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Brad Petersen
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1066 ECE Building
306 N. Wright Street
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 244-6376
Fax: (217) 265-6499
bradp@illinois.edu

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Michael C. Loui

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By Mark Pajor, ECE ILLINOIS
January 30, 2014

Michael C. Loui
Michael C. Loui

Q: What is your area of expertise?

A: I currently have two areas of expertise. One is in the area of professional ethics, specifically engineering ethics and research ethics. Within research ethics, I focus on responsible conduct of research, that is: what are the professional obligations of people in the process of doing research? The other area of expertise is college teaching and engineering education. For ten years I’ve taught a graduate course on college teaching, and I was also an executive editor of a journal called College Teaching. Since June 2012 I’ve been editor of Journal of Engineering Education. You would not normally find these two specialties – professional ethics and engineering education research –among faculty in an engineering department.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of your education and career?

A: I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended Punahou School, which is the same school that President Obama attended. I then attended Yale University on the east coast and majored in mathematics and computer science. In 1975 I went to MIT for my master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and PhD in computer science. I’ve always been interested in the theoretical areas of computer science, where it intersects with mathematics. So, my early research was on the theory of computing. After getting my PhD in 1980, I came straight to Illinois.

Starting in 1981, I was a visiting assistant professor at Illinois, and in ’82 I became a normal tenure track assistant professor. I was promoted in ‘86 to associate professor and in ‘91 to full professor. From 1996-2000, I was an associate dean of the Graduate College, an administrative appointment overseeing all graduate programs on campus. I handled academic policies. I was also the research integrity officer of the campus for two years, so I started teaching research ethics. In 2000, my administrative appointment ended, and I returned to regular duties of teaching, research, and professional service. I teach chiefly in computer engineering, though I’ve also taught ECE 110: Introduction to ECE. I’ve taught all kinds of courses. And of course, I perform research with my graduate and undergraduate students.

Q: How did you become interested in engineering ethics and education?

A: I taught the engineering ethics course for the first time in the spring of ’93. Getting into research ethics was a natural step, because a lot of the basic thinking is similar: what are our professional obligations? How do we think through ethics problems? The interest in college teaching arose when I taught for my first semester here. Like many faculty members, I had never been trained to teach. As graduate students we focus so much on research that we never learn how to teach. Being a good academic, I learn from books, so I read some books that recommended practices based on the research on college teaching. If we think of teaching as a scholarly activity, it should be grounded in the research literature. The scholarship of teaching and learning takes the idea of scholarly teaching one step further and makes teaching like research: you gather data to evaluate the quality of your teaching and share what you have learned by making the results public. The goal is to contribute knowledge about engineering education.

Q: Can you tell me about a research accomplishment that you’re proud of?

A: There are two education research projects that I believe are particularly interesting. I have just submitted papers for publication on these projects, co-authored with my graduate students. One project studied a new way of structuring engineering laboratory assignments. Usually, students work in pairs at a lab bench. Some problems can occur between student pairs in an electronics lab. Sometimes, there is a dominant student who wants to do all of the wiring and building of circuits. That leaves the second student without that hands-on experience. This is particularly a problem with a male and female pair of students, where the research shows that the female partner tends to have less hands-on time than the male partner. To solve this problem, we proposed a very simple method of structuring lab pairs called structured pairing. The students have two roles. The pilot wires the circuits and adjusts the multi-meter. The navigator monitors the pilot, checking to make sure that everything is correct, recording measurements, and asking questions about the pilot’s actions. Importantly, the pilot and navigator have to switch roles every 20-30 minutes. This structured pairing method resembles the paired programming method used in computer science instruction. Structured pairing gives each member of the pair equal time doing hands-on work and monitoring, two roles that are equally important. In this research project, we found that structured pairing improves student confidence, satisfaction, attitude, and motivation.

