First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - (Ron Barr)

History of an ASEE Fellow

Ronald E. Barr

As of (May 30, 2018)

Birthplace: San Antonio, Texas

Birth date: December 21, 1946


I was born in 1946 just after the end of World War II, and thus I am part of the frontal wave of the “baby boom” generation. My parents were both born in San Antonio, Texas; however, my grandparents immigrated to America from Italy, Mexico, and Germany. I have an older brother and two younger sisters, and the six of us lived in a modest house, all sharing one bathroom. We did not have a television set in the house until I was 5 or 6 years old. We grew up in the 1950’s as a typical American family. My dad worked as a civil servant and my mom was a stay-at-home mother raising four kids. There was lots of baseball, vacations on the Texas coast, family picnics, and one legendary summer trip to Disneyland (Anaheim) in our family station wagon. I am the only member of my family who became an engineer, although my brother made a living as a computer programmer. I have a son Reuben Barr (born 1977), a grandson Cormyck Barr (born in 2010), and a grand-daughter Saffron Barr (born in 2012).


My education started in Catholic grade school, where 6 of my 8 grade school teachers were nuns. I enrolled in Central Catholic High School in 1961 and graduated in 1965. Central was (and still is) considered a top college preparatory school in San Antonio, and I believe it prepared me well for my future engineering studies. I attended summer school to accelerate my mathematics classes, so that I could take differential and integral calculus my senior year. I also studied FORTRAN programming during my high school years and got to successfully run a deck of punch cards through an IBM mainframe computer at a local University.

I received a four-year Kolinski engineering scholarship from Marquette University, and in August of 1965 my parents drove me to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to enroll in engineering at Marquette. I was the only one in my dorm from Texas and I quickly received the nickname “Tex,” a nickname that would remain with me for my entire college days. I initially majored in Civil Engineering, but by my sophomore year, I had transferred into Electrical Engineering and received my BSEE in 1969. I joined Triangle fraternity in college and recall many memorable fraternity stories that I cannot write about here. By the end of my junior year in college, I was offered a graduate fellowship to stay at Marquette and study for a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, an emerging field at that time. It was an offer I could not refuse, and I entered graduate school the same year that my BSEE was completed.

Life was pretty good in graduate school and I still had many friends in the Milwaukee area. But the Vietnam war was raging and there was a draft lottery held in December 1969. My birthday received a low number in that lottery and I received my military draft notice in March 1970. Because I already had my BSEE, I was given special work priority and was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) from 1970 to 1972. I returned to Marquette and finished my PhD in in the summer of 1975. My dissertation was concerned with computer analysis of the electroencephalogram.


My strong desire to return to Texas for my first employment led me to accept a faculty position in August 1975 in the Engineering Design Graphics Department at Texas A&M University in College Station. While it was a job that was not in the field I had trained for with my PhD research, it was a college faculty position, something I always wanted to attain, and it got me back to Texas! In hindsight, much later on in my years, I realized that getting back to Texas and being closer to my family, all of whom had remained in Texas, was a most important issue for me in my life.

Perhaps the finest “break” in my employment happened in 1978, when I interviewed for and was offered an Assistant Professor position in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin. This beak launched a 40-plus year teaching and research career at UT-Austin that I could never have dreamed of when I was a graduate student. I was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 1983 and was promoted to Full Professor in 1990. I have remained a tenured Full Professor on the ME faculty through this writing, but have entered a three-year phased retirement contract this Fall 2018 that will keep me half-time through 2021.

Research and Scholarship

My research centered on the topics of biomedical signal analysis and biomechanics of human movement, and I supervised to completion 6 PhD students and 53 master’s theses. I published papers in many leading journals such as: ASME Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, Medical and Biological Engineering and Computing, ASME Journal of Dynamic Systems Measurement and Control, and Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering.

I also was lucky to be teaching Engineering Design Graphics (EDG) in the 1980’s and 1990’s, a time of great change in the field in which the technology went from manual drafting to 3-dimensional computer modeling. I received an NSF grant in 1988 to lead this change in the EDG curriculum, and by 1996 UT-Austin had in place a modern 3-D curriculum for Engineering Design Graphics that would become an international model. These efforts were widely published in journals such as: Engineering Design Graphics Journal, Journal of Engineering Education, and Journal for Geometry and Graphics.

