Lawrence P. Grayson: If you truly believe in it, just do it

Lawrence P. Grayson got started in engineering education in the 1960s. He is past president of the American Society for Engineering Education and has received numerous awards, including the Hoover Medal, the George Washington Medal, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Engineering Professionalism. As a member of ASEE’s Educational Research and Methods (ERM) Division, he led a variety of successful projects to raise the profile of effective teaching and learning nationwide, during a time when teaching was not valued or recognized nearly as much as research in the university setting. His efforts included the resurrection of the ERM Division’s effectiveness and membership, the coordination of 12 regional workshops on effective teaching for every ASEE region in the nation, and the main plenary on “Teaching Really Matters” at the 1971 ASEE Annual Conference, among other initiatives.

The profile below was authored by Janet Y. Tsai, University of Colorado Boulder, based on an interview with Dr. Grayson in 2014.

Dr. Lawrence P. Grayson
Visiting Scholar, School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America

Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn
Honorary Doctor of Engineering, Milwaukee School of Engineering

Overcoming hostile climates to champion teaching in engineering

When I was teaching in the 1960s, the emphasis was on research, and teaching was not recognized. It was really an attitudinal challenge, as the people in charge at certain prestigious universities were entirely focused on research and didn’t know how to evaluate or value effective teaching.

I remember one colleague who attended the summer workshops at Penn State the year before I did. This man was a very effective teacher; in fact, he won an award as the top teacher in his well-known engineering school one year prior. The same time that he got the teaching award, he was told his contract was not being renewed, because he was not doing research. That was the atmosphere that existed within the university setting, so I fought the system.

I had been doing a bit of publishing, both in my own engineering field and in education, but it was clear to me that the education part was becoming more and more of an interest. I was working with a very senior person at Johns Hopkins University on improving a freshman engineering course. We had a contract with the publisher John Wiley at the time to do a book for freshman engineering. One of the senior faculty members came up to me at one point and said, “Why are you spending all this time doing these kinds of things?” I said, “Well, I am very interested in it.” And he said, “Well, you have to do more publishing.” And I said, “But we are.” I mentioned what I published, and he said, “But that’s not research, that’s teaching.” I said, “What about the book that I’m doing—that we’re publishing with Wiley?” He looked at me and said, “That’s an undergraduate book! That doesn’t count!” That was the atmosphere that existed within the university system, so I tried to blend research with activities to improve teaching and learning – but it is difficult to serve two masters.

As engineering education pioneers, we had to overcome the almost total bias toward research, to the exclusion of effective teaching.  Whatever we accomplished to change the attitude, we did through an existing structure—the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), which was then dominated by the deans—and did so by making our case boldly and with great enthusiasm. We wanted to show that teaching could be evaluated, give outlets so that people could write about what they were doing in their classrooms and institutions, and provide some peer-review recognition.

A passion for effective teaching

I started teaching in September of 1962 as a member of the faculty at The Johns Hopkins University. One of the things I was very interested in as I got started was becoming a more effective teacher. So the summer after my first year of teaching, I attended a workshop at Penn State on the topic of effective teaching. It was one of a series of summer workshops that ran during the summer at Penn State, for about five years in the 1960s. These workshops were headed by an associate dean at Penn State named Otis Lancaster, who later became an ASEE president. There were probably 60 or 70 people at that workshop, divided between young teachers, just starting out like myself, and more mature teachers, people who had 10 to 20 years or more experience. It was a good mix. All the young teachers that were there were enthusiastic about doing something, and I became enthusiastic as well.

The following year, I became active in the Educational Research and Methods (ERM) Division of ASEE, and a group of us decided that we needed a means of bringing together information about the many good teaching activities that were going on, albeit on a small scale, in engineering schools throughout the country, creating a forum where people could support one another and help ourselves to become more effective teachers.

Looking back, I realize that quite a few of the folks who participated in the early days of the ASEE ERM Division had some connection to or had taken one of the summer workshops at Penn State. Those early summer workshops at Penn State were a great stimulus. To a large extent, those workshops showed me that I was not alone, that there were other people who were very interested in effective teaching. That helped motivate us to later develop regional workshops to continue spreading the idea of effective teaching in engineering.

