First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - Denny C Davis


History of an ASEE Fellow

Denny C. Davis

As of May 18, 2018

Birthplace: Toppenish, Washington

Birth date: December 21, 1944


My family has European roots. My mother had German parents; my father had German, British, and Irish heritage. I am the second of three sons born to my parents. Both my father and mother came from farming families in Eastern Washington and Idaho where irrigation is essential for crop production. My father, although having no college education, was always learning and trying new things with consultation from local experts. He was one of the pioneers in bringing peppermint and spearmint production to the State of Washington. My father took pride in producing crops of the highest quality yet always minimizing costs to remain profitable.

I grew up working alongside my father, learning first-hand that hard work and paying attention to detail make the difference between success and failure. In high school I was active in the Future Farmers of America, raising animals and crops as projects, and eventually being awarded the American Farmer degree. I enjoyed operating farm machinery and making it do its job well.

In 1972, I married Irma Friesen while we were graduate students at Cornell University. At the time of this writing in 2018, we have enjoyed 46 years of marriage built upon our understanding of God’s blueprint for marriage found in the Bible. We have one daughter, Nancy Peterson, who has earned masters and doctorate degrees in Organ Performance. She and her husband, Josh, use their musical talents to serve the home school community in their area. Nancy also has and is home educating their nine children.


I completed grades 1 through 12 in the Wapato, Washington school system, graduating third in my class of 150 students. Not having role models with college degrees, I often took advice from my older brother regarding educational options. In the fall of 1963, he and I attended Washington State University (WSU); with his encouragement I began studying Animal Science. During my first year at WSU, a student studying Electrical Engineering encouraged me to consider Agricultural Engineering as a better fit with my interests and abilities. I studied Agricultural Engineering for my BS degree at WSU and my MS and PhD degrees at Cornell University. I completed my PhD in 1973 studying the overturning motions of farm tractors, enabling the design of rollover protection structures (roll bars and cabs) for tractors.


My earliest employment was working for my father on his farm. At age 7, my older brother and I contracted with our father to keep a 2-acre peppermint field free of weeds for the entire season. From that time onward, I was employed on my father’s farm after school, on weekends, and in the summer. My first off-farm employment was at WSU as a research assistant during the summer before I began graduate school at Cornell.

At Cornell University, I held a National Needs Fellowship that did not require me to work as a TA or RA. I began TA responsibilities during my PhD program to prepare me for potential academic positions. In 1969, I experienced a dramatic life-change that moved me from aimlessly doing academic work to purposefully pursuing a path that was right for me. That year I learned that God loved me and had created me for His purposes, and I made a personal commitment to serve Jesus Christ, His Son. As I grew in my relationship to Jesus, I discovered a passion to help others and an excitement for trying new things. I wanted to help others learn what they need to be productive contributors in the engineering field.

In 1973, I accepted a research-extension faculty position with the University of Georgia located in Griffin, Georgia. Lacking opportunities to pursue my teaching passion there, in 1976 I accepted a research-teaching faculty position in Agricultural Engineering and Food Technology at WSU. I enjoyed teaching and sought ways to do it better. In 1980, I began teaching senior design, where I felt I could prepare students with practical skills needed for engineering careers. My teaching passion was rewarded by outstanding teaching awards in my department, in two colleges, at the university level, and nationally.

In 1982-83, I spent a year at Cornell University learning finite element analysis (FEA) for application to my research. Upon returning to WSU, I taught undergraduate students practical application of the method, whereas other faculty treated FEA as a graduate-level topic. Together with my colleague at Cornell, we published software for doing FEA on minicomputers and later received a national award for this development.

In 1986, I became Associate Dean for undergraduate programs and student services in the College of Engineering and Architecture at WSU. Over a dozen years, I organized faculty development opportunities to enhance teaching effectiveness of faculty and led efforts in WSU’s Teaching Academy to elevate the scholarship of teaching university wide.

As I continued to teach senior design, I realized that students need more than technical knowledge to do design. My interactions with industry representatives as Associate Dean confirmed that my lack of industry experience limited my abilities to prepare students for their careers. This led me to take a year (1996-1997) at The Boeing Company interacting with Engineering, Business, and Manufacturing people engaged in making projects successful.

Returning from my industry experience, I found limited success bringing business considerations into senior design projects. When the Boeing Scholars Program was proposed to WSU in 1999, I jumped at the opportunity to serve as an Engineering instructor for senior projects. This program leveraged cooperation of Business, Science, and Engineering programs and required a cohort of students from their programs to participate in the same senior projects. During my 11 years of involvement, students in my projects classes benefitted from multidisciplinary teamwork and entrepreneurial thinking applied to industry-sponsored and student-generated projects.

After my Associate Dean position ended, I served as Chair of the Biological Systems Engineering Department in 2000 and 2001. In that role, I created and hired a director for the Center for Precision Agricultural Systems in Prosser, WA. Then with support from three colleges at WSU, I led the development of a BS Bioengineering program which obtained ABET accreditation in 2006.

From 2005 through 2009, I co-developed the Engineering Education Research Center to stimulate Engineering Education research at WSU and facilitate collaboration across campus on Engineering Education research proposals. During this period, external funding for Engineering Education scholarship grew to become one of the largest research areas in Engineering. I also realized that I needed to strengthen my credentials in educational research to be competitive for larger research grants. This led me to take 1 year of study and research collaboration in the Engineering Education Department at Purdue University where I attended graduate courses, engaged in research discussions, and assisted in design courses.

