Tim Foutz, Ph.D.
Meigs Distinguished Professor of Engineering
Dr. Foutz is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Engineering at the University of Georgia. He was the inaugural director of the First-Year Odyssey program, classes designed to introduce freshmen to the academic life of the University. Dr. Foutz has received federal funding to integrate humanities and social science topics into his course materials. For over 28 years, he has taught fundamental engineering courses as well as advanced design courses.
“I try to create a learning situation where the students must reflect on the knowledge gained in other courses before creating a design or a solution to a problem assigned in my engineering course.”
A short conversation about ENED with Dr. Foutz:
What excites you about educating engineers for the 21st century?
The question is a little bit leading. When you ask what excites me about educating engineers, that is one thing. However, when you add the 21st-century aspect, that is another. I do not think there is any difference in how we are educating students before or after the 21st century. I think when you include the 21st-century aspect to your question; you are asking how do we teach engineering for our current societal needs. Society drives what technology engineers use and what engineers design. While I do think society’s needs are changing, our approach to engineering education still is the broad, almost liberal, education that I had as a student. I was lucky enough to have faculty who stressed the social aspect of engineering and to have practiced in rural, eastern North Carolina where I had to understand the social needs of the community.
What excites me about educating engineers? I am excited that I have the opportunity to teach students that engineering is more than a mathematical model or quantifying the performance of an entity. We should teach students how to integrate the knowledge they have gained from all courses, engineering and non-engineering, and how to use that combined knowledge to solve complex problems. Engineering is more than thinking about the technological need of a problem; engineers must also deal with the social elements of a problem.
What are the biggest challenges facing society today, and what is the role of engineering educators to address them?
What is the biggest challenge? I think the use of technology is the biggest challenge. And, how it is being used. As you often hear in the media, technology is being used as a substitute for interaction within society. Many people might talk about the grand challenges; you will often hear them mention global warming, shortage of water, and food security. Those are important issues that need solutions, but how people interact with technology limits engineering’s ability to address those grand challenges. When the stakeholder is removed from what others think and how different groups engage ideas, then the engineering problem becomes more complicated. So, what do I believe is the biggest challenge facing society? It is using technology to create more interpersonal interaction. Then, engineers can begin to work on what is defined as the grand challenges.
To address the second question, I start off by saying the general education that students receive at UGA is excellent and my aim is to take advantage of that education. I try to create a learning situation where the students must reflect on the knowledge gained in other courses before creating a design or a solution to a problem assigned in my engineering course. One of the big topics we constantly hear on this campus is interdisciplinary education. Okay, that is great, and I fully support the idea. However, the design of curricula is such that it is not always so easy to have an interdisciplinary program of study. I completely understand why academic programs are housed in discipline-specific departments, such as mechanical engineering or environmental engineering. The task is to create the environment where the student must have a mindset or the capacity to cross disciplinary boundaries and not keep their knowledge categorized by discipline. I would argue that this is the overall objective of higher education, and students should not graduate without this capacity.
What role does preparing students for engineering practice play in your teaching?
While students need to be technically prepared, I want my students to be mentally prepared. They need to be able to use their reasoning skills when they get out on the job. It is not possible, in four, five, or even fifteen years, for UGA to teach them everything they need to know for the engineering profession. Can the student learn all the technology, math, and everything else in a 130-hour curriculum? No. We must build on the student’s capacity to think critically. Students must know how to pick up a book and figure out how to solve a problem that was not taught in the classroom. As an engineer, our graduates might have to convince a community to put an interstate in their backyard. I cannot teach the student how to make that decision which has a tremendous impact on society. That is a trait that student must develop. What I can do is teach them how to take information from a sociology class and fold it back into engineering practice.
I teach statics. What I try to do is bring in examples so I can connect to the course topics to the topics taught in other courses – particularly non-engineering courses. For example, I might bring in an artificial knee and begin a discussion about force vectors and calculation of joint moments. I try to transition the lecture into a brief, very brief, discussion about ethics: Is it ethical to replace a joint; is it ethical to implant an artificial heart? These questions often lead to other considerations such as “should engineers design artificial organs?” and “how is engineering tied to society, ethics, and history?” I do not go deep into this discussion; I just throw out a comment, wait for a reaction, and then move back to statics. I want to set up the situation where students begin to think about different issues not found in the engineering classroom. Maybe the student will understand the value of taking the philosophy course that helps them engage the discussions about ethics. Helping students learn how to combine knowledge from different disciplines will prepare them for professional practice.
What are some important characteristics for a teacher to possess and how do you embody them in your teaching?
No matter what topic you are teaching, you must keep the student’s attention. From that perspective, I think an essential characteristic for a good instructor is to be a good performer. This does not mean the instructor has to provide a dramatic story or a mini-sitcom. The instructor needs to have the capacity to recognize the mood of the audience (students), to be able to capture their attention and to have an awareness of how to influence their reaction (e.g. prod them to think and ask a logical question).
How do I embody that? I tell jokes –I know the students are not going to get most of my jokes because they are old jokes or are just plain bad. However, I want to get them to stop and think “what did he just say?” Now, I have their attention and can continue with the lecture. The important part of my teaching is a willingness to create that break in the lecture to refocus both the student and myself.
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