First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - John K. Estell

History of an ASEE Fellow - John K. Estell


History of an ASEE Fellow


John K. Estell

As of 27 July 2021

Birthplace: Toledo, Ohio

Birthdate: April 27, 1962


I’m a first-generation Ohioan. My father Kent was born in Tennessee and my mother Louise was from Kentucky. Through my mother, I’m related to Daniel Boone, who is my 7th great uncle. Both of their families moved to Toledo, Ohio, in the 1930s in search of better employment opportunities during the Depression. Although my maternal grandfather had only a sixth-grade education, he eventually owned a successful construction company. While his company built a lot of houses, performed remodeling work, and did some commercial buildings, by the time I was born he was specializing in custom-designed in-ground swimming pools. Consequently, some of my earliest memories involve the smell of sawdust, playing in immense sand piles, and learning how to swim in a very large, upscale pool built to display his company’s handiwork. My paternal grandmother was an educator – and the only one of my ancestors with a college degree. She started out in a one-room schoolhouse in Tennessee and finished with a 26-year long career as an elementary school teacher in Toledo. She was innovative in her educational approaches; as an example, she once had her sixth grade students write letters to local, regional, and national business and community leaders, asking them to share what guided them in their pursuit of happiness, and put together a book containing the replies. She was definitely a major influence in my becoming a university professor.

My father learned carpentry in a vocational high school. He enlisted in the Army during the Korean War but served stateside for three years as a medic… and as a member of the Ft. Belvoir rifle team. My mother wanted to be a teacher but was denied that opportunity – instead, she attended a vocational high school and went to work for her father as a secretary upon graduation. My parents met through church and married in 1955, with my father working for his father-in-law’s construction firm upon his discharge. By the time I was born, my mother was no longer working; because of her nurturing, I was reading at age 2 and had my first library card when I was just 3 years old.

I married Melinda in 1999; she has a Masters in School Psychology from Bowling Green State University and a dual major in English and Psychology from The University of Toledo. We have two children: Patrick is majoring in Biology at The College of Wooster, and Rebecca will be entering Eighth Grade. Both kids are artistically inclined. Patrick likes acting, show choir, playing the trumpet in marching and jazz bands, and choral singing. Rebecca loves to dance, takes voice lessons, is in multiple choirs, and plays the clarinet.


I attended the Maumee (Ohio) Public School system from first through twelfth grades. I was among the top kids academically each year; unfortunately, for many of those years, I was also among the sickest, picking up every germ or bug someone else “shared” with the class. While in high school, I was involved with the Chess and Quiz Bowl teams, and graduated as the valedictorian of my class. I obtained my BS of Computer Science & Engineering degree from The University of Toledo in 1984 (and was the college’s valedictorian), and then my MS (1987) and PhD (1991) degrees in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There were two teachers who were formative influences during my educational years. First was my high school chemistry teacher, Robert Tadsen, who had us conduct research through the Chemistry Department at The University of Toledo as part of our second year chemistry requirements. I wound up writing an organic chemistry nomenclature drill program that proved to be very successful: it was the focus of my science fair project that won awards at the regional and state levels, and exhibited at the 1979 International Science and Engineering Fair. The program was also the subject of my first publication, which appeared in the January 1981 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education. The editor of that column was John W. Moore, at the time a chemistry professor at Eastern Michigan University and now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Noting that (when I submitted the article) I was a high school student who lived about an hour away, he invited me to join his research group that was exploring the use of computers in chemistry; in particular, developing software for use in chemical education. So the Monday after my high school graduation I was working in a university research group! Throughout my college years, I maintained a working relationship with Dr. Moore’s research group, some years spending most of the summer at Eastern writing educational software for microcomputers. I believe that it was my work through this research group that made me stand out from the crowd, as in 1984 I received both an NSF Graduate Fellowship and a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship for my graduate studies.


My first taste of being an educator came in my seventh grade science class. I had completed all of the “at your own pace” modules for the course, despite missing many days of school, with a month left to go in the year. While another student was allowed to work on eighth grade modules, my teacher, Serena Troyan, asked me to work one-on-one with those students who were struggling with the material so that they could complete the minimum number of modules required for passing. Evidently she saw something in me. Working as a “junior educator” during my college years, including three years as an in-class tutor for a college algebra course and as a teaching assistant while in graduate school, was also an experience that, upon reflection, was very formative in my becoming who I am as a professor.

