Theory Meets Practice
The School of Engineering's professors of the practice bring real world experiences to the classroom.
For Ron Lasser, the most important thing he can teach his students can't be found in a textbook and isn't exactly what you would expect.
"I teach my students how to fail," Lasser says. "I teach them how to realize their failure, how to fail forward by assessing the situation realistically so that they can make a decision, recover quickly, get back on track and be successful."
Lasser hopes that as "a repository of 30 years worth of knowledge, experience, immense satisfactions and failures," having worked for years as a mechanical engineer for a few high-tech startups and larger companies like AT&T, he can pass it all along to his students. Currently, he is one of the School of Engineering's professors of the practice, a program placing non-academic industry practitioners into classrooms throughout the school.
"The concept is to engage practicing engineers in the academic enterprise here," says School of Engineering Dean Linda Abriola. "They're developing courses that will help our students learn how to apply their education to the real world, bringing problems from industry onto the campus and collaborating with the students to help solve them."
"In my experience, a project never goes as you think it's going to go and you always have to make mid-course corrections," says Lasser, who is a full-time professor of the practice in electrical and computer engineering. "Call those failures, corrections or anything you want, but one of the critical values I bring to the table is I know things don't work out, but also that you need to make them work out."
The School of Engineering has 12 appointed professors of the practice, a mix of full- and part-time faculty, working in areas including civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical and biological engineering.
As an engineering psychologist for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Cambridge, Mass., Dan Hannon was asked to be a guest lecturer in 2002 by the late Salvatore Soraci, a professor and a major player in the development of the engineering psychology program at Tufts. That role soon evolved into adjunct professor.
"When Sal passed away, the program was in a bit of a flux," Hannon says. "I took on all of Sal's teaching duties, just to try to keep the program going." His responsibilities grew to include courses on the mechanical engineering end of the program as well, eventually laying the path for Hannon to join the ranks as a professor of the practice. (Learn more about Hannon's human factors class)
"When I first got through graduate school, my initial goal was to become a university professor, but in the early '90s, at least in the field of psychology, the opportunities were really quite scarce," Hannon says. "This is actually allowing me to fulfill this wonderful blend, where I continue to do my industrial applied research, yet I can also be a professor as well."
Steve Matson in his office.
Eric Hines decided to try to split his work between industry and academia after studying in Germany, where he says that balancing both roles is commonplace.
"In Germany, it's quite common for professors to have design practices, and in my field of structural engineering, the best work being done around the world was being done by engineers who were also professors at the university," Hines says. "I think that out of this model, which is an older, more well-established tradition in Germany, a remarkable synergy was achieved decade after decade between research, practice and teaching."
A member of the National Academy of Engineers, Steve Matson's career had led him all over before landing him at Tufts. From working in research and development for General Electric to founding the drug company Sepracor, Matson now spend three days a week at Tufts, splitting the rest of his time between volunteering at a middle school and starting ConTechs Associates, a non-profit working with universities in developing countries.
Having previously occupied a tenured position at another local university, Matson says he was attracted to the professor of the practice program because of the freedom it provides. At Tufts, Matson says he can focus his efforts on teaching, which he genuinely enjoys -- free of what he calls the academic "overhead" associated with maintaining a funded research program.
"In a sense I expose the students to a different sort of role model than they are used to, given that most of their professors here have made their career in academia," Matson says. I provide a results-oriented perspective on how to get jobs done in a constrained, real-world environment where the best solution is seldom the perfect solution." (continued)
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Profile written by Kaitlin Melanson, Office of Web Communications
Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography
This story originally ran on Mar. 16, 2009.