First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - Karl A. Smith


Structured Outline

History of an ASEE Fellow

Karl A. Smith

As of June 9, 2018 Birthplace: Bay City, Michigan

Birth date: May 4, 1947


I am the oldest of four from a very small (~500 person) farming town, Fairgrove, in southeastern Michigan. My parents, Karl Smith and Irene Aldrich, met in high school and married in 1945. My father began college at Eastern Michigan University upon high school graduation as Valedictorian; however, left college to serve in WWII. He was a Master Sargent in the Third Army (Patton’s Army). My mother worked in a factory during the war. We lived with my grandfather who was a farmer on a 160 acre homesteaded farm until I was five and then moved into a house that my great grandfather had built. It was a bit of a shock since it didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet. Within a few years we had indoor plumbing; however, life was pretty much living “pillar to post” (as my dad would say) or paycheck to paycheck. My father worked as a butcher for a few years and then got a job as a cook at a hospital. He eventually became a hospital administrator; very much a “Horatio Alger” story. My mother was a homemaker. There always seemed to be an unspoken message to go to college and all four of us are college grads.

I don’t remember much of my early childhood, except for one life-changing event. In June, 1956, I broke my hip. We were at a picnic at my father’s workplace and I fell from a tree while helping another kid climb up. My right femur was broken when I landed on a stake from a volleyball net. I spent that summer in the hospital (for a month) and then in a full-body cast (for six weeks) and a walking cast for another month. Things went fairly well after than until the following year when I was diagnosed with Perthes disease and then spent the following year walking with crutches.

In about 1974 I met Lila Arduser and we married in January 1977. Lila is an artist and, recently, has become deeply involved in community improvement. She has pioneered two native prairie community gardens, and several art-wrapped utility boxes. We have two daughters, Riawa and Sharla, who, fortunately both live nearby.


My high school years were exciting. It was post-Sputnik and there was a lot of emphasis on science and math education. My high school math and science teacher, Mrs. Mount, was a role model; always learning, encouraged us to inquire and ask questions, and extraordinarily supportive. Among other things we had a rocket club and built and tested many model rockets.

Probably my most formative experience during high school was with the shop teacher, Bernard Bateson, who also ran a construction company. During my third year he hired me during the summer and I worked with him that summer to build a house from scratch. He was an extraordinary mentor. He took great pride in his work and emphasized high quality work. On reflection, it was my first memorable experience as an apprentice, and during the three or so years that I worked for him, I began to master a craft. My experience working for Bates (as he preferred to be called) was instrumental in my decision to study engineering.

I began engineering school at Michigan Tech in the Fall of 1965 and don’t remember much about that period. Over the four years I had Saturday classes all but two quarters. I graduated in 1969 and, since I had a high Random Selection Number (draft lottery), decided to take a job with Texas Gulf in Moab, Utah. I was drafted in 1970 and, interestingly because of the broken hip in 1956, failed the pre-induction physical. There were some unpleasant changes at Texas Gulf in 1971 that prompted me to explore other options. A chance encounter with one of my former professors, Duane Thayer, who said “why don’t you go to graduate school?”, led me back to Michigan Tech for an M.S. Two years later I was encouraged to pursue a PhD; however, I was eager to get back to practicing engineering. Jobs were tight, and I landed a job in a research lab at the University of Minnesota where I thought I would spend a year before returning to the private sector. I really enjoyed doing research and began on a path to pursing an engineering PhD. My first teaching experience changed that a lot and led me on a path of becoming an engineering education researcher. My story as an Engineering Education Pioneer is documented here -


Cooperative Learning Professor of Engineering Education, School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, 2006 to present.

Emeritus Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, Morse-Alumni Distinguished University Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota.

I have been at the University of Minnesota since 1972 and started my academic career as a materials processing engineering researcher. In 1991 I changed careers to focus on engineering education research and in 2006 accepted a part time position as Cooperative Learning Professor, School of Engineering Education, Purdue University to help start the engineering education PhD program in the College of Engineering.

Research and Scholarship

My research and development interests include building research and innovation capabilities in engineering education; faculty and graduate student professional development; the role of cooperation in learning and design; problem formulation, modeling, and knowledge engineering; and project and knowledge management. I have over 30 years of experience working with faculty to redesign their courses and programs to improve student learning. I adapted the cooperative learning model to engineering education and in the past 15 years have focused on high-performance teamwork through workshops and the book Teamwork and Project Management (2014).

