Lyle Feisel: Engineering education as an engineered process

Photo of Lyle FeiselLyle Feisel has over 50 years of experience as an engineering educator, researcher, and administrator. He began his career as a professor at the South Dakota School of Mines, and culminated his career as Dean of Engineering at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He also served as Interim Executive Director of the American Society for Engineering Education. An electrical engineer, Dr. Feisel has made significant contributions to laboratory teaching through the development of fundamental objectives for laboratories. He remains dedicated to engineering education and continues to stress the importance of clear learning objectives for students.

The profile below was authored by Janille Smith-Colin, Georgia Institute of Technology, based on an interview with Dr. Feisel in 2014.

Dr. Lyle D. Feisel

Dean Emeritus
Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science
State University of New York at Binghamton

Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Iowa State University, 1964
M.S., Electrical Engineering, Iowa State University, 1963
B.S., Electrical Engineering, Iowa State University, 1961

Discovering engineering education

My journey to becoming an engineering educator began with a National Defense Education Act Fellowship. I had served in the Navy, and as I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree, my professor asked if I was interested in graduate studies. At the time, I had not considered going to graduate school and really was not clear on what graduate school involved. My professor told me that all I needed was an interest in teaching. I had never considered teaching either, but I applied for the fellowship and was awarded it. As part of the fellowship requirement, I taught two courses in electrical machinery. Once I got in that classroom, I never looked back. It became very clear that teaching was what I wanted to do. I continued to teach courses and, upon completing my graduate studies, landed a faculty position.

I am an engineering educator and researcher. This is different than an engineering education researcher. The engineering education researcher studies engineering education, whereas the engineering educator educates engineers. The engineering education researcher wants to understand education from a theoretical construct, whereas the engineering educator wants to teach students. Both roles are valid and some people do both. Those engaged in engineering education research have made a real contribution. The challenge is conveying this information in a manner that is relevant for the teacher.

Turning points along the journey

Warren Boast and Roy Mattson were very influential at the start of my career, because they were quintessential teachers and educators. There were others I admired and emulated, including Wallace “Tiny” Cassell, Alvin Read, and Harry Hale at Iowa State University. These individuals got me started in engineering education, but there were also events that helped to shape my career. One event that was a turning point in my career was when John Lindenlaub held a workshop at the South Dakota School of Mines, where I was teaching. This was the first time that I had ever been introduced to the idea of learning objectives in engineering. Prior to that point, engineering faculty had never really talked about the idea of learning objectives. John’s talk was for me the turning point that got me really interested in education as a theoretical construct. Two other influential persons along my journey were Otis Lancaster and John Lagerstrom. Otis and John hosted a National Science Foundation-funded workshop in the late 1960s where they brought together young people and taught them about the concepts of education. They also wrote a book basically dedicated to engineering education. The book and workshop were a major turning point, not only for me but for a lot of people.

Connecting to the energy of ASEE

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has had an enormous impact on me and on thousands of engineering educators. In the beginning, I got involved in the Educational Research and Methods division, not so much doing research myself, but learning from other people who were doing research. ASEE makes an impact in a variety of ways. One, ASEE recognizes teaching through awards; people who make a contribution to teaching are recognized. Two, ASEE provides a forum for publication about teaching. The third and most important aspect of ASEE is the people you meet. You get to rub shoulders with the pioneers of engineering education. These people are so dedicated to teaching, there is no way you can avoid learning from them, or picking up the passion and fire they have for teaching. There is just so much energy and creativity. Beyond teaching, ASEE is very important for the interaction and development of engineering deans. The Engineering Dean’s Council and the Engineering Technology Council bring people together to talk about the quality of education in their schools, and not just administrative issues. It helps for deans to see that research is not the whole picture and that other schools are focused on education quality.

As dean and as department head, I always encouraged faculty to become active members of ASEE and to attend the annual meeting. Today there is a significant research expectation of all faculty members requiring them to be intimately involved with their professional societies. I always tried to emphasize ASEE as their second society. To a considerable extent, faculty have loyalty to their own professional societies, so ASEE being the second organization is understandable and acceptable. However, I always reminded people that they were faculty members, not just researchers or engineering practitioners, and ASEE was the place where they needed to be involved and form connections.

