Larry Richards: Focus on Design and Service to the Community

Larry RichardsLarry Richards has been involved in engineering education since the 1970s, although he began his career in psychology.  His interests include engineering design, entrepreneurship, distance learning, and how K–12 students learn engineering.

The profile below was authored by Cheryl Allendoerfer, University of Washington, based on an interview with Dr. Richards in 2014.

Dr. Larry Richards
Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
University of Virginia

Ph.D., Psychology, University of Illinois, 1971
B.S., Psychology, Michigan State University, 1964

From Psychology to Engineering Design

I didn’t start out in mechanical engineering, and I didn’t start out in engineering education.  We all, because we teach in engineering, are engineering educators, but few of us reflect on what we’re actually doing and how it’s working.  I’m a psychologist. I got a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Illinois, then I went off to the University of Virginia and taught psychology and statistics.  The first year I was there, I had a visitor come over and say, “I’m from the school of engineering, and I want to know what you know about how to analyze data and how to talk to people about their experiences.”  The guy’s name was Ira Jacobson, and he was an aerospace engineer.  What they were interested in was passenger comfort in aircraft, and the vibration patterns in particular.  So they wanted someone who knew how to ask people questions and develop surveys and so forth.  The first summer at UVA, I went to work for them, and the next summer, I went to work for them again.  At the end of several years, I was doing all my research through the engineering school.  The stuff I had done in psychology, while it was okay, was paling in comparison to the other stuff.

In 1976, I moved over to the engineering school as a research scientist, and I did research for the next four years on a whole series of grants we brought in.  Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and all the grant money that we were getting dried up overnight—no grant money.  So I had to go to work for a living.  And that’s when I got involved with Jack Gibson and the College CAD/CAM Consortium, and also teaching in computer science.  In the early 1980s, the National Science Foundation gave out a series of grants to schools that were trying to do innovative things, and my group was called the College CAD/CAM Consortium.  We had 12 schools, and the group included the deans of those 12 schools, as well as faculty members at each of those schools who were developing software for instruction.  This is one of those places where we can point to an innovation that actually worked in the long term, because we had 12 schools involved initially, we expanded to 22, and then on to 25, and then we disbanded because we were successful.  There was no point in continuing, because computer aided design was used by every mechanical engineering department in the world at that point, and it still is.  So that’s a success story for NSF, and it was a success story for us.

Then in 1985, Miles Townsend, the chairman of the Mechanical Engineering Department, came over and asked me if I’d be willing to start up a manufacturing program. So I moved to mechanical engineering, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Eventually I got involved in teaching engineering design.  We got a new chairman, who came in from outside and wanted to change everything, like many chairmen who come in from outside do.  The chairman said, “What we really need is someone to teach our senior design class, and I see that you have some background in industry—not much, but more than the other faculty—so we’re going to give you a senior design class.”  Then he said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had some engineering teaching kits for middle school students?”  I said, “It sounds like a good idea, maybe we ought to look into it.”  And the next thing I knew, they plopped $30,000 into my hands and said, “Spend some time over the summer starting it up.”  So I did that, and ever since then, I’ve been teaching senior design, and I’ve been teaching people in both engineering and education how to develop teaching materials for middle school students.

A Growing and Evolving Community

In the 1990s, I got involved with the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and Frontiers in Education (FIE).  I picked up a program from the previous year’s ASEE conference and said, “This is the conference I ought to go to,” so I went.  I was interested in the Educational Research and Methods division (ERM), and ERM had a series of distinguished speakers.  I looked at the list and said, “Wow, this is great.”  So I went to one of the distinguished lectures, and I was standing in the hall afterwards talking to this guy next to me, and it turns out his name was Karl Smith.  Karl said, “Where are you going next?”  and I said, “I think I’ll go get some lunch or something.”  He replied, “No, no, come to an ERM board meeting.”  So I went, and that was what started me with ERM and got me hooked into ASEE.  One thing leads to another, so once you’re in the organization, they ask you to do things, and over time I ended up being a program chair for ERM, a program chair for FIE, a general chair for FIE, and so forth.

At the first ERM board meeting that I went to, looking around the room, there was Karl Smith, Alisha Waller, Mike Pavelich, Barbara Olds, and John Heywood.  Just a “who’s who” of people in the history of the field.  Karl Smith was the one who introduced me to cooperative and active learning.  He and I had similar backgrounds in that we both had degrees in social sciences, so we talked a lot about the influence of social science research methods and so forth.

There were a lot of exciting things going on.  People were talking about evaluating what students knew before they came into the classroom, so on the first day of class, you try to give a pre-class survey to figure out what they know and what they don’t know—these days, we call them concept inventories.  By the end of the semester, you try to find out what they actually learned in your class.  So that was significant.

There was also the idea of learning styles that Rich Felder and others were advocating.  I guess other than Karl, Rich has been the most influential of the people in the area.  The learning style stuff was very interesting, because as a day to day teacher you deal with it all the time, and not only learning styles, but differences in knowledge gaps and backgrounds.  I discovered that I had to do some background work to teach students things they didn’t know before we could go on.  That’s well known now, and we have ways to approach it, but at the time, it was revolutionary.

