Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Feb. 9, 1996

Engineering's catalyst for change

by Skip Derra

Jim Melsa came back to his alma mater to change it. As Iowa State's seventh engineering dean, he wants to change the way students learn and faculty teach.

Melsa knows change won't be easy. After all, he's asking those in his college to abandon much of what they're familiar with. But when the changes are made, Melsa said, the college will be more in tune with the needs of students and the companies that employ them.

He said graduates will be better able to compete in their profession, and companies will get new engineers who can immediately plug into the workforce and handle all of the engineering as well as non-engineering demands that will be put on them.

The demand for these types of graduates is evident, he said.

"We asked companies: 'Do our graduates know calculus? Do they know their fundamental fluid dynamics equations?' The answer is 'yes.'" Melsa said. "We asked: 'Are they good engineers?' The answer is 'no,' because they don't interact or communicate well, and they don't know business."

To fill the voids in students' education, Melsa wants the college to move away from the professor-teaching-student routine to a "learning-based" method. In this method, students are actively engaged in the learning process. They seek out knowledge and the professor acts more as a coach, guiding, rather than lecturing. The method also is practice- oriented. It won't be enough to learn from books and demonstrations. Students need to go out and "do" engineering, Melsa said.

"We need to get engineers to touch and feel," he said. "Some of it may be synthetic virtual reality, but it has got to be active engagement of the brain.

"Our young graduates tell us the best things they ever did were their co-op experiences or that they worked on the solar car project," Melsa said. "That tells us there's part of what they need that we aren't satisfying. We need to make co-op and industrial experience mainstream in their education."

The result, Melsa said, will be graduates who not only can crunch numbers but can solve "real world" problems, graduates who have worked in teams and can easily interact with others.

The doctrine of change that Melsa preaches today took years of industrial experience to develop and polish. In 1984, Melsa decided a change was needed in his life. He left academia and a position as professor and chair in the electrical engineering department of the University of Notre Dame to become vice president of research at Tellabs Inc., a Chicago area manufacturer of telecommunications equipment.

Melsa was in charge of setting up Tellab's first research and development organization and later assumed responsibility for all research and new product development. The experience put Melsa at the forefront of a fast-paced, ever-changing industrial scene, with Tellabs riding the wake of the divestiture of the Bell System companies.

He got a first-hand look at how team product-development worked in action, with marketing, manufacturing and engineering collaborating from the beginning of a project to the end. He saw how engineering was used to design quality into a product, rather than used to fix manufacturing or customer problems. The backdrop for this flurry of activity was the fierce competition among companies to be better and faster than their competitors.

From his positions at Tellabs, including time in strategic planning and as a general manager of its data communications division, Melsa formed new ideas about how engineers do their jobs and how they can improve their position in a competitive world.

"Until then, I had preached that if you wanted high quality, it would cost more and take longer," Melsa said. "But I found that if you change the system, it is possible to design and produce high quality products and take less time and less money.

"We can provide a higher quality education program using less credit hours, which seems like heresy," Melsa said. "But I saw it happen."

After his stint in industry, Melsa found it was time again for change in his life and the dean position at Iowa State appealed to him. He came to campus preaching change because "what worked in the past, won't work now," he said. "The world is different now and it's changing dramatically."

He discussed his ideas as a candidate during his open forum on campus.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to be stoned as a heretic or have my ideas positively embraced," Melsa said. "I found a positive response of: 'We hear the message. Come help us make the change.'"

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