Conference Focuses on How to Be a Successful Department Head or Chair

April 25, 2014
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“The department heads annual meeting is an opportunity to share best practices, to explore common challenges to their job, and to network with each other so that we make personal connections amongst the various civil engineering programs around the country,” says Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, chair of the ASCE Departments Heads Coordinating Committee. Photo Credit: Dion Coward

Many chairs and department heads of accredited engineering programs confront a host of issues they never had to face as a faculty member – issues such as budget, curriculum, fundraising, program development, student recruitment, faculty conflict, strategic planning, and ABET Inc. accreditation. To help them deal with these kinds of challenges, ASCE conducted its 10th annual National Civil Engineering Department Heads Conference, which provided resources, tools, and knowledge to help attendees improve civil engineering programs, get faculty and alumni buy-in support, and prepare for ABET accreditation visits.

The 3-day workshop, which was organized by the ASCE Departments Heads Coordinating Committee (DHCC), convened April 6-8 in Norman, Oklahoma, and was hosted by the University of Oklahoma.

“This is an opportunity for department heads and chairs to share best practices, to explore common challenges to their job, and to network with each other so that we make personal connections with the various civil engineering programs around the country,” says Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, chair of the DHCC and professor, head, and 21st Century Leadership Chair in Civil Engineering at the University of Arkansas. “There are many of us who have been coming to this conference for quite a number of years but there is also a significant percentage of the participants who have been in their positions for two years or less and are coming to this conference for the first time looking for answers.

Hall says among the topics discussed were advancement/development, recruiting students, dealing with advisory boards, dealing with faculty, faculty search strategies, and strategic planning.

“We started off the first day with topics to inform and engage the new chairs and department heads, some of whom had literally been on the job for a few months,” added Jim O’Brien, managing director of ASCE’s Professional & Educational Activities Division. “There were excellent conversations and people were very willing to be open in their communication to expose the problems that they [were] having in their programs and then, after hearing from others in the room, [to find] solutions to those same problems.”

Engineering the Future

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Randall Kolar, Ph.D., director of Oklahoma State University’s School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, welcomed the department heads and chairs to the conference. Photo Credit: Dion Coward

After receiving a welcome from Thomas Landers, Ph.D., dean of the  University of Oklahoma’s College of Engineering, and Randall Kolar, Ph.D., director of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, ASCE President Randall “Randy” S. Over, P.E., F.ASCE, addressed the department heads and chairs and talked about “Engineering the Future.”

“Thank you for all that you do to prepare the next generation of civil engineers for the future and for your support of ASCE,” said Over in his opening remarks.

In outlining ASCE’s strategic priorities, Over shared with audience members the Raise the Bar initiative, an effort to increase formal engineering education before professional licensure to better prepare engineers with the enhanced technical, leadership, communication, and business skills to position our profession for the future.

 “It’s no secret that the practice of engineering, and the world itself, have changed dramatically with advances in technology and new cutting-edge materials,” Over told the attendees. “According to a study by the National Academy of Engineering, it states ‘It is evident that the exploding body of science cannot be accommodated within the context of the traditional four-year baccalaureate degree.’  This is all engineering disciplines, not just civil.

“So it is clearly our responsibility as civil engineers – it’s our profession – to ensure that the educational requirements to practice at the professional level are up to the standards demanded by the world of tomorrow; it’s not up to others to ensure [that] future engineers are prepared for the future of the profession.”

“I think Randy Over did a really good job of giving us the 30,000-foot view of ASCE and where we are going in terms of trying to serve the profession,” says Hall. “It is always good to have the ASCE president come to this conference to give us a little bit of a pep talk and show department heads and chairs from around the country that ASCE does actually value our input and what we do.

Experiential Based Learning

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The theme of this year’s Department Heads Conference was experiential based learning, which included an interactive poster session entitled, “What is Experiential Based Learning?” Photo Credit: Dion Coward

Hall says the theme of this year’s Department Heads Conference was experiential based learning, which he defined as “learning by doing.” To introduce the subject to the attendees, an interactive poster session entitled “What is Experiential Based Learning?” highlighted the work of 6 universities, which allowed the presenters to share their experiences one-on-one with the participants and to answer questions. The posters and authors were available throughout most of the day.

“I thought the sessions that we had on experiential learning were quite good,” notes Hall “I don’t think every [engineering] program can implement every aspect of experiential learning we saw today, but there may have been two or three ideas that really caught your eye and the poster session allowed those authors a chance to share a little more information.”

Among some of the other sessions were computer-based FE exams, the future of student competitions, the freshman experience, retention and diversity, and distance learning.

“Another session that I thought worked particularly well was “The Evolving Landscape of Faculty Expectations” from Molly Gribb, [Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE] who facilitated a very interactive working-group type session dealing with how you encourage and evaluate faculty in your program from a teaching perspective, from a research perspective, from a service perspective,” Hall says. “And how you can mentor faculty to be successful in their jobs. So many great ideas came out of that session.”

ABET Accreditation

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Considering the frustration and anxiety that comes with ABET accreditation, Joseph L. Sussman, Ph.D., managing director of accreditation at ABET Inc., discussed the issue with department heads and chairs one-on-one. Photo Credit: Dion Coward

Among the annual highlights of this conference was hearing from Joseph L. Sussman, Ph.D., managing director of accreditation at ABET Inc., who was able to first provide valuable background information about the organization and changes in accreditation policy and procedures over the past year. Sussman followed this with a discussion, during which he presented to attendees some specific examples of good educational program objectives and tips on how to write and document their objectives, and encouraged department heads themselves, or their faculty, to become volunteer ABET accreditation evaluators [PEV]. Considering the frustration and anxiety that comes with ABET accreditation, this session provided department heads and chairs with the opportunity to discuss their accreditation issues with Sussman one-on-one.

Al Estes, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, professor and head of the Architectural Engineering Department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, discussed with department heads ASCE’s new Civil Engineering Program Criteria Task Committee, which is empowered  to propose new program criteria for civil engineering programs in ABET.

“The department heads and chairs were given an opportunity to provide feedback on that proposed criteria and I thought that was a very important part of this conference,” says Hall. “It was not reacting to something that was finalized and published, but actually [having] some input into what we are going to be looking at in the future.”

Hall concluded by saying, “When the DHCC first organized this conference we wanted it to be active, we wanted it be hands-on, and we wanted it to feature peer learning. That has been our goal, to make this [a conference] where you can come and learn and participate and help teach others as well. I think we have accomplished that and turned the corner into making this conference a very interactive workshop-type setting.”

Next year’s National Civil Engineering Department Heads Conference will be hosted by Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, at a date to be determined.

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