Upon graduation from Illinois in 1991 I was hired by The University of Toledo as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. I taught predominantly junior-level courses and had a very good rapport with my students. Unfortunately, administrative personnel changes in the mid-90s resulted in a move away in the college from an undergraduate education focus. Also, many tenure-track faculty were let go in order to acquire enough open lines to create a new department, and I got caught up in that upheaval. Thankfully, I somehow landed on my feet and took a position in 1996 as an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Bluffton University, a small, Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts institution. This turned out to be a formative experience, as I received a strong liberal arts education through my interactions with other faculty members, especially at the faculty lunch table, during the five years that I was there that definitely influenced my views on engineering education.

The ASEE Annual Conference is partially responsible for me being at my current institution, Ohio Northern University (ONU). At the 2000 Conference in St. Louis, I was waiting for the bus that would take us to the Picnic, which was being held at the St. Louis Zoo. Standing next to me was Les Thede, then chair of ONU’s ECE Department. He saw my nametag and the affiliation, recognized us being academic neighbors (Bluffton is only 12 miles away from ONU), and introduced himself. We wound up talking for about two hours – and at the end he mentioned that his department was going to merge with the CS Department, and asked if I would be interested in applying to become the new department’s first chair. In other words, without knowing it I had just had my initial interview for the position that I eventually applied for and received in 2001. It is worth noting here that the Dean who hired me, Barry Farbrother, sent me to attend the Best Assessment Processes IV Symposium at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology while I was still working at Bluffton, as my first year would be an ABET Self-Study year and he wanted me to be properly prepared. I served as Chair of the Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department for nine years, stepping down in 2010 when ONU established term limits for all chair positions across campus.

My current position with ONU is Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science. I primarily teach the first-year programming sequence and a course on user interface design. I also serve on the committees that oversee our engineering education program and the college’s experiential capstone courses.

Research and Scholarship

I got an early start to my research career through the educational software applications I was developing while a student in both high school and college; this included conference presentations and published journal articles, albeit in the chemical education field. I’ve always been more interested in the scholarship of teaching than other forms of scholarship, so most of my research has been in that area, and often involved things that I was doing in the classroom as a professor, and later as an administrator. However, despite some recognition during my years at Toledo and Bluffton (for example, I received the Computer in Engineering Division’s Best Paper Award at the 1994 ASEE Annual Conference), I can’t say that in those early years I stood out amongst the crowd. It wasn’t until I joined Ohio Northern University that my research and scholarship production really started to take off.

I’ve generally been one to maximize opportunities out of my efforts, so when I saw the call for submissions in late 2002 to the Best Assessment Processes (BAP) Symposium V, it seemed an appropriate venue to present on something I developed over the previous school year to organize the course-level inputs for streamlining our assessment and evaluation process: the Faculty Course Assessment Report, or FCAR for short. The FCAR was invented out of necessity as I needed to quickly implement a functional and efficient assessment reporting process prior to writing two ABET Self-Study Reports in my first year as a department chair. My BAP presentation in April 2003 was well attended, and a few programs started implementing FCARs at their institutions. And then Gloria Rogers invited me back to present on FCARs both the following year and in subsequent years, eventually requesting that my FCAR be presented as a 3-hour workshop due to the consistently high ratings that my presentations received. At the 10th BAP in 2008, I was one of nine people recognized as a “Tenth Anniversary Presenter” for the contributions made to the symposium – which is now better known as the ABET Symposium. Over the years I’ve continued to publish and present on streamlining outcomes assessment and evaluation processes, and as more programs have adopted FCARs, others from around the world have also given presentations and published papers based on my work. As one colleague and early adopter told me, you know that something’s successful when its acronym is used without further explanation – and there are now many who say “our program uses FCARs” when talking about assessment. I definitely owe Gloria Rogers a lot of credit for the FCAR’s popularity.

Another research area of mine found its humble beginnings in the need for department faculty to fairly grade various aspects of our capstone projects. From this start I’ve performed research on other aspects of both capstone design (such as incorporating corporate project management practices and methodologies for identifying project constraints) and rubrics (such as the use of single-point rubrics for formative assessment of entrepreneurial mindset activities) – and one of these projects now plays a key role in determining awards at the Annual Conference… but more on that later.