Educating the engineer of the future

Engineering is not just knowledge, and it’s more than just problem solving. It is also a set of values. Engineers are educated differently from humanists. It is important that those involved in engineering education understand engineering at the professional level. Engineering involves the lives of human beings, so engineers have a responsibility to understand the full effect of their decisions and to make those decisions using the highest ethical standards. A good engineer has a breadth of experience and is able to understand more than just indeterminate structures or integrated circuits. I myself prepared to be a successful engineer by having a wide range of experiences. These experiences were not all related to electrical engineering, but they all contributed to the engineer I am today.

Online education is really transforming our approach to engineering education. I am currently involved in a project with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) where we are trying to put together an online course focused on the history of engineering. This is an effort to ensure that engineering students have some knowledge of the proud history of our profession and draw inspiration that will in turn contribute to their success. All engineering students have humanities requirements, but it is often a challenge to find time to fit these courses into a rigorous engineering curriculum. IEEE is working to develop this history course with the goal of presenting students and schools with flexible options.

Helping students learn how to learn

I have done a lot of writing in the area of engineering education. Several years ago, I wrote a paper entitled “Teaching Doesn’t Matter” where I stated that a faculty member’s job was not teaching but organizing learning activities for students, and there is a big difference. This seemed like a no-brainer but people had never really thought about it. Several years later, a young professor approached me and said that that statement had been the guiding light of his teaching career. I can only hope that what I have written has made an impact and has helped others to become better teachers.

I think the critical point is that engineering education can be viewed as an engineered process. The teacher lays out the specifications (writes the learning objectives), designs the process (determines the learning activities), manages the process, and then tests whether the product (student learning) meets the specs. Teachers don’t “teach” their students anything. Teachers help their students to know what they need to learn, and then help them learn it.

I have also worked a lot in the area of learning objectives. Probably my greatest contribution has been in the area of laboratory instruction. In 2005, I published a paper with Al Rosa in the Journal of Engineering Education that has turned out to be a seminal paper in the area of laboratory objectives. My thoughts in this area were influenced by the outcomes of an ABET/Sloan Foundation workshop that I organized with George Peterson in early 2000. Around this time, ABET was starting to consider the accreditation of online programs, and in particular online programs that had a laboratory portion. Through our work, we sought to answer many questions, including, “Why do we have laboratories?” and “How do you judge student laboratory performance for an online course?” This work continues to inform curriculum development today, as I get invitations to speak on the topic of laboratory objectives both nationally and internationally. I continue to push the notion of learning objectives for education in engineering. I am currently working on a philosophical piece entitled “A Taxonomy of Technical Knowledge.” It is my hope that, once published, this article will serve as another major contribution to the area of learning objectives.

Works cited above:
Feisel, L. (1997). Teaching doesn’t matter. ASEE Prism, December 1997, 38.
Feisel, L., & Rosa, A.J. (2005). The role of laboratory in undergraduate engineering education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1):121-130.

Finding balance

In 2003, I wrote a column for Tau Beta Pi entitled “Lyle’s Laws.” Lyle’s Laws consisted of 40 aphorisms and accompanying text offering advice and guidance for engineers and others as well. In one of the laws, I offered the following advice: “The best thing you can do for your future job is to do your current job well.” There is a great deal of chance involved in professional success. The best thing that a young, ambitious academic can do is to take one step at a time. Be a good assistant professor, get promoted to associate professor and gain tenure, be a good associate professor, and just keep going. My position has often been that the job I enjoyed doing the most was the one I was doing at the time.

The biggest challenge both then and now is work/life balance and deciding how to allocate your time and effort. There is always one more thing that you can do to make the lecture better. At the same time, there is an expectation for research and service work. Then there is family—spouses and often children. The greatest challenge that faculty face, as in many other professions, is balancing. I have advised many young faculty members over the years to do research and do a good job of teaching. I personally had many hobbies—hunting, fishing, traveling, camping, and a very involved family life. I have told many young faculty members, “I am pretty confident that you will never look back and say you are sorry you spent so much time with your family.”  Work is wonderful, I have enjoyed teaching, and I have enjoyed academic administration, but it is only part of your life.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Feisel notes that “Teachers don’t ‘teach’ their students anything. Teachers help their students to know what they need to learn, and then help them learn it.” Do you agree? Does this reflect what you see happening in classrooms today?
  • If you were to write something like “Lyle’s Laws” with advice and guidance for colleagues in your field, what would one or two of your “laws” be?


Photo provided by Dr. Feisel.