First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - Michael C. Loui


As of July 28, 2021

Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pa.

Birth date: 1955


All four of my grandparents immigrated from southern China to the United States. My mother's parents settled in Sacramento, California, where my grandfather established and operated the first chain of food markets--what today we would call a supermarket chain. My father's parents settled in Honolulu, Hawaii. My mother and father met while attending different medical schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My mother became an internist, and my father a surgeon. I was their first child, and eventually they had four more boys. In 1959, we moved to Honolulu, where I grew up. Honolulu was not conducive for someone who wanted to become a scholar, however. I prefer the Midwest, where it's hot in the summer and cold in the winter--much better for indoor activities such as academics.

I met my wife Cindy in Urbana, Illinois through square dancing and ballroom dancing. I tell graduate students that ballroom dancing was the most important skill that I learned in graduate school, because that's how I met my wife. We have two sons. Our younger son Jeremy is a band director and music instructor. Our older son Eric is a cybersecurity analyst, and his wife Lin is a psychiatrist.


I was privileged to attend Punahou School in Honolulu from 1962 to graduation in 1972. I proceeded directly to Yale University and earned the B.S. in mathematics and computer science in 1975. I then studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I earned the S.M. in electrical engineering and computer science in 1977, and the Ph.D. in computer science in 1980, supported by a generous fellowship from the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. I wrote my master's thesis under the supervision of Alan Willsky, but I decided to change to Albert Meyer for the doctoral thesis. I was Albert's last student in computational complexity theory at M.I.T. Perhaps after my thesis, he saw no point in continuing in that area.

The 1970s were the dark ages of computing, before the mass-market personal computer appeared. We used punched cards, paper tape, and eight-inch floppy disks that actually flopped. The mainframes and minicomputers that I worked on, such as the IBM 360 and the PDP-8, are now museum pieces. The programming languages that I learned, such as Algol and APL, are now obsolete; they are as foreign to students today as ancient Greek.


While in college, I had two summer internships in software development--my last employment in the real world. When I completed the Ph.D., I received an industrial offer, but I decided to take a lower salary and to embark on an academic career. In January 1981, I joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In my first semester at Illinois, I taught the core course on digital systems and computer design. I had previously learned only the first half of the course content, digital systems, and only as an undergraduate. So I learned the computer design part along with the students. This pattern continued throughout my career: I mostly taught computer engineering courses outside my expertise. I like to say that the dirty little secret of the academy is the ignorance of the professors, who frequently teach subjects outside their expertise. At Illinois, I created and taught courses on engineering ethics, technology and society, distributed computing, formal methods, combinatorial optimization, and computational complexity. I collaborated with colleagues to develop a course on digital information technologies for students outside engineering.

When I began teaching, I had had no training or prior experience. Instead, I read books on college teaching, such as Teaching Tips by Wilbert McKeachie and Effective Teaching and Learning by Otis Lancaster. (As an academic, I have an odd habit of learning from books.) I began attending faculty development workshops. Eventually I led faculty development workshops myself. I organized and led national, week-long workshops on teaching for new faculty in 1995 and 2000.

I have enjoyed a successful, albeit conventional academic career. I taught and developed courses, supervised thesis research by graduate students, and served on innumerable faculty committees. I was promoted to associate professor in 1986 and to full professor in 1991. I directed the Theory of Computing program at the National Science Foundation from 1990 to 1991. I served as an associate dean of the Graduate College at Illinois from 1996 to 2000: I had administrative responsibility for all graduate academic programs on campus. In addition, I was the campus's research integrity officer for two years. At the Graduate College, I simplified the course approval procedure and started cross-training and annual performance reviews of the staff.

In 2013, the Illinois state legislature changed the pension regulations for state employees. These changes would have reduced my pension by 15 percent if I did not retire by June 2014. So I felt compelled to retire from the University of Illinois. (In 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court declared the changes unconstitutional.) Fortunately for me, Purdue University had been unable to fill the Dale and Suzi Gallagher Professorship in Engineering Education since it was announced in 2010. I interviewed for the professorship in May 2014, was offered the position, and joined the Purdue faculty in the fall of 2014. I retired from Purdue in 2019, but I have continued to co-supervise doctoral students and to serve on doctoral committees.

Research and Scholarship

Early in my career, my students and I conducted research in two areas of theoretical computer science: model-based complexity theory and distributed algorithms. Our most important accomplishment was proving that there is no algorithm to achieve agreement among asynchronous processes that communicate via reading and writing a shared memory, even if at most one process fails by stopping. This fundamental impossibility result is sometimes taught in graduate courses on distributed algorithms. In 1987, my doctoral student Hosame Abu-Amara and I published this result in a chapter in an obscure book because it had been rejected by a peer-reviewed journal. I advise against reading this chapter because it uses an obsolete terminology that would be confusing today.