Another major research area involves engaging first-year students with their chosen discipline. Initial efforts involved introductory engineering courses where we created “cornerstone” (i.e., capstone-like projects for first-year students) projects where teams addressed poverty issues in developing countries through sustainable design practices. Over time, my efforts have branched into two paths. First, inspired by one student’s comment that she couldn’t see how she could make a difference in improving the lives of others by sitting behind a computer screen, I’ve incorporated changes in our introductory programming sequence based on elements of service-learning and entrepreneurial mindset. This sequence now culminates in creating an educational software application for a client from the educational field, and includes an “App Fair” where the student programming teams show off their accomplishments. Second, looking at ways to better explain the concepts behind engineering design. Research in this area has resulted in a book co-authored with Ken Reid on engineering design and its role in the product life cycle; another book, focused on how constraints arise and affect design, is in the works.

Philosophy of Engineering Education

I believe that engineering education needs to be more than just talking about the technology behind designing the longest bridge, the most fuel-efficient car, or the thinnest smartphone. As Dieter Rams, industrial designer for the German company Braun, succinctly put it: “You cannot understand design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.” While the technical education received in one’s STEM-oriented courses is, of course, necessary for success, we must also make the connections to the arts, the humanities, business, and social sciences, among others, that allow engineers to create designs that truly serve the needs of others. One such way is through design constraints, which can be modeled as coming from four possible sources: technical, consumer, business, and societal. From such modeling, ideally in the first-year experience, engineering educators can make the case for students taking seriously their general education courses, as it is primarily in those courses where they will learn the most regarding the human aspects of design.

ASEE Activities

I currently serve on the ASEE Board of Directors as Chair of the Professional Interest Council III. I was elected to the position in 2020, and will be serving through the 2023 Annual Conference in Baltimore.

My first ASEE activity was in 1992, when The University of Toledo hosted the Annual Conference; my Dean placed me on the Host Committee. My first conference presentation was in 1994 in Edmonton, and I’ve attended every Annual Conference since then, save for 2007 in Hawaii due to the birth of my daughter one week before the conference.

I feel like I have not one but two "home" divisions. My first home is Computers in Education (CoED), where I was one of the Directors-at-Large for several years and previously served two-year terms as Program Chair-Elect (which is responsible for the CoED Poster Session), Program Chair, and Division Chair for the 2009 through 2014 Annual Conferences. My second home is the First-Year Programs Division, where I served as Program and Division Chair for the 2017 and 2018 Annual Conferences, respectively. Other ASEE activities include being the Program Chair for the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the 2019 Annual Conference; and serving on the Interdivisional Town Hall Committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on Interdivisional Cooperation (and serving as co-chair of both in 2019-2020), and the 125th Anniversary Committee.

During my time in the CoED officer chain, I was involved with two projects that had long-reaching impacts upon the ASEE Annual Conference. In early 2011 I was invited to serve on a committee created by the PIC Chairs to develop a rubric that could be used for selecting the best section, zone, division, PIC and overall conference papers. It just so happened that, a few months before this invite, I had already developed a Best Paper Rubric for use in reviewing conference papers submitted to CoED… but now, here’s the rest of the story. During the early 2000s I worked with my department’s capstone coordinator, Julie Hurtig, in developing a set of rubrics for evaluating all aspects of our capstone process, including one for evaluating the written reports submitted by the teams. After a few iterations, we decided to submit a paper regarding the use of rubrics in capstone design to the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference – and we received that year’s Design in Engineering Education Division’s Best Paper Award for our efforts. Later, when I needed something to serve my needs as CoED’s program chair for the 2011 Conference, I used the written report rubric from the paper as my starting point for developing a best paper rubric. So when our PIC-appointed committee started meeting, I shared CoED’s rubric with the rest of the committee, and that rubric was subsequently used as the basis for developing the Best Paper Rubric that’s used to determine our annual award winners. Accordingly, the origins of ASEE’s Best Paper Rubric can be traced to a Best Paper about rubrics.

