Rodney Averett, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering
Dr. Averett held a faculty position as an Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering at the University of Georgia. He completed his postdoctoral training in Biomedical Engineering from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his Ph.D. in Polymer Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In his work, Dr. Averett has developed and utilized multiscale modeling techniques for examining the mechanical behavior of extracellular matrix materials, primarily blood clots.
“We have so much diversity in our academic portfolio around campus between the different institutions and different colleges such as the College of Education, the College of Law, and so on. You have all of these other diverse educational platforms to leverage from that you wouldn’t have at a traditional technical university.”
A short conversation about ENED with Dr. Averett:
What do you like most about working in the College of Engineering at UGA?
What I like most about it is the opportunity to make a difference. Working here has provided me the opportunity to use my skill set to help a growing college; a college that has a lot of potential and a lot going for it. We have so many great resources around campus to leverage from, and it really just makes the job fun. We have so much diversity in our academic portfolio around campus between the different institutions and different colleges such as the College of Education, the College of Law, and so on. You have all of these other diverse educational platforms to leverage from that you wouldn’t have at a traditional technical university. So, I think that’s what excites me about working with the college; being at the center of this new paradigm where we can start to influence how academics are governed around the campus as well as the opportunity provided by the enormous pool of resources that we have to leverage from.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing society today, and what is the role of engineering educators to address them?
I think some of the biggest challenges facing society today are rooted in the fact that our economy has changed to where we are no longer centered on producing goods and have become much more service oriented. We used to have a much stronger focus on manufacturing and production. I think some of the biggest challenges are going to be to get back to the product-making focus we once had. For example, everything we do now is controlled with an app on a phone, but behind that app you have to have something. Someone has to do something to provide that service. Whether you’re ordering a pizza or you’re ordering an Uber. We’ve become so reliant upon the technology, and everyone wants it and they want it right now. So how do we balance that going into the future with the resources that we have in terms of energy, water, computer resources, and human capital? How do we manage that? Because the population is increasing and other nations will start to have the same type of demand. How do we balance all of that going forward? I think we will begin see robotics play a strong role in that, I think we will start to see the automation of automation and I think you’ll see artificial intelligence become a really big driver in that. I think that these developments will help to alleviate some of the issues that we’ve had in manufacturing and will allow us to be competitive here in the U.S. to shape and pave the way for new and innovative methods in manufacturing and production.
What skills and qualities do you hope to instill in your students?
Some of the skills and qualities that I hope to instill in my students are to learn how to ask the right questions. I think that is the crux of what an engineer does; ask questions until they can solve the problem. It’s not so much the teacher providing the answers, or reading from a book or even just solving math problems, but it’s more about the student internalizing what has been presented to ask more questions so they are able to solve more complex problems. That’s what I hope to instill in my students; the ability to ask the right questions that they can use to solve more complex problems.
It’s kind of like giving them the baton and hoping they run with it but also hoping they don’t fall. And hoping they don’t drop the baton as well. In a track meet, that’s one of the things you fear when you’re taking the baton is that you won’t drop it, because you’re disqualified. In this analogy, being able to make that exchange, that relay, is a very important part of the learning process, and that teacher-to-student exchange is a very important part of that. The hope is that when they take off they’re doing the right thing, they have the right motions, but also that they’re passing it to someone else.
What I really want to instill in them is the ability to absorb the material. Because, if you think about it, you’ve got massive online open courseware now. In theory, students could learn all they want on the computer without going to class. But it’s really about what you do with the knowledge that you have at your disposal, and engineering education will play a strong role in that, because it will allow us to develop the curriculums and environments so that the right content is delivered to the students in the right way.
We have a lot of people that want to be engineers now. A lot of students are getting engineering degrees for a specific base degree, and then they may go to law school or they may go to medical school or they may go to work on Wall Street or they may go and work in a bank. But the engineering degree itself provides the baseline degree that allows you to think through complex problems. I think that’s where engineering education will play a strong role in the future by helping to determine what we need in the curriculum, what the classrooms look like, and how the instructors should disseminate the information.
What do you find most interesting about the current generation of incoming students, and what do you need to do to connect with them?
What I find most interesting about the current generation of incoming students is, if you think about it, we’re living in the year 2017. So these students would have been born when the plague of the Y2K crisis was still a possibility. So all they’ve known is technology, which is a good thing, because when we speak of automation, when we speak of technology, when we speak of computer servers and software and everything being computer-centric, they have no fear in that arena. They’re very technologically savvy, and they have a yearning and a desire to learn a lot which is very good for engineering and society as a whole. Those skills are vitally important for engineers to be able to solve problems using tools such as computers, hardware, and software. They don’t have to bridge a generation gap to become acclimated to what it takes to use a lot of these technologies.
But, as a teacher, what do I need to do to connect to the current generation of students? I think I need to be connected to the things that they are connected to, such as social media. So Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, those are the social instruments. But also, I want to be able to use these technologies that they are used to using and see if they can be used to help them solve engineering problems. Another thing that I think is important to connect with students is to find out what they think about the future. You know, where do they see the future going? Because it’s easier for me to think what I think the future is, but this group of students has always seen one side of it, so they may have a clearer vision on what the future actually looks like. I think there’s anxiety about the future.
If you go back to the Orwellian view laid out by George Orwell when he wrote 1984 way back in the 1940s, some of those things have come to fruition and some have not. That was a very different world then, but how do you project the future knowing that everything is becoming automated and everything operates through a computer now? So how are things going to change? Those processes are very complex and intriguing, but they’re also foreseeable. You can see—you can kind of vision that, right? Everything in the future is going to be different. Farming is going to be different. The way we process water is going to be different. The way we harness and utilize energy will be different.