James Rowland: Pioneering through FIE and ABET

James RowlandJames Rowland has been a faculty member in electrical engineering since 1966. Jim began his academic career at the Georgia Institute of Technology, before going home to Oklahoma State University in 1971, and proceeding to the University of Kansas in 1985. He has won numerous awards for his excellence in teaching, specifically in the area of controls. Jim’s biggest contribution to engineering education has been his activities involving the Frontiers in Education conference. Additionally, Jim has performed over 35 engineering program accreditation visits as a program evaluator for ABET.

The profile below was authored by Adam Carberry, Arizona State University, based on an interview with Dr. Rowland in 2014.

Dr. James Rowland
University of Kansas

B.S., Electrical Engineering, Oklahoma State University, 1962
M.S., Electrical Engineering, Purdue University, 1964
Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, Purdue University, 1966

Pathway from undergraduate to full professor

I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, providing me mainly with agricultural experiences. I participated in Future Farmers of America (FFA) and for a bit with the 4-H club. I took on a very active role in FFA as a high school student, becoming the first president of our county organization and entering multiple speech contests. I placed in the top five at the regional competition twice. To the dismay of my agriculture teachers and FFA leadership, I decided to enroll in electrical engineering at Oklahoma State University.

I excelled in the classroom and became involved with outside organizations like IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and the honor society. I had never heard of graduate school, but my department head encouraged me to consider it after he saw my free electives. I subsequently was accepted and enrolled at Purdue University, having received the National Defense Education Act Fellowship, a three-year award focusing on college teaching.

The activities of the fellowship included weekly three-hour Saturday seminars about higher education. The 18 hours of higher education were intended to educate graduate students who would ultimately go into college teaching. I completed my master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering in three and half years, subsequently applying to eight or nine faculty positions.

I started my faculty career at Georgia Tech. I received tenure after only three and half years as an assistant professor. I then moved back to Oklahoma State University to be closer to my family. I moved from associate to full professor and decided that it was time to consider opportunities to become a department chairman. In 1985, I moved to the University of Kansas to become department chairman. It is here that I still remain as an active faculty member.

Impacts on – and of – the FIE conference

The department chairman at Georgia Tech when I first began my college teaching career was Ben Dasher, incoming president of the IEEE Education Society. I was very lucky that he chose me to be his secretary as a junior faculty. This allowed me to meet all of those high level pioneers of those days who encouraged me greatly. During my early work as secretary, Dr. Dasher introduced a new conference, Frontiers in Education (FIE). I was heavily involved in setting up the local arrangements in Atlanta. I left the IEEE Education Society for a period of three years when I transitioned to Oklahoma State. My re-entry back into the society reignited some of the relationships I had previously established. To date, I’ve been to all but about six of the 43 or so FIE conferences.

As FIE began to grow, eventually establishing its current structure with three equal-partner societies in the 1990s, I became secretary again and accepted other lower-level positions. I never aspired to become president of IEEE, as some of my colleagues eventually went on to become. Some of my roles have included serving as president, vice president, and secretary treasurer of the IEEE Education Society, IEEE Edwin Jones Service Award committee, chairing the IEEE Education Society Fellow evaluations for the past three or four years, and chairing the IEEE Admissions and Advancement committee. I made my biggest mark through the membership committee. There, I set up rules that my predecessors would never have done. I established guidelines to allow individuals, whoever they may be, to become senior members regardless of whether they were electrical engineers. The guidelines include ten years of membership, five years of significant performance, and three references. Anyone who meets these criteria can become a senior member, even if they are not someone who works in a technical field.

FIE has had a great impact on my professional life as well as my personal life. After losing my first wife to cancer, I met my current wife, fellow pioneer Mary Anderson-Rowland, at the 1992 FIE conference in Nashville, TN. I had actually met her at the 1983 FIE conference when I briefly attended the women in engineering session as chair of the Ben Dasher Committee to select the best paper at the conference. In 1992, Mary was my session chair. After letters and phone calls for several months, she and I came to regard ourselves as the “FIE Sweetheart Couple” and have now been married for about 20 years. My life would be very different if I had not participated in that FIE session.

Finding collaborators

In 1975 or 1976, I attended the ASEE national conference in Fort Collins, CO. I attended the Education Society’s administrative committee meeting where I met two men that touched my life forever: Lyle Feisel and Edwin C. Jones. Both of these two men are amazing. At the conclusion of the meeting they had decided to form a new committee and appoint me chairman. The purpose of this committee was to seek out other young faculty around the country to essentially come up with new trends and ideas around what engineering education is and what topics should be investigated. I recall at an earlier meeting that I attended in 1968 or 1969, Jim McDougal said it was the “Young Turks” that were going to take over and do something eventually. Well, I thought to myself, “I’m not a Young Turk, and I’m not going to do anything like that, other than participate in and attend FIE every now and again.” I realized later on that the responsibility does become ours at some point. Meeting Lyle and Ed, and becoming chairman of this new committee, was a major moment that impacted my career trajectory and established a hierarchy of collaborators throughout my career.

The importance of doing what you enjoy

I have been fortunate to be able to do the things I have wanted to do throughout my career. I’ve worked my way up the academic ladder, served as a department chair, been heavily involved in the IEEE Education Society, served as chair of the Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association, and have gone on 35 ABET accreditation visits. Recently, I had the pleasure of working with Ed Jones as a program evaluator on a trip to Mexico City. Ed has gone on over 65 visits. Working with Ed is nirvana.

On one of my trips, I asked to interview a faculty member who had recently been denied tenure. The program was aghast, because they didn’t want me to meet with him. I took this guy aside and said, “I heard you went up for tenure and didn’t make it. What happened?” He discussed how the program had provided him with a mentor, but it didn’t work out. They then provided him with a second and a third mentor. Instead, he spent most of his time in the laboratory chumming with his students, blatantly not doing what was clearly stated in his promotion and tenure guidelines. He noted that he didn’t write papers, didn’t develop anything, and only set up a lab. What was enlightening was this faculty member telling me that it was his choice intentionally and that he knew his choices would not lead to success at the university. He did what he wanted and they treated him fairly. This response was refreshing and helped me learn something in the process.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • What are the impacts of model teachers on the future of engineering education and engineering education research?

Photo provided by Dr. Rowland.