We then organized a summer workshop, a three- to four-day workshop to be run in 1969, on effective teaching. We also recognized that a lot of people would not be able to travel to that national workshop, so we decided to organize regional workshops that ran from about a day and a half to three days. We ended up organizing one in every single region that ASEE had—all twelve regions. That first year, we had about 500 teachers come to those regional workshops. It was a tremendous turnout.

Resurrecting the Educational Research and Methods Division

The Educational Research and Methods (ERM) Division of ASEE was a ready-made vehicle for advancing our interests. It had been active in the 1950s, but by 1964, when I began my involvement, the division was moribund. There were maybe half a dozen folks who came to the division’s business meeting, showing how the whole division was just dying. So in 1964, I was elected to one of the division’s chair positions, mainly because no one else wanted the job! So we developed a program for the following year and tried to spice it up a bit. The next year, more people attended the sessions and the business meeting. The following year, we increased the attendance again at the business meeting, and I was elected chairman of the division at that point. By 1966, we had a solid core of volunteers, some really good people like Lee Harrisberger, Helen Plants, Charlie Wales, Gus Root, Gordon Flammer, Lois Greenfield, and others. Soon, we were joined by people like Ed Kraybill, Wally Venable, and Jim Stice, and later by folks like John Lindenlaub, Bill LeBold and Wally Fowler. There are others, and I apologize for not mentioning them, but time dims the memory.

Everyone shared great enthusiasm for doing something with ERM and effective teaching, and we fed off each other to a large extent. Just starting something new, whether it’s a new company or a new organization or a new project, there’s a feeling of vibrancy and exuberance that exists, and this group was a great example of that. We’d start our executive committee meetings right after dinner, and they’d run until maybe 11 or 12 o’clock at night. Helen Plants, who was at West Virginia University, would bring her children to the ASEE meetings every year (which were held on university campuses at that time, with everybody staying in the dorms). There were lots of families that came to ASEE meetings in those days; in fact, the family with the largest number of children who came would always be recognized at the meeting. Helen had several children, and in the middle of the night, she had them running around the dorms, distributing fliers for our upcoming ERM events the next day. They would just slip them under everyone’s doors. We didn’t know exactly who they were going to, but that didn’t matter. As a result, attendance at ERM sessions started increasing tremendously. We started organizing more sessions at the annual conference, we were getting larger audiences, we were demanding larger rooms, we had standing room only in the rooms they were giving us, and because we were now successful, ASEE began responding.

In 1968, we started a quarterly newsletter called ERM. Lee Harrisberger served as editor, and we appointed a number of associate editors for the newsletter. The newsletter featured a lot of things about ERM, and even more about teaching tips. At that time, we were just getting into computer-assisted instruction, so we had a section on that. We had a section on program instruction, on audio-visual materials—you name it and we’d run it. We were publishing articles on teaching—not just little news bits but full articles. They weren’t really peer-reviewed kinds of pieces, but they were articles, with references, about how to improve teaching in one way or another. Then I was able to work with the woman who was the editor-in-chief at that time of the Journal of Engineering Education (JEE), and we started getting more articles into the journal. After a couple years of that, we were able to convince her to set aside and establish an annual issue of JEE on research in engineering education. Billy Koen served as editor of that annual issue. That went for a number of years and was really working well. We established a distinguished ERM lectureship, so that every year we could identify someone at the ASEE Annual Conference as a distinguished lecturer in some aspect of engineering teaching. Eventually, we established a mini-plenary about effective teaching at the ASEE conferences.

After I served a couple of years as chairman of the ERM Division, I was elected an ASEE council chairman. I was able to get the ASEE board of directors to call it the “Council on Teaching and Learning,” which provided visibility to the whole concept of effective teaching. This council existed for a number of years, and then it evolved into one of the professional interest councils. Later on, I became a vice president and then finally a president of ASEE.

