First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow - Norman L. Fortenberry, Sc.D.


History of ASEE Fellow Norman L. Fortenberry, Sc.D. As of February 21, 2019

Birthplace: Yokosuka, Japan

Birth date: July 1961

Family: We are African American. My father’s family is from Mississippi, but his branch was part of the “great migration” to Chicago which he considered home. My mother’s family has roots in North Carolina, but my mother’s immediate family is in Richmond, Virginia. My mother’s paternal grandmother may have been Native American. My father served 30 years in the US Army, retiring with the rank of Command Sergeant Major. He started his career in the Medical Corps. While stationed in Killeen, Texas, he met my mother, and they had my sister (older than me by 5 years). Their next duty station was Yokosuka, Japan, which is where I was born. To my knowledge, there was no one with an engineering background in my family background. Family lore has it that at age 3, I declared that I wanted to be an “In-the-ear” which was assumed to be “engineer”. The motivation for that declaration is unknown, but I never found a more compelling career choice that better fit my interests.

Education: As an “Army brat”, I attended several elementary and high schools. Although it wasn’t a conscious reaction to that, I completed all of my university education – bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees – at the same place, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All my degrees are in mechanical engineering.

Employment: I interned as an undergraduate at Millipore (now MilliporeSigma), Kodak (twice), and Battelle. As a graduate student I interned at Polaroid and the Institute for Defense Analyses. I was employed as a mechanical engineering faculty member at the Florida A&M University – Florida State University College of Engineering. I later joined the National Science Foundation (NSF) where I served as a program director, staff associate, division director, and senior advisor. I was the first person at NSF to simultaneously serve, for a two year period, as director of two divisions (Division of Undergraduate Education and Human Resource Development Division) within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

Research and Scholarship: My initial research focus was on design theory and methodology. A seminal influence was the work of Valdimir Hubka and W. Ernst Eder’s Theory of Technical Systems (1988) published two years before I completed my dissertation (and three years before I defended). The juxtaposition of my students’ suffering through my attempts to teach as a new assistant professor with no prior preparation for the role of instructor and the asserted innovations that were occurring in the NSF-supported engineering education coalitions, ignited my interest in and passion for research on engineering education wherein I carried over my strategy of taking a systems view of the challenges and opportunities. As I have taken on more administrative roles, I have focused on facilitating the scholarly work of others.

Philosophy of Engineering Education: A friend once told me the only difference between a “brain” and a “super brain” is time. I have long sought a way to reduce the impact of time as a negative variable in students’ ability to learn. I have not yet found a workable model within the context of higher education, but the concept of “mastery-based” (or competency-based) education is one that I find extremely attractive for ensuring that every engineering graduate is well prepared. Obviously, the challenges in terms of room/lab scheduling, tuition payments, etc are hugely significant. Coupled with minimizing time, I’d like to maximize opportunities for students to learn in context. Having students work on even simulated “real-world” projects makes a lot of to me. And I like the idea of a multi-year spiral that reflects the actual timeline of many engineering projects while also allowing students to revisit aspect of the project with increased maturity. Two of the things that I admire about Purdue University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program are (a) it is vertically integrated with students from first-year through senior working on projects together – facilitating peer mentoring of the more junior students and reinforcing learning through teaching among the more senior students, and (b) students are responsible for all projects worked on by previous generations of students – reflecting the situation of real-world engineers to honor previous work by their employers and the resultant need for clear and careful documentation.

ASEE Activities: I am a long-time member of Education Research and Methods Division, Engineering and Public Policy Division (I served two terms as Division Chair), First Year Programs Division, Graduate Education Division, Minorities in Engineering Division, Women in Engineering Division, and the Military and Veterans Division. Since May 2011, I have been honored to serve as executive director.

Oher Professional Activities: I sit on the board of directors of the National Alliance of Partnerships for Equity Education Foundation, and the Prometheus Consortium. I am current serving on the nominating committee of the Council of Executives of Science and Engineering Societies. These roles provide information that is useful in my role as ASEE executive director. I am a member of ASME, AAAS (of which I am a Fellow), and Sigma Xi.