After returning to WSU, I developed graduate courses in Engineering Education to prepare future faculty for Engineering Education scholarship. During a period of budget reductions, Engineering Education scholarship lost university support. Sensing that my legacy of Engineering Education scholarship at the university would not be continued, I started a small business for publishing educational materials that derived from my many years of design teaching and assessment research.

In 2011, my wife and I moved to Southern Illinois to retire near our daughter and her family. I established Verity Design Learning LLC for marketing educational materials for developing and assessing design and professional skills in students. I remained active with collaborators of the past and developed new collaborations with The Ohio State University (OSU) related to assessments in capstone design courses. I was employed as Visiting Professor in the Engineering Education Department at OSU between 2015 and 2018, where I have helped develop and evaluate assessments for student motivation in capstone design courses.

Research and Scholarship

My research and scholarship began in Agricultural Engineering and gradually shifted to Engineering Education over my career. Early projects investigated storage design for bulk agricultural products, energy use for food processing, solar energy applications to food processing, measurement of texture and detection of product injury, and machine design for reduced product damage. I obtained my first competitive federal grant from USDA in 1980 for use of solar energy in pasteurization of fruit juices. Later I co-led a USDA Higher Education grant defining a nationwide curriculum for a BS Biological Engineering degree.

I obtained my first National Science Foundation grant for Engineering Education in 1989. Early work focused on assessment of design and professional (teamwork and communication) learning, especially as needed to transfer Engineering students from 2-year to 4-year colleges. I formed collaborations with faculty at community colleges and at several institutions across the nation to develop curriculum materials and assessments that are effective with diverse students in widely-varied institutions. These collaborations produced assessments and curriculum materials for teamwork and professional skills, as well as an IDEALS learning model that integrates learning and assessment in project contexts. Another grant prepared graduate students to adapt their research into curriculum materials to teach culturally relevant mathematics and engineering principles to diverse students in K-12 classrooms.

At OSU, my scholarship focused on developing assessments for student motivation in capstone design courses. Student attitudes and behaviors were assessed at different points in projects to identify types of motivations and changes in motivations over the project.

Subsequent to retirement from WSU, I synthesized my knowledge of student learning, design, and professional skills to create educational materials that can be used in design project courses. Educational materials have taken the form of card decks that guide brief student discussions of professional issues, workbooks that serve as instructional and assessment modules, and books with just-in-time exercises for frequent brief discussions of professional behaviors. To achieve effective and lasting learning for team project contexts, educational materials are designed around principles of how people learn. To make resources widely available, I have published and market multiple books through Professional Teamwork Mentor, Project Design Reviews, Teamwork Minutes, and Design Thinking.

Philosophy of Engineering Education

My philosophy of Engineering Education has evolved over time. Initially, I felt that learning could be achieved by the instructor relating to student interests, teaching with examples, and giving helpful feedback. I believed it was the responsibility of the instructor to help students learn. Over time, I came to see that both instructor and student carry responsibilities for achieving student learning.

My philosophy of Engineering Education is shaped by God’s instructions for us and by my understanding of how people learn. The Bible tell us that revering God is a doorway to wisdom, wisdom is precious, and God establishes steps of plans we submit to Him. In addition, we receive from God the ability to teach and the ability to learn and produce wealth. Therefore, I see students and instructors as uniquely crafted persons who have abilities given by God and who are instructed to seek knowledge and wisdom as if it were valuable treasure. As an educator, I have a responsibility to do my best to help students learn what is important to their lives. To do this, I must know the subject well, know how my students learn, and plan my teaching to meet their needs. Similarly, students have a responsibility to invest purposefully in their learning. They must give adequate attention to learning, search diligently for deeper understanding, and put new knowledge into practice to retain it and make it personally applicable.

ASEE Activities

I became a member of ASEE as a graduate student in 1975, but not until 1984 did I engage in the work of the society. From 1984 to 1988, I served the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Division as Secretary-Treasurer, Vice Chair and Program Chair, Chair, and Past Chair and Newsletter Editor. In the Pacific Northwest Section between 2005 and 2008, I served as Chair-Elect, Chair, Past Chair, and ASEE conference host.

I have been an active participant, session chair, presenter, and workshop organizer/facilitator in the Design in Engineering Education Division (DEED) and a presenter in the Education and Research Methods (ERM) Division. I have presented at least nine workshops at regional or national ASEE conferences. I was elected as a Fellow in ASEE in 2002, and I became a life member of ASEE in 2014.

Other Professional Activities

My professional associations began in the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE, now the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, ASABE). Between 1973 and 2001, I served ASAE in numerous committees and leadership roles, including Chair of the Electric Power and Processing Division and Chair of the Pacific Northwest Section between 1980 and 1981. I was a Professional Member of the Institute of Food Technologists from 1977 to 1984. I was a member of the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning beginning in 1984. Between 1996 and 2003, I helped charter and provided leadership for the Institute of Biological Engineers. As my research and scholarly work shifted to Engineering Education, I disengaged from most professional societies and focused my professional activities in ASEE after 2001.

Subsequent to my retirement, I began applying my Engineering Education experience in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program as a mentor/coach for student teams and as judge at competitions. I have coached teams of home educated students at the middle school level (FIRST Lego League) and at the high school level (FIRST Tech Challenge). I have been able to adapt my educational materials for teamwork, professional behaviors, and design reviews to fit needs of these teams.