with a relatively small number of students is easy. Integrating new teaching strategies into the mainstream—that is, institutionalizing change—is difficult. A good friend recently told me, “The only people who welcome changes are wet babies.” It takes time for new ideas to integrate into the mainstream system.

I’ve been working in engineering education since 1956, when I was working on my master’s degree at MIT. Throughout my career, I’ve been adapting technology for educational purposes. Many of my ideas, new at that time, are more common now. For example, while team-teaching a programming class with my colleague Leah Jamieson, we worked up a scheme whereby the examinations in the course required coding problems that had to be solved in the computer lab, as opposed to writing code on a piece of paper in a traditional classroom setting. Many programming students today probably couldn’t imagine developing code on paper instead of working directly on a computer. But that was the standard practice at the time, and we were some of the first to change that. I was patient, and it caught on.

Another example is that in 1987, I presented a paper at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference entitled, “In-office video taping: What will be next?” I started recording my lectures in my own office. Later, I set up a room where other faculty members could come to record their own instructional videos. Just recently (2014) one of the featured items in a Purdue newsletter described two video-recording studios that had been set up so faculty could just walk in and produce a video for their course with minimal effort. That was my idea 27 years ago! It is not unusual to take a generation for new ideas and methods to mature. Ideas currently being developed now that are new and cutting edge may take a generation before becoming well integrated into the educational system. One should not shy away from trying new ideas. But, institutionalizing change requires patience and perseverance.

With a little help from my friends

I would be remiss if I didn’t state explicitly that my work in engineering education was influenced by a cadre of colleagues that supported me throughout my career. From my master’s experience at MIT working with Tom Jones, who taught me to really care about teaching assistants and students, to Purdue biology professor Sam Postlethwait, who was creating audio recordings for instruction and caused me to say to myself, “If he can do that in biology, I can use technology to improve instruction in our laboratory courses,” I was inspired. The people around me showed me the path as I was pursuing my engineering education career.

The most significant group was the ASEE Educational Research and Methods (ERM) division. At my first ASEE conference, Helen Plants encouraged me to submit a paper for the next conference, and Helen, along with a number of her colleagues, was very involved with ERM. There were a lot us of doing similar kinds of things, which created a network of mutual support. There weren’t that many people to talk to at the local level at that time, so I found my community within ERM. Lee Harrisberger was very active in ERM, and he hosted a division event called “Bughouse Square,” which evolved into the ERM “Brouhaha” at today’s ASEE annual conferences. If you spoke or if you had a complaint about something, you received a pin that had a square on it as well as a bug. This was part of our community. It was our support network and friendships. I had no idea what my first ASEE conference would be like, but I found it to be very interesting, and I met people that would influence and inspire me throughout my career.

The birth of FIE

Around 1968, I asked my department chair how I could become more involved in professional activities. Within a short time, I received an invitation to attend a meeting of the IEEE Education Group (now Society) administrative committee. When I returned home, I told my wife that I felt like I’d just stepped onto a sinking ship. The Education Group, along with other IEEE groups at the time, was faced with the problem of the rising cost of publishing its Transactions journal. The challenge was to find a way to simultaneously raise money and improve service to our members. In subsequent discussions and meetings, the idea of a conference devoted to engineering education emerged. Thus was born the Frontiers in Education (FIE) conference series. The opportunity to work with the Education Society leadership during that critical period was a game changing experience for me. Many of the presenters at the first FIE conference were ERM people I had met at ASEE. The next year, the IEEE Education Society and ERM partnered for the purpose of jointly sponsoring future FIE conferences. Little did I know at the time the impact the FIE conference series would have on engineering education. Now, after 40-plus years, I believe it safe to say that the conference series has had considerable impact.

Always an engineer, always an educator

Even though I retired fifteen years ago, my engineering mind continues to spot problems in my community, and the professor inside of me thinks, “Solving this problem would provide a great learning experience for some students.” For example, after my wife and I moved into a retirement community, I noticed that many of my new neighbors were struggling with computer problems. Partnering with students in Purdue’s EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program helped solve that problem. EPICS students worked one-on-one with residents and developed tutorial materials. Students gained experience working with clients who were different from them and were required to explain their knowledge of computers in a way that someone with a limited background in the content area could understand. I have worked with EPICS students on numerous problems since then. I continue to be impressed with the EPICS students, some of whom are beginning freshmen. Their presentations, thought processes, and design decisions go well beyond what I would have expected 20 years ago. I enjoy staying connected to the university and the innovative programs they have initiated. Just because I’ve retired, it doesn’t mean I stop thinking like an engineer or finding ways to be involved in engineering education.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Lindenlaub notes that it can take a generation for new ideas and methods to “mature” and gain traction. What new ideas or methods do you see coming down the pipeline that might become more widely adopted in time?
  • Dr. Lindenlaub reflects that although he did not have “people to talk to” locally, he found his professional community within ERM. Where or with whom is your community? How can you help others find their communities?


Photo provided by Dr. Lindenlaub.