David Voltmer: “Off the deep end” with engineering education

David VoltmerDavid Voltmer taught engineering at Rose-Hulman for 32 years, and prior to that was on the faculty at Penn State University. He is an ASEE Fellow, has served as a Member of the IEEE Education Society AdCom and as an officer in the Electrical Engineering division and Educational Research Methods division of ASEE. He has also been very involved in the Frontiers in Education conferences.

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

Dr. David Voltmer
Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Ph.D., Ohio State University, 1970
M.S.E.E., University of Southern California, 1963
B.S.E.E., Iowa State University, 1961

Learning about teaching

When I was at Penn State, back in 1969, Otis Lancaster was the Associate Dean for Education.  He conducted a week-long course that everyone had to take on how to teach. So I did have that prior to teaching. I remember one day one of the faculty members taking the class said, “But you can’t do it that way.” And Otis argued that you could.  And the faculty member gave a strong argument against it.  The next day, Otis came back and said, “You caused me great discomfort last night.  I stayed awake many hours thinking about what you said.  I think you’re right.”  It was an exchange, and there was a long discussion about that.  It was very interesting, and I think that kind of piqued my interest in educational type stuff.  Otis promoted that greatly.  It was these ideas about how to teach, how students learn, grading ideas, different ways of presenting material, that broadened my view of what teaching was.  That’s where I really learned what teaching was, it was pivotal.

Challenges lead to transitions

If I had stayed at Penn State, I would have been a perpetual Associate Professor. I never would have been promoted.  Education research was not a priority in engineering at Penn State at that time. I can still remember a pivotal event. I was in the Dean’s office talking to him, and he said, “Dave, if you would publish more papers, you could be promoted.”  I said, “I am,” and I pointed out some things. And he said, “Oh, those are education journals.  I mean real publications.”  I remember I was so angry, I went out and ran the fastest five miles I’d done in a long time. I went to a conference later that day, and I decided that I was not going to stay in that department.

I then moved to Rose-Hulman, which was exciting.  It was a transition on several levels.  One of them was, I wasn’t used to such a small set of colleagues.  I only had seven people in my department at the time.  So it was quite an adjustment to get used to that.  You taught everything. The second year I was here, in late February, one of our faculty quit, and they said, “Dave, you’ll take that course.” I hadn’t even covered some of the material that was in that course, but I had to teach it.  Well, that’s part of the load.  I had to go find the references and I spent the whole term break getting prepared for it.  The work load here has been very great, but I had the freedom to do projects, I had support from people to do those. The president at Rose-Hulman was also highly supportive.  The third thing was the great camaraderie with students. There was a much less formal atmosphere than at Penn State, with highly motivated, highly interactive students.  I found that very interesting.

Going “off the deep end” with ERM

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and its Educational Research and Methods (ERM) division were pivotal in furthering my thoughts. ERM was a bunch of kooks.  I think it’s more mainstream now. But ERM was a bunch of kooky guys and gals, mainly guys, who were kooky, and people thought, “Gee, they’re off the deep end, and they think this touchy-feely stuff about teaching.” That was the attitude that prevailed. If you were interested in learning about how students learn, you were just off the deep end. That was the case, but it was OK, I like to be different. I guess maintaining a teaching emphasis is a disease you get, and it just stays with you.

ERM was this maverick child who put on the FIE conference, and there was a move by some research-oriented schools to alter the course of it and make it something that could only occur at a large school located near a major airport and so on. But some of the best conferences were held at places like South Dakota State, or in Golden, Colorado.  In the mid-1980s Rose-Hulman had a chance to host the FIE conference, and I was just so angered by the attitude of these other folks that I said, “Well, we’re going to show them, we’re going to make this happen.”  And we did. We got it, and we made it one of the best conferences of the time, with the largest enrollment and so on.  That created real friction in the hierarchy of the conference, and I participated in a lot of discussions and meetings with people from large schools.  We reached an accord, I was kind of a peacemaker.  The small schools were being just shunted aside, and were being ruled out at as schools that were able to host this conference. But we did. It’s done differently now, but there were some tough times about that.

I was an ERM officer of some sort, on the board of directors, and I got very interested in the Frontiers in Education (FIE) conference. I was either co-chair or tri-chair of two different FIE conferences and did lots of things there.  That work was all outside my teaching responsibilities, and took lots of time.  When we held the FIE conference here at Rose-Hulman, the university president was so supportive of us that I got a reduced teaching load for the term of the conference in order to make sure it went all right.