Philosophy of Engineering Education

I have often heard that engineering faculty will teach the same way they were taught. Since I started my engineering education in 1965, I obviously had exposure to only one style of teaching: the proverbial “chalk and talk” lecture. Back then there was no internet, no computer projection system, no tablet PC. There was just a “sage on the stage” imparting knowledge on a chalkboard. So, when I started my engineering teaching career in 1975, and for many years later, I simply emulated teaching methods I had observed as a student. However, in the past twenty years I have witnessed many new ideas on engineering teaching effectiveness, particularly using new technologies and new learning theories that have emerged. So, I have welcomed new teaching methods and have tried to apply them to my classes. Some examples of best practices in engineering education that I have studied and applied in the classroom include: project-based or challenge-based education, active and hands-on learning, videos and computer simulations, reverse engineering, and flipped classroom with in-class homework. So, the teaching philosophy that I would impart to other engineering faculty is fairly simple: “Look at some of the best practices in engineering education, pick one that interests you and fits your class, try it out, assess if it works, and then report it.” It is a philosophy that has worked for me the last two decades, and here are two case examples.

Case 1: Reverse Engineering Team Projects in a Freshman Engineering Class1 Reverse engineering is the dissection of a common mechanical assembly into its individual parts, and then studying the geometry and design function of each part. The freshmen engineering graphics students are divided into four-person teams. The student teams select a mechanical assembly, dissect it into individual parts, make measurements and sketches, build 3-D solid models, apply the solid models to various analyses, and make rapid prototypes. The whole project is eventually documented with sketches, 3-D model printouts, design analyses tables, 3-D printed prototypes, and final drawings, all submitted in the form of a final report.

1. Barr, R., Krueger, T., Wood, B., Aanstoos, T., and Pirnia, M.: Introduction to Mechanical Engineering Design Through a Reverse Engineering Team Project, Proceedings of the 8th ASEE Global Colloquium on Engineering Education (GCEE), Budapest, Hungary, October 2009.

Case 2: Challenge-Based Instruction in a Junior Biomechanics Class2 Challenge-based instruction is a form of problem-based education, in which the problems are posed as a series of challenges that require the students to search for and acquire knowledge and expertise, as needed, to solve the challenge. The challenge-based, team approach to learning stimulates the students to develop a deep understanding of the discipline while at the same time building problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills. Some of the challenges developed and used in the class are: the Iron Cross, the Virtual Biomechanics Gait Lab, the Knee ACL tear, and the Jumping Jack modules.

2. Barr, R., Pandy, M., Petrosino, A., Roselli, R., Brophy, S., and Freeman, R.: “Challenge-Based Instruction: The VaNTH Biomechanics Modules,” Advances in Engineering Education, Vol. 1(1), pp. 1-30, 2007.

ASEE Activities

I joined ASEE in 1979 and attended my first ASEE annual conference that summer. In the Spring of 1980 I attended my first ASEE Gulf-Southwest (GSW) Section meeting, and by then I realized that ASEE would be a valuable organization for me in my engineering education career. I became active at both the section and national levels, and have attended almost every GSW section and ASEE annual summer conference since the early 1980’s.

I became active in the Engineering Design Graphics (EDG) Division of ASEE and in 1987 we hosted the EDG Annual Mid-Year meeting in Austin. It would be the first of three EDG Mid-Year meetings I helped organize in Texas, the others being San Antonio (2001) and Galveston (2012). I served the EDG Division as program chair, technical editor of the EDG Journal, and division chair.

In parallel, my activities with the GSW section led me to organize the Annual GSW Section meeting in Austin in Spring 1993, where I was elected chair of the GSW Section. Because I was now a past Section Chair, I was nominated for and elected to ASEE Zone III Chair in 1996 and served my first term on the ASEE Board from 1997 to 1999. As a board member, other opportunities to serve unfolded, and I was elected ASEE Vice-President of Members Affairs (2001-2003), and then President-Elect (2004-2005), President (2005-2006), and Immediate Past President (2006-2007). It was this series of professional opportunities to serve ASEE that I cherish utmost in my career.

Other Professional Activities

I am a Life member of IEEE and in my earlier research career I attended many IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) Annual Conferences. I am a Fellow of ASME for my contribution to engineering education leadership and for transforming the 2-D mechanical drafting course into a modern 3-D solid modeling design course. In 2007, I took an ABET training course and in the past decade I have served as an ABET Program Evaluator (PEV) on a half-dozen site visits representing ASEE as the lead society. Since 1978, I have been a registered Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Texas.