Coincidently, the second project also started in earnest with the 2011 Annual Conference. In prior years there were many draft papers submitted to CoED with “promissory notes” within the text: that is, the authors stating that their research wasn’t complete, but promising to mention the final results in their oral presentation. As a matter of principle, I and others would recommend rejecting such drafts, as you can’t evaluate something that’s not yet been completed and would not be documented within the published paper. As I ascended the CoED officer chain, I felt that we needed to do something to be more welcoming with such submissions. The inspiration came from the Frontiers in Education Conference, which openly solicits Work in Progress (WIP) submissions; however, if accepted, these papers were intermingled with full papers in technical sessions. As I was creating the CoED Call for Papers for the 2011 Annual Conference, the following idea occurred to me: why not solicit WIP submissions, and use the CoED Poster Session as the venue for their presentation? By using the poster session as the showcase for WIP submissions, one maximizes the potential amount of feedback that authors of a WIP paper can receive, and also turns the poster session from being viewed as a negative outcome for a paper that doesn’t fit into a technical session to a positive experience for those researchers who are seeking a place to discuss their on-going research. This worked well for CoED, and since its inception I have frequently mentioned the merits of WIP submissions in such venues as the meetings hosted by the Interdivisional Cooperation Committee for current and incoming Program Chairs. The concept and vision has now firmly taken root: beginning with the 2016 Annual Conference, Monolith has supported classifying one’s paper as a work in progress, and 16 ASEE divisions explicitly solicited WIP submissions in their 2016 Call for Papers. One other benefit should be noted: the inclusion of work in progress submissions helps in attracting more attendees to the Annual Conference, which in turn helps ASEE financially.

A smaller accomplishment has been working with Susannah Howe to create ASEE Active!, which is a group that is focused on building community among ASEE members through participation in healthy recreational activities. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see our organized run/walk events featured in Prism Magazine’s list of highlights for both the 2017 and 2018 ASEE Annual Conferences!

As of the date of writing this History, I have had 38 papers presented at ASEE Annual Conferences – and six of these papers have received Best Paper recognition from the Computers in Education, Design in Engineering Education, and First-Year Programs Divisions. Another paper published in the Computers in Education Journal received the Merl Miller Best Paper Award for that year. Most of those papers involved working with very talented co-authors whose efforts definitely made those papers, and the research therein, better than what I could have accomplished solely on my own. I also received the 2019 Distinguished Service Award from the First-Year Programs Division.

Other Professional Activities

As alluded to earlier, I’ve been very much involved with assessment activities, having been a presenter at the ABET Symposium and its predecessor Best Assessment Processes (BAP) Symposium annually since 2003. Little did I know when I attended my first BAP Symposium in 2001 that I would be involved with ABET to the extent that I am today - culminating in being named an ABET Fellow in 2021. I successfully led my department through two ABET site visits, including our initial computer science accreditation. Both times, the program evaluators (PEV) that visited us strongly encouraged me to become a program evaluator. In 2010, I finally took the plunge, becoming an evaluator for both the Computing and Engineering Accreditation Commissions (CAC and EAC, respectively). In the “it’s a small world” department, it is worth noting that the Team Chair for my first site visit as a PEV was Diane Rover, who is also an ASEE Fellow. In 2013, I was invited to become a CAC Commissioner, and in 2016 I received a three-year appointment to the CAC Executive Committee, where I served as the co-chair of the CAC’s Training Committee. I finished my service as a CAC Commissioner in 2021, whereupon I became an EAC Commissioner. I've also served on ABET’s Accreditation Council Training Committee since 2016, and have been chair of its PEV Subcommittee since 2018.

Another activity involves The Pledge of the Computing Professional, an organization to promote the notion of computing as a recognized profession at the time of graduation for students in Computer Science and related programs. In 2007, inspired by the example of the Order of the Engineer, individuals at Ohio Northern University and the University of South Florida created similar organizations for graduates of their respective computing programs. After interest in such an organization grew at other institutions, The Pledge of the Computing Professional was developed by an international team of 17 computing professionals, including myself. The Pledge of the Computing Professional held its first induction ceremonies at Ohio Northern University, University of South Florida, and McNeese State University in May 2011. I have served as the Vice President of the organization since its inception and also created the model ceremony for the Pledge’s rite-of-passage ceremony for graduates of computing-related degree programs. There are currently over 50 “nodes” (i.e., chapters) of the Pledge in the US.