After I created the undergraduate course in engineering ethics in 1993, I helped two students convert their term papers for the course into journal articles. I continued research on ethics in engineering and computing. In 1998, my master's student Daniel Lin and I published an early analysis of the ethics of Internet cookies. We titled our paper "Taking the Byte out of Cookies: Privacy, Consent, and the Web."

In 2003, I was named a Carnegie Scholar by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. As a Carnegie Scholar, I joined the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) movement. For me, SoTL was the "gateway drug" to discipline-based education research. Since 2003, I have collaborated with undergraduate and graduate students on a variety of SoTL and engineering education research projects. For example, Geoffrey Herman, Craig Zilles, and I characterized students' misconceptions in digital logic. During the 2012-13 academic year, I took a sabbatical in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University to learn how to do the work I had been doing for ten years.

Philosophy of Engineering Education

My philosophy of teaching starts from the bone-deep belief that students are important, that they deserve the same respect that we professors expect from them. Unless professors treat students like adults, they will not act like adults. Except when class sizes exceed 100, I learn the names of all students in my courses. Just as undergraduates address me as "Professor Loui" or "Dr. Loui," I use the analogous honorifics "Mr. Jones" and "Ms. Wong."

While riding a bus in 1992, I had an epiphany: Teaching is teaching values. I do not mean indoctrination in private or religious values, but rather inculcation of public values, such as honesty, conscientiousness, and civility. We professors model ethical behavior when we fulfill our promises to assign homework and give examinations on previously announced dates. We promote integrity and fairness by treating deadlines consistently, with well-justified, compassionate exceptions. We express our values through our grading schemes. For example, in engineering, we place a premium on solving technical problems correctly, because people's lives depend on the safety of the steel bridges, jet aircraft, and electronic computers designed by engineers.

Despite my concern for ethics, I believe learning should be fun. With an assignment, I usually include an apropos quotation. Through these quotations, and the anecdotes I tell--always germane to the subject--I try to cultivate an appreciation for the historical and social context of technology, as a human endeavor. I tell students that the electronic digital computer is a great achievement of civilization, comparable to the plays of Shakespeare, the paintings of Rembrandt, and the symphonies of Beethoven. In a sense, I teach engineering not only as a professional discipline, but also as one of the liberal arts.

When I retired from Purdue, I delivered a public lecture, "The Last Lecture: College Teaching as Professional Practice, Scholarly Activity, and Transformational Leadership." For a video of this lecture, click here.

ASEE Activities

With the support of the Dean of Engineering at Illinois, I attended my first ASEE Annual Conference in Rochester, New York in 1983. I immediately joined the New Engineering Educators Division, and I assembled the first "New Engineering Educator's Survival Kit," which ASEE produced in 1984. I offered pedagogical demonstrations at the annual conferences in 1992 and 1993. I attended the birth of the Engineering Ethics Constituent Committee in 2003. I served as the editor of the Journal of Engineering Education from 2012 to 2017. In recent years, my students and I have reviewed submissions and presented papers and posters at the ASEE Annual Conferences. In addition to serving on various committees and task forces, I chaired the search committee for the new editor-in-chief of Advances in Engineering Education from 2019 to 2020.

Other Professional Activities

I have served on the editorial boards of several scholarly journals. I was on the board of Computing Reviews from 1987 to 1997 and on the board of Information and Computation from 1997 to 2008. I have served on the board of Accountability in Research since 1999 and the board of College Teaching since 2005. I was an executive editor of College Teaching from 2006 to 2012.

I have served in various advisory capacities. I have reviewed research and graduate programs at six universities. I have served twice on a committee of visitors for a division at the National Science Foundation. I am currently a member of the Advisory Group for the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, which moved in 2020 from the National Academy of Engineering to the University of Virginia.

As a member of the Executive Board of the National Institute for Engineering Ethics from 1997 to 2008, I collaborated with colleagues to develop two half-hour movies that dramatize case studies in engineering ethics. I served two three-year terms on the Board of Governors of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) from 2002 through 2007. During that time, I chaired the SSIT Publications Committee.

From 2002 to 2014, I volunteered as the director of the children's choir at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign. Since I had had no training in choral conducting, I read a couple books for directors of children's choirs. I arranged some music for the choir, which sang in unison, two-part, and unintentional 14-part harmony. Now I occasionally play the piano for the choir and other events at church.