When I started going to ASEE conferences, I listened to Cindy Atman talking about her research on design and the things that students learn and the difference between freshmen and seniors. She pointed out that if you don’t have anything in between, students forget what they learn from the first year to the last.  Basically the types of things that she’s been doing with design have influenced how I teach senior design.

At my home institution, the two people who had the most influence were the first dean, who was the one who headed the grant for the National Science Foundation on the College CAD/CAM Consortium, and then my chairman, who was a negative and positive influence.  It was probably time for me to get out of the first year program.  It wasn’t time for me to get out of the manufacturing program.  But senior design has been fun and the K–12 outreach has been lots of fun.

What Is Legitimate Research?

The fundamental problem I have is what everybody has, which is I’m in a subject area department, and most of the people in that department don’t much care about engineering education.  A few do.  I think in my department, three people have been significantly involved in engineering education research and development, where the development is developing computer based materials to teach students various concepts.  But most of my department couldn’t care less, and every year, the chairman checks off that this represents service.  It doesn’t really represent research, because it’s not really mechanical engineering research. The dean’s office promotes it more than the departments do, because at that level, there’s an awareness that there is a thing out there called ASEE and there are exciting things going on, and some of it will influence what we do in teaching.  But at the department chair’s level, they’re focused on their faculty bringing in as many research dollars as possible and putting as many papers out there as possible, and if it’s engineering education research, it’s okay if it brings in money.  So that’s the biggest impediment, along with the fact that you don’t get reduced time for doing engineering education research, although you probably do if you’re doing technical research.

Focus on Design: Teaching, Tools, and Innovation

When I started out, my concern was finding out what other people were doing and how I could do what I was doing better.  Then we started being concerned with formally evaluating some of the things we were doing.  For example, there was a big discussion among the faculty about whether the students in the distance learning environment learned as much as the students that were on grounds.  We did a study and published the findings, basically to convince my colleagues at the University of Virginia that this distance learning program was good.  So that’s one thing I did, because I felt the need to do it.

I consider the computer aided design in manufacturing a big success, because we revolutionized how students interacted with computers in engineering.  They actually got a computer as a design tool, not just as a calculating device.  So that was a big plus.  And we developed some neat materials. Most of them aren’t around anymore, but their successes have been really great. It helped start something.  When I look at things and see what educational innovations have been important, that’s one of them.

Another thing that’s been important is bringing design into the curriculum, and I was involved there at both the first year level and the senior level.  It used to be that first year students came in, and their exposure to design was that they did drafting, and that was pretty much it.  When drafting went away, we were able to bring design thinking to first year students and actually give them projects to do and require them to build things and so forth.  And then we did the same thing at the senior level, where all of the students at the University of Virginia are required to be in a team based design project and produce a result by the end of the year—build a prototype, develop a business plan and all of that.  So that was another area where we made a difference.

We also got funding from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), and we developed a course where we were trying to teach students to be entrepreneurs.  Mike Gorman, my colleague who’s in the Engineering and Society Department at the University of Virginia, and I and a guy named Bill Scheer, who is a systems engineer, put together this team taught course.  We brought the students in, and the first thing we required them to do was design the telephone.  So the idea was put yourself back in history where Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, and Thomas Edison were trying to develop a telephone.  Knowing the technology of the day, how would you do it?  And the students basically replicate the thinking of these three people, and they come up with alternative designs.  Then the second part of the course was to come up with a new product idea and carry it through, and the third part was a systems engineering problem.  The success story in this course was that when Mike and I were first teaching it, one student, Evan Edwards, came up with an idea for a credit card sized version of the EpiPen, to treat severe allergic reactions.  Mike and I told him, “That’s the greatest idea we’ve heard in a long time.  You’ve got to do it, but not in this class.”  So he followed through, and now his product is in widespread use.  And he developed this idea in my class.  So in terms of influence, the fact that Evan and several other students have come out of our classes, founded companies, and done great things is really impressive.

Play the Game and Find Mentors

For new faculty, my advice is to play the game for the first six years.  Once you’ve got tenure, you can do what you want to.  Or you can make the decision that tenure isn’t important.  And there are people who’ve made that decision.  There are all these incredible tensions in the field right now, so if you come in as an assistant professor, you’ve got to be very careful.  The basic tension is how much time faculty members should spend doing various things.  The other tension is that, within any department, there are hierarchies of beliefs about what’s important and what’s not.  In my field, mechanical engineering, there are several subdivisions within it. There’s a hierarchy of the theoreticians, the experimentalists, and then those who are actually out in the world making a difference. The latter are, in my department, quite good right now, because they’re the ones bringing in the most money. But within the university, different departments have different views on these things, and there are several departments in my school who wouldn’t touch an engineering education person, and others who want to hire them, and some departments where you’re golden if you are that kind of person.

