Louis Martin-Vega: A dean that brings excitement to engineering

Louis Martin-VegaLouis Martin-Vega has served as the Dean of the College of Engineering at NC State since 2006, following his five-year tenure as Dean of the College of Engineering at University of South Florida. Dean Martin-Vega’s career in academic leadership has paralleled his career as a professor in industrial and systems engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, University of Florida, Florida Institute of Technology, and Lehigh University, where he was Chair of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering. He has received multiple awards and recognitions for his involvement in the field of industrial engineering. He also served in several appointments with the National Science Foundation, including Acting Assistant Director of the Engineering Directorate. Dean Martin-Vega has also been a consultant to various industries.

The profile below was authored by James Huff, Purdue University, based on an interview with Dr. Louis Martin-Vega in 2014.

Dr. Louis Martin-Vega

Dean and Professor, College of Engineering
North Carolina State University

Ph.D., Industrial and Systems Engineering, University of Florida, 1975
M.E., Systems Engineering, University of Florida, 1973
M.S., Operations Research, New York University, 1971
B.S., Industrial Engineering, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, 1968

Changing the image of engineers through engineering education

My trajectory as an engineer began when my family moved to Puerto Rico during my teenage years. My parents returned to their home upon my father’s retirement from the Air Force, and I attended high school and college on the island. It was during these formative years that I began to form a favorable impression of what it meant to be an engineer. In Puerto Rico at that time, the role of engineers on the island and in society was very prominent. There were two former governors as well as a number of those in other government positions who were engineers. The stature of engineering, as I perceived it in the commonwealth, was equal to or greater that careers in law or medicine. Like others around me in Puerto Rico, I perceived engineering to be a great platform for a highly regarded career. I never saw it as something that was excessively narrow or focused.

However, as I left the island to continue my graduate education, I came to see that the image of engineering in Puerto Rico was not aligned with the image of engineering in the mainland U.S. Whereas I personally understood engineering as an admired and flexible career, I came to see that the image of being an engineer in the mainland U.S as more of a technical specialist—an image that was also somewhat less esteemed than the one I had come to know.

I look back to my days in Puerto Rico not only as a starting point for the beginning of my career as an engineer, but also as an important time that still inspires my commitment to engineering education. My continued interests in engineering education are motivated by a desire to improve the U.S. image of engineering. I really feel strongly about engineering being a wonderful career and feel a personal responsibility to communicate what engineering is in such a way that young people will be excited about it. People need to learn about engineering early on and see it as this tremendous platform rather than something that narrows your life, regardless of where their future might take them.

Improving the image of engineering has motivated me in every phase of my career to create environments that depict engineering as the exciting profession that it is, including creating classroom environments that foster interactive learning with real connections to industry. My goal is that every young person has an opportunity to gain awareness of what engineering is and make an informed choice on whether or not it is a career that they would want to pursue.

From the classroom to the National Science Foundation

Underlying my commitment to engineering education was an early passion for teaching. I completed my graduate work in industrial and systems engineering with the idea that I would begin my career as a faculty member in engineering. My passion for teaching was further cultivated by beginning my academic career at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, a teaching university. Certainly, this provided an experience that was probably less typical than that of somebody who had started his or her career at a research-extensive university. These teaching experiences, however, molded a lot of my perspectives about teaching and the need to do things in ways that were different from just walking up in front of a room and lecturing.

My early interests in teaching continued in my faculty career at more research-focused universities, such as the University of Florida and Lehigh University. However, my commitment to engineering education really flourished significantly when I had the opportunity to go the National Science Foundation (NSF).

I began my involvement with NSF in 1989 as a Program Director for the Division of Design and Manufacturing for three years. Subsequently, I became the Acting Director of the same division before going on to faculty positions at Florida Institute of Technology, and then as Chair of Industrial Engineering at Lehigh University. I returned to NSF in 1998 as the Director of the Division of Design, Manufacture and Industrial Innovation (DMII) and eventually served as the Acting Assistant Director of the entire Engineering Directorate.

My experiences at NSF broadened me significantly because I was working across many divisions and areas, including the Engineering Education and Centers area. Through this role, I really got to see what was being developed and what was going on at the national level, in the broadest sense. Further, I was able to make and execute decisions related to important next steps in how to promote engineering via engineering education.

As Acting Assistant Director, I helped establish the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program as a way to provide K–12 teachers with research experience in engineering disciplines. I felt that this program was important as it brought K–12 teachers on to research projects and afforded them their own firsthand experiences of being involved in engineering research. They could then take these personal connections with engineering back to the classroom and inculcate interest in engineering among their students. The bottom line of this program was that if we were going to talk about enhancing engineering education, we needed to better create a presence for engineering in the K–12 environment—and the earlier the presence, the better. By providing teachers with their own experiences, we were enabling numerous pre-college students to have authentic experiences in engineering.

In sum, I had opportunities to enact my commitment to teaching engineering throughout my career both in the classroom and at NSF. My commitment to the classroom as an instructor paved the way for the opportunity to create a presence for engineering in many classrooms, through establishing the RET program at NSF. And I felt privileged as a result of these efforts to help move the needle forward with regard to bolstering the image of engineering.

The role of leadership in engineering education: Moving the needle forward

For an academic leader, the most important product is helping make any environment (e.g., program, department, college) a better environment than it once was. In other words, the goal is to move the needle forward with regard to engineering education. I do not believe that leadership in engineering education ever has—or should it ever have—anything to do with anybody being motivated by saying, “I started this,” or, “My name is going to be associated with this.”

At the heart of my own involvement in engineering education is that it has been something that I am passionate about. Indeed, I am passionate about bettering the image of engineering in such a way that it would make the field more attractive for anybody seeking a career. Passion is important. My personal motivation in academic leadership is not centered on me as an individual, but rather on a larger picture of making a wonderful profession accessible to anyone who wants to take part in it.

Unlike others who were committed to advancing engineering education research, I did not experience many personal obstacles as I grew in my commitment to this emerging field. Alongside my budding interests in engineering education, I had also developed a career in research areas within industrial and systems engineering (e.g., semi-conductor manufacturing and electronics manufacturing). However, by first establishing a research career in industrial and systems engineering, I was able to more easily lead or support engineering education initiatives as they arose. For example, while Dean of Engineering at University of South Florida, some of the younger faculty members approached me to express interest in applying for the NSF GK–12 program, which funded proposals that connected graduate STEM research with K–12 classrooms. Not only was I supportive of their efforts, but I was willing to commit to their proposal in a direct way, if needed.

In my career, I have found ample opportunity to have a favorable bias toward engineering education efforts. At NC State, for example, every faculty member in our college knows where I stand on promoting engineering education. My reputation in the college is not because I stand up and give speeches about it all the time; it is simply because of the commitments that have been made to promote engineering education.

As I reflect upon my involvement in engineering education, I hope that my passion for engineering education has, in some way, helped to advance broad participation in engineering. At NC State, I get to see many young people walk across the commencement stage as they receive their degrees. Whenever I see a first-generation college student get loudly applauded by six or seven others in the bleachers, I feel encouraged in seeing someone overcome structural barriers that might otherwise keep him or her from pursuing an engineering career. Also, I feel motivated to continue to convey to other upcoming students—especially those in underrepresented groups—that, as we say at NC State, “The ‘E’ in engineering is for excitement!”

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Martin-Vega talks about “moving the needle forward” in engineering education. What does that mean to you? How are you working to move the needle forward in your setting?
  • What might be the trade-offs of postponing engineering education work until after establishing a traditional research career?


Photo provided by Dr. Martin-Vega.