As we were so enthusiastic and successful in drawing crowds to our sessions, I was able to convince the Society’s Board of Directors that they should allow the ERM Division to organize the Main Plenary session at a forthcoming Annual Conference.  Until then, the Main Plenary had been the responsibility of the host school.  In 1971, the conference was held at the U.S. Naval Academy, and ERM was in charge of the Plenary.  We had a two-hour block of time, and decided to organize an extravaganza, which we called Learning Really Matters, incorporating live presentations, remote presentations via telephone hook-ups, and audio-visuals using three simultaneous images (the Academy constructed a screen made of sail cloth that was about 10 feet high and 60 feet wide); the visuals were fed by arc lamp projectors on raised platforms; we communicated by walkie-talkies.  The time was broken into four 30-minute blocks, each focused on a different aspect of improving teaching and learning.  There was a chairman for each, who was to organize that segment.  Lee Harrisberger and I served as co-chairmen of the event and had responsibility for coordinating the four segments.  The development worked well, but the first time we could get everyone together for a trial run was the night before the presentation.  Our first run through took almost four hours.  We had a lot of scrambling and adjusting to do that night to get the presentation to two hours.  The next day there were over 2,000 people in attendance for the event held in the Academy Field House.  There were some glitches, but the show was effective and enjoyable, with everyone recognizing the mammoth effort that went into it.  ERM had made its mark.

Bug House Square

With the Educational Research and Methods (ERM) Division we began to get people working and to know each other at the ASEE Conference through an annual event called “Bug House Square.” We would schedule so it started in the early evening, and there was nothing after, so it could run as long as people wanted. Bug House Square was an opportunity for anybody to come, and each person had five minutes to say anything they wanted to about engineering education—grievances, problems, successes, and really anything they wanted to. Lee Harrisberger chaired the event, and it was really a great success. There would often be 50 or 60 people in the room, enthusiastically trying to say something, and it was a great way of developing camaraderie and sharing ideas, and getting people to recognize that there was really something valuable here.

In those days, I was in a leadership position, where my main role was to get people stimulated and get people together and communicating together. Once I was able to get a number of things started—or just propose certain ideas and enlist someone to take them on—things usually just took off, and I didn’t have to do very much. So my contributions to ERM and engineering education to a large extent were certainly organizational and management kinds of pieces—working with other folks, identifying what we felt might be a good idea, finding people to take on these ideas, and then letting them run. I became the point person for a lot of this, to keep the resources going, the ideas flowing, and the communication moving.

It was a great period, where I really enjoyed our activities. To a large extent, the people I met were just wonderful, and many of them are still friends. We’ve worked together over the years, and I still have contact with some of them. I look back on those early days, and I see a very enthusiastic group of people that worked together, really had a lot of fun, and did some good. We raised the recognition of effective teaching and effective learning, because we stimulated a lot of initiatives within universities. A number of the folks who worked with us did set up effective units within their own university structures. It was just a very joyful kind of period, as we were young and could do an awful lot of things.

Reflections on leadership and navigating a career

When something was interesting to me, I would do it. My life has had some very unusual turns and a lot of very fascinating aspects to it—things that one could never plan and never anticipate. At any point in my career, if I looked ahead five years and asked, “Where am I going, where will I be in five years?” I probably never would have guessed where I would be five years hence or what I would be doing. Some of my jobs and positions were good, and some didn’t work out as well, but they were always interesting. And when things weren’t working as well, there was always another opportunity that came up, at just the right time to try something else.

I’ve learned that sometimes people really want to do a great job, but they need somebody to point the direction—to show them they’re not alone, to help them along and provide encouragement. If we can effectively create the right environment, the right atmosphere, then there will be a lot of things that just bloom. It’s recognizing that there are things that people are willing to do and are willing to work very hard at, but they just need the encouragement and a way to gain a little recognition for themselves along the way. I’ve always been willing to publicize the accomplishments of someone else. One of the things I’ve learned is that if you’re willing to give somebody else the credit, you can do almost anything you want to do, and the credit that you give away winds up coming back to you to a large extent. If you’re trying to hold things too tightly and take all of the recognition, people don’t want to work in that environment, especially in a volunteer organization. And so my philosophy is always, if you have somebody with an idea, and he or she wants to do it, set up a system that clears the way for him or her. Do the blocking—let him or her run. If you help clear the obstacles, you’ll get some great results.

To me, when you’re innovating and creating something new, it all revolves around the people. It’s finding the right people. If you have good people, good things are going to happen. If you don’t have the right people, your efforts will quickly atrophy. An organizational structure is nice, but it shouldn’t be hampering. You want to take advantage of structure, but anything that’s going to be effective in the long term is going to depend on having good people. So the challenge is identifying those folks, recruiting them, encouraging them, motivating them, recognizing them. But when you have good people, give them their head. That’s my view of it.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Grayson reflects that is we create the right environment or atmosphere, people can “bloom” and do exciting things. Who has helped create the right environment for you, and how?

Photo provided by Dr. Grayson.