The environment is changing because we have departments of engineering education now, and we have centers that have major influence.  But if someone were to come to my school, I’d have to tell them, “Your first six years is spent building up your research credentials, and in your subject area.”  As sad as it is to say, you have to do a certain number of articles every year, and that’s totally different from when I started out.  When I started out, the criteria were so lax compared to what they are now.  I’m at the stage in my career where I can do anything I damn well please.  If they don’t want me to do engineering education research, I can say, “Too bad, I’m going to continue to do it.”  But I’ve talked to several young faculty members who’s been told by their chairs not to do it because they need to build up their resumé in their field.

If you’re going to go into this field, you’ve also got to find mentors.  You’ve got to find people who are already doing it who can give you advice.  I got a lot of advice from Karl Smith.  I learned a lot from Cindy Atman and Rich Felder.  In the early days, Barbara Olds, Ron Miller, and Mike Pavelich were highly influential.  You need to have someone who’s a role model, even if you are not interacting with them on a regular basis, but it’s better if you have someone to interact with.  That’s why the ASEE conference is one of the two highlights of the year.  The other one is the Frontiers in Education conference, because I get to interact with all these people.  From my point of view, I should be out there mentoring people, too.  Right now I have four people who I’m working with in a mentoring relationship, and all of them are doing very well.  I’m very proud of the people who’ve been associated with me over the last several years.

[candidate pull quote: Once you’ve got tenure, you can do what you want to.  Or you can make the decision that tenure isn’t important.]
[candidate pull quote: If you’re going to go into this field, you’ve got to find mentors.]

Moving Forward in the Field

My history is convoluted, and people ask me about it., because it’s the opposite of what lots of people do.  When I was at Illinois, I learned about computers, and computers have been involved with everything I’ve done since then, from teaching computing, to using computers as a tool in mechanical engineering, to now using the computer as a platform for education.  Everybody had to learn how to use computers at Illinois, because it was the center of the universe as far as computers were concerned.  So that’s one thing.  The other thing is, as a psychologist, you learn how to learn, and as a mathematician,  you learn how to think, and somewhere along the line, hopefully you develop some personal skills, because that’s most important of all, actually.  You’ve got to be able to relate to people and get your ideas across.

Encouraging students’ entrepreneurship is also important. That’s what I’ve been doing recently.  I’m trying to make a list of all the students I had who actually either founded their own business or were in a situation where they made a major influence on the direction of their company in terms of its innovation. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with the senior design course: have the students design something that they can go off and make a fortune on or change the world—one or the other, or both.

More than good teaching, what really counts is the number of papers you publish and the amount of money you bring in from grants and so forth.  So the impediment to engineering education is that mindset, because a lot of the things we do, we may or may not have money to do, or the money won’t be $20 million or something like that.  Sometimes it is, and a lot of people with centers are able to command that sort of money.  But if you’re a lone investigator at a particular school, the amount of money you’re going to get is less, and the impact you have is usually beyond your school, not just at your school.  So if I can come here and convince people that distance learning can be done well and can make a major influence on us, and that K–12 outreach is worthwhile and here’s how you do it, that’s what counts.

You’ve also got to do the research in the right sorts of ways.  Sometimes it’s not as rigorous as you would like it to be, because a lot of times you’re dealing with classroom environments.  I try to do research with kids in schools, and you don’t really have the ability to determine what the makeup of a class is. You can’t control all the variables, so you do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Making an Impact through Service and Visibility

One way to make an impact on the field is service to the organizations.  After Karl Smith’s initial introduction of me to ASEE and ERM, the next thing I did was get involved in the Frontiers in Education conference.  One of the major Frontiers in Education meetings that I remember incredibly well was the one in Pittsburgh that was run by Cindy Atman and Larry Shuman, and they had Herb Simon as their keynote speaker.  I remember lots of things about that meeting and all the things that went on there, and that was a critical FIE.  Among other things, I got convinced to be program chair.  But having been there, that’s what made it happen. So I was the 1999 program chair for ERM for the Frontiers in Education conference.  One thing led to another, and eventually I got elected as the chair of ERM and carried on from there.

Another important thing is to write up your work and get it out there.  Being visible means not only that you document what you’ve done, but also that you get it in a venue where people will see it, and then get out at conferences and tell people about it.  Because there are tons of things that sit in journals that nobody ever looks at, and all of us have information overload.  Very frequently I will read an article because someone else tells me about it, not because I noticed it.  So visibility makes a difference. There are lots of really great ideas out there that died, because nobody made the effort to make everybody else know about it.  So I can be doing something really wonderful, and if I never tell you about it, you may never know about it.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Richards had an unexpected trajectory from psychology into engineering education research. Thinking about your own setting, what might be some of the challenges of coming in from a non-engineering field? What would be the advantages, such as unique insights or skills?
  • Like many of the Pioneers, Dr. Richards reflects that it has been a challenge to get engineering education research recognized as “real” research. Have you found this to be a challenge? Why or why not? What are some things that can help this type of research be seen as “real”?

Photo provided by Dr. Richards.