Richard Culver: A career of markers and flexibility

Richard CulverRichard (Dick) Culver has held faculty and administrative positions at a variety of academic institutions around the world. With a career focused on encouraging the intellectual development of undergraduates, he was critical to the development of EPICS (Engineering Practices Introductory Course Sequence) at Colorado School of Mines and DTeC (Design Technology and Communication) at SUNY-Binghamton. Through the development of these programs, he was one of the first to apply psychological models of development in engineering education.

 The profile below was authored by James Pembridge, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, based on an interview with Dr. Culver in 2014.

Dr. Richard S. Culver
Professor Emeritus, Mechanical Engineering
State University of New York – Binghamton

Ph.D., Mechanics of Materials, Cambridge University, 1964
M.Sc., Engineering Mechanics, Stanford University, 1960
B.E.M.E, Mechanical Engineering, Vanderbilt University, 1959

Creating an engineering with more than technical expertise

As educators, we have a responsibility for helping students to develop both their personal and technical life. While working at Colorado School of Mines (CSM), I talked with faculty, and we realized that our students were capable of getting a job but were having difficulty living a life. We even saw issues with industry. Industry commented that our students could be technically competent first-line managers in their field, but they would look elsewhere for future presidents of the company. This was a problem for us and our graduates. I utilized my role as Dean of Students at CSM to create courses and programs that would not only expand the students’ academic and technical development but also their personal development.

In the 1970s, CSM was conducting a $30-million fundraising initiative to support the university. We realized that this money should be spent on a better education, as well as new buildings and prestigious professorships. Our goal, supported by the board of trustees, was to define the profile of the future graduate and to identify key characteristics that a student should have at graduation. This process was conducted well before ABET 2000, yet we still developed similar goals.  The student should be:

  • Technically competent in their field of specialization
  • Able to handle open-ended, undefined problems
  • Able to learn on their own
  • Able to communicate both in writing and in speaking
  • Able to work as a member of a team
  • Engage in lifelong learning

We realized that these abilities needed to be built throughout the curriculum, not in a single course. We sought to design a program that would make a person grow as an individual intellectually, ethically, and emotionally, so they could be effective as people in society and as technical experts. At CSM, we called the course EPICS—Engineering Practices Introductory Course Sequence. When I moved to Binghamton University in the 1980s, I adapted many of the same principles and integrated it into a new program called Design Technology and Communications (DTeC)

The main challenge was working with the students to develop a program that would encourage them to grow but was not so challenging that they didn’t want to be a part of it. It was difficult to get students to volunteer for the pilot program of EPICS. There was a feeling among the students that this is not what engineers do. “This is an engineering school. We teach engineering. We don’t mess around with all that ‘stuff.’” However, that didn’t dissuade us. Putting up with a little push-back from the students is part of the game when trying to develop a new program.

What you must do is listen to the students and allow them to provide constructive feedback. It helps to have students involved in the program development process. If you give them the opportunity to participate in creating something new and different, some of the students will jump forward and provide you with good support. They may also come up with their own ideas—ideas that you’d never think of.

Utilizing the learning sciences and “pop psychology” to develop a program

What I was trying to do with EPICS and DTeC was create in my own mind a model for how an educational program might help a student grow as an individual.  In my own readings, I ran across works by Rokeach, Perry, Levinson, and Goleman. At the time, they were not particularly well known by people in engineering education. Peggy Fitch and I used William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development to design and build new academic programs. I think the real value of the Perry scheme was that it provided a model for student growth in the college years.  We could visualize what students would look like when they were at different stages. What he showed was that there are definite steps by which people go from being dualistic thinkers to figuring out that there’s no right answer to complex problems, and that the best answer has to be defined by the criteria and the context in which a decision is being made. The other half of the equation is the person’s emotional life. When I discovered Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence, it complemented the Perry scheme in defining a path for professional and personal success.

Perry really did provide the theoretical base for what we did in EPICS. The scheme indicated that our traditional three-credit technical lecture courses were not promoting growth beyond a dualistic mode of operation, and if that’s the academic challenge for four years, graduating students would only be capable of low-level management and operations. So we started looking at how we could stimulate intellectual development in the students as an integral part of the academic program.

When I was Dean of Students, I read Seasons of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson. His work addressed the idea that our life goes through stages, and we change as a result of new experiences or “marker events” that force us to reconsider who we are and how we respond. Completing a college degree is an example of a marker; getting married, having a first child—those are markers. These markers can change the way people think. This concept ties in with Perry’s model, because Perry talked about how it’s not a smooth continuum of growth. People change as a result of being challenged to face things in a more complex way, and these are marker events in a person’s personal development.

So I proposed that there are also educational markers—that is, events in people’s personal, educational histories which are the basis for their growth and change. In our plans for EPICS and DTeC, we built activities into courses which have marker potential. Frequently, these “marker activities” are represented by a design project, collaboration with another person or a group of people, and working with an outside client—all ideas that have more recently been promoted by ABET 2000.

Taking risks and being flexible

As an engineering academic, you should be willing to take some risks and try something new that stretches you. Much of my experience came from having the ability to be flexible and address a new challenge every five to seven years throughout my career. This allowed me to get myself energized by being on the edge of something new that I wanted to do.

I have had the opportunity to work across the world, from Golden, Colorado; to Zaria, Nigeria; Alberta, Canada; Binghamton, New York; and Salford, England. These opportunities occurred because I was willing to be flexible and capitalize on opportunities as they arose, while working with innovative and hardworking people.

I began as an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Mines, doing research in explosive metal forming and teaching engineering mechanics. A few years into that position, my wife and I wanted some overseas experience, and we thought it would be a good time to travel, while our children were still young. So I applied for and became a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria for two years.

When it was time to return to CSM, things had changed; there was new administration, and my previous job was no longer available. Fortunately, I got a job at the University of Calgary in Canada as a research associate in their explosives lab. Without that experience in Calgary, I would not have been exposed to practical psychology, such as Parent Effectiveness Training and Transactional Analysis, which led me to my focus on incorporating student personal development into an academic program.

Two years after I started working at Calgary, I received an offer to return to CSM. My experience in Calgary helped me to see the problems that existed in the educational program and culture at CSM. Soon after I returned to CSM, the Dean of Students retired, and the new president identified a need for an engineer as Dean of Students in an engineering college. So I applied for the position, because I felt that it provided an opportunity to build a student life program to complement the technical program.  Becoming Dean of Students certainly stretched me, because I had no formal background in student affairs.  However, in five years, we built a strong student affairs program which provided the basis for changes in the academic program.

Probably one of the biggest challenges and accomplishments in my career was to know when to leave the position as Dean of Students and leadership of EPICS and DTeC. I let other people take over these programs so they could modify and grow without my bias and influence dictating it. These opportunities don’t come along very often, but if you are willing to take the risk of trying something new and different, it could be very good for you and for the program that you are involved in.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Culver recalls his efforts to reform engineering curriculum to expand students’ personal development as well as their academic and technical development. Is there still room for improvement in this area? In your experience, how has ABET 2000 affected this aspect of engineering education?
  • Dr. Culver suggests that, “as an engineering academic, you should be willing to take some risks and try something new that stretches you.” In your career, what types of risks have you taken or considered taking? What new things might you try, in order to stretch yourself?

Photo provided by Dr. Culver.