I am currently PI on the NSF Workshop: I-Corps for Learning (I-Corps-L): A Pilot Initiative to Propagate & Scale Educational Innovations, and NSF EAGER: I-Corps for Learning (I-Corps-L): Curriculum Development and Implementation. I have been co-PI on two NSF Centers for Learning and Teaching (CLT), including the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE), and co-PI on a NSF-CCLI-ND—Rigorous Research in Engineering Education: Creating a Community of Practice, and the NSF project COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: Expanding and sustaining research capacity in engineering and technology education: Building on successful programs for faculty and graduate students. I served on the National Research Council’s Discipline-Based Education Research consensus study and the National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education planning committee.

I have served as Co-Coordinator for the Bush Faculty Development Program for Excellence and Diversity in Teaching, and Associate Director for Education at the NSF-ERC Center for Interfacial Engineering at the University of Minnesota; as a member of the Board of Directors of the Collaboration for the Advancement of College Teaching and Learning; and as Chair of the Educational Research and Methods Division of the American Society for Engineering Education. Between 1999 and 2004 I had a split appointment with Michigan State University where I served as a Senior Consultant to the Provost for Faculty Development.

I have written eight books including How to model it: Problem solving for the computer age (with Anthony Starfield and Andrew Bleloch), first published by McGraw-Hill in 1990; Cooperative learning: Increasing college faculty instructional productivity (with David and Roger Johnson), published by ASHE-ERIC Reports on Higher Education in 1991; Strategies for energizing large classes: From small groups to learning communities (with James Cooper and Jean MacGregor) published in Jossey-Bass’s New Direction for Teaching and Learning series in 2000; and the 2014 Teamwork and project management, 4rd Ed. published in McGraw-Hill’s BEST Series.

Philosophy of Engineering Education

I embraced student-centered interactive learning, especially cooperative learning, long before it became popular. My overriding goal is for students to develop skills and confidence for figuring things out. The best pedagogy to foster these skills and the confidence needed is cooperative learning.

My colleague, Tony Starfield, and I developed a first-year problem-based engineering in the late 1970s. The course morphed into How to Model It: Building Models to Solve Engineering Problems, and, unlike the traditional topics-based approach, the course focused on problem finding, problem formulation, and modeling. Some students were upset that the problems we posed or they brought didn’t have a single, best solution. The best answer always was, “it depends.” It depends on (1) how good an answer is needed, i.e., the purpose, (2) the constraints, especially time and tools, and many other things. In 1990 we published How to Model It: Problem Solving for the Computer Age, which, amazingly is still in print and is still used.

ASEE Activities

  • Member, National Research Council Board of Science Education Consensus Study, Discipline Based Education Research (2010-2012)
  • Member, Planning Committee, National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education Workshop (2009-2011)
  • Member, Steering Committee, ASEE Global Colloquium on Engineering Education, Cape Town, South Africa (2008)
  • Member, Advisory Board - Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education, National Academy of Engineering (2003-)
  • Steering Committee, National Research Council, Workshop on Education PhDs in STEM Disciplines (2005)
  • Guest Editor, Journal of Engineering Education. Special issue on the state of the art of scholarship on engineering education research (2004)
  • Member, Steering Committee, Frontiers in Education, Representing Educational Research and Methods Division of the ASEE (1997-2000)
  • Chair, Educational Research and Methods Division, American Society for Engineering Education (1995-1997)

Other Professional Activities

  • Member, Board of Trustees, The Works Museum - a hands-on engineering and design museum for kids and their grown-ups, 2016 - present
  • Member, Engineering Advisory Board, University of St. Thomas College of Engineering, 2016 – present
  • Member, Steering Committee, Accelerating Systemic Change in STEM Undergraduate Education Network (ASCN), 2015 – present
  • American Association for Higher Education (AAHE), Member (1990-2005)
  • American Educational Research Association (AERA), Member (1974 – present)
  • American Society for Civil Engineering (ASCE), Member (1990 – present)
  • American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), Fellow (1973 – present)
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Member (1991 – 2003)
  • Project Management Institute (PMI), Member (1996 – present)
  • The Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), Research Member (2003-2010)