The other project created a new developmental model of research mentoring. For four summers, I directed an undergraduate research program. For three of those summers, we provided workshops for the graduate student mentors of the undergraduate research to learn mentoring skills. We asked the graduate students keep reflective journals. Based on data from the journals, we created a four-stage model of research mentoring. At the first stage, the student is a novice and doesn’t even know how to turn the power on. At this stage, the best mentor is a director. Stage two is where the student has some skills, motivation, and independence. In this second stage, the mentor-student relationship is the classic master-apprentice relationship. During the first two stages, the mentor takes primary responsibility for progress of the research project. In the third stage, the responsibility is shared. The student becomes more of a collaborator. The mentor is still important as a guide, but the two are more or less equal in making decisions on how the research should progress. In the fourth stage – when the student is fully trained and very experienced – we think of the student as a colleague, and the mentor becomes primarily a consultant. This model explains conflicts that can occur when the student and the mentor are at different stages.

Q: You’ve earned many awards and recognitions, particularly for teaching. Which award is the most meaningful to you?

A: I think my most meaningful award was the Luckman award, now called the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. It’s a recognition by the many thousands of undergraduates that I’ve had, during a long career in doing undergraduate teaching, which is typically not as well valued at a research university. I’m happy to make a difference in undergraduate students’ lives.

Q: What does the future hold in engineering ethics and education?

A: Let’s take the ethics piece first. The accreditation criteria for engineering programs were changed in the 1990s to increase emphasis on ethics and other aspects of what we call the professional skills in engineering education: teamwork and communication, lifelong learning, and understanding engineering in a broad societal context. I think there will be a growing recognition that these are important skills that we need to help students develop. There’s certainly a (grudgingly) growing recognition that these are important. The details of the technical content in our courses are not as important as some of these other skills that students really ought to learn. Progress is slow, because emphasizing professional skills requires changing the culture of engineering education. And in engineering education research, it’s an uphill battle. At a recent conference that I attended, people talked about how they’re marginalized in their departments because they’re the only people doing education research. It’s definitely a growing field; people are finding funding for important problems worth solving. We have major problems in the whole engineering education eco-system. We know that with changing demographics we need to encourage more women and minorities to go into engineering, and yet our curricula are not well structured for them. There’s also the issue of the explosion of knowledge; we can’t possibly teach students everything that they need to know for their careers. We should give students the tools to be lifelong learners. Engineering education research is certainly a growing field. It’s a specialty that actually connects with the fundamental purpose of the university: education. I think in the future we will see more research-based education methods and curricula across all disciplines in universities. Change is painfully slow, but we have to keep trying.

Q: Is there any research or technology that you’re most anxious or excited about?

A: People are excited about MOOCs. I see them as just the next natural evolution of gaining greater access to courses. We will still have residential universities, because a lot of what students learn is outside the classroom. So, MOOCs are another method of delivering courses. Like having online courses fifteen years ago, this is yet another way of using educational technologies. MOOCs will not replace the face-to-face advising of small groups that happens in laboratories and research. MOOCs will help us rethink how we use our classroom time. What, then, is the role of the professor? Why will students come to classes?  Why will they come to campus? I think MOOCs are the next natural step in the evolution of colleges. Before the American Revolution, Harvard at its maximum had 413 students. Today it’s a university of 16,000. The mega-universities of today could not have been imagined back in the 1700s. Colleges and universities have changed. MOOCs will prompt us to rethink how we educate, but we’ll still have face-to-face residential education.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with your research?

A: I’m doing this work because, as you can see, I care about the total professional development of our students. That includes their writing skills and moral reasoning skills, a kind of reasoning that differs from mathematical problem solving. And it’s important that students can think in a qualitative way and write clearly. Through my research, I want to help other people teach better. A lot of effective classroom practices, laboratory practices, and administrative practices are already pretty well known. But it helps to have senior faculty like me to say there’s a base of reliable research on which we can make decisions about classroom and administrative practices. And we should be taking advantage of the research. If we believe we’re scholars, then we should base our practices on scholarly research. And yet much of current classroom practices are not. Faculty members have a lot of misconceptions about teaching that are hard to dislodge. To change classroom practices, we reformers can’t just advocate, we have to have research to support our claims. So that’s what we’re trying to do, to back up the efforts to create reforms that will improve education for all students.  Some students in my classes could very well end up in positions of great responsibility, and I hope that I have educated them to be responsible and productive citizens.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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