A champion and facilitator

FIE became a big deal, and that’s where I think I made the most contributions.  With assessments at Rose-Hulman, I didn’t get as involved as I might have but I learned a great deal from Gloria Rogers about that, and she was learning and evolving as we did it.  So, all of us kind of learned together.

At Penn State, I was champion of a certain kind of laboratory work, with a colleague.  Then when I left, that fell apart.  It was me.  I was the champion.  When it continues on without a champion, you know you’ve had to have some success.

In retrospect, I became a facilitator, an administrator.  I did things that enabled the FIE conference to go on, and I did things that enabled others to do things. I feel like I have been more of a journeyman, a supporter, a jack-of-all-trades.  People don’t know me for having done Briggs-Meyer testing, or design.  I’ve been involved in and supported many, many of these areas, but I don’t have a line of research you could follow.  I was given a lot of awards or recognition for things like that, but I’m a doer. I did a lot of things, and that was difficult.

Diversity from K-12 Onward

I’m a firm believer that the more diversity you have in an organization, the more likely you are to get new results.  Now, if you just want to keep producing the widget like your grandfather did, you might not be very receptive.  But if you want to do the next big thing that comes along, your company had better be diverse—you’d better have diverse engineers. Diversity has become part of engineering, and I think that’s very important.  I firmly believe that the people who are working at the K–12 level really are at the heart of where much of the difficulty lies.  We’re getting good students, but we’re not getting the numbers, and the United States is being held back because people are not forced into paths.  They choose, and they choose the path of least resistance.  Parents don’t like a lot of homework, and parents don’t like to direct students to do a lot of hard work, and students rebel.

New opportunities and resistance

Engineering scholars today certainly have a lot more of what I would call opportunities, at least in the non-traditional sense.  Many of them are going out and getting the doctorate and they think, “I’m going to start a company, and do this,” and so on.  I didn’t. The climate wasn’t right, or at least I didn’t perceive it to be right for that.  I tried a couple of times and found out that you can’t just do it part-time as a teacher.  You have to be in it all of the time, because things happen so fast, and we lost out on a couple of things that were great ideas.  We were the first on a couple of ideas, technical projects, but because we didn’t have the time to devote to it, we couldn’t bring it to success.  And even then, we might not have had the money or the right place. It’s a lot of luck.  But the opportunities that scholars today have are greater, I think.

I believe there will be the same resistance to new ideas because some people think, “We’ve never done it that way before,” or “It’s working just fine, leave it. It’ll just disrupt what I have to do if we change.”  On the other hand, I do believe that there’s more opportunity, and I think there’s a lot more mobility now.  I kind of admire the places that don’t have tenure, although they’re very few.  I would suggest not playing a role to accomplish what you want to do.  You have to be yourself.  I certainly have. I can name a number of events where I was myself, and I hurt myself, but I felt the results we got were worth it.  I don’t play a role very often. I’m comfortable with decisions I’ve made.  All I can say is you’ve got to be honest with your students, and your supervisory people and administrative people, and sometimes being honest hurts their feelings.  You have to be tactful, and sometimes they won’t like to hear what you’re saying. And some people in positions of authority will use that against you.  On the other hand, you have to be able to go to bed at night and realize you made a good decision, and whether they like it or not, that’s the way it is.

Be bold

Just be courageous, be bold.  Don’t endanger your career with the outrageous ideas, but I would say if you have a strong vision, work hard, support it, and have data. You won’t get rich through this, but actually, I feel very wealthy in experiences. You have to keep doing things. To me, that’s why I’m still able to keep doing it.  There’s just an enthusiasm I’ve got, and I think it came from the classroom, in part.  Make sure you’re on solid ground, that you aren’t filled with bigotry or hate or some kind of negative feelings based on false premises. Be accepting of people, but be true to your beliefs.  You don’t have to believe what everybody else does.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Voltmer recalls some pivotal events in his career pathway, including an interaction with a dean who did not value his education publications. Have you had similar interactions? Have they acted as pivotal points in your career?  Why or why not?
  • Dr. Voltmer reflects on his role as a champion, a facilitator, and someone who had enabled others to do thing.  How have you played that type of role (or how could you in the future?  How have you benefited from someone doing this for you?

Photo provided by Dr. Voltmer.