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Richards Brought Change to Engineering Education

Thursday, May 18, 2017
Don Richards

Mr. ConApps: Don Richards has brought innovations to the undergraduate engineering curriculum in a 29-year career as a mechanical engineering professor on campus.

A sign with the following statement greets visitors to Don Richards’ office in the mechanical engineering department area of Moench Hall: “Blessed are the flexible for they will never get bent out of shape.”

This has been a good motto for Richards throughout his 29 years on Rose-Hulman’s faculty—a tenure that’s ending at the end of this school year. Over the years, through many twists and turns, he has been a trailblazer for change in undergraduate engineering education.

Richards worked with colleagues to adapt first- and second-year curricula that provided students with the multidisciplinary building blocks for many fields of engineering. He was a facilitator for the institute’s annual Making Academic Change Happen workshops, tutoring professors and administrators throughout the world to embrace change in academia.

He also formerly directed Rose-Hulman’s Center for the Practice and Scholarship of Education, helping faculty in all academic disciplines to achieve their full potential, and examined ways to implement elements of engineering design into students’ four-year educational experience.

“I found my place in the sun here,” says Richards. “Rose-Hulman is a unique place where everyone is interested in undergraduate education and making the most of the undergraduate experience. My expertise as a professor is teaching heat transfer, but nationally I’m not ‘Mr. Heat Transfer.’ Rather, I’m known for being associated with the innovative things we’ve done here at Rose-Hulman.”

Richards is probably most associated with the institute’s Conservation and Accounting Principles course, commonly called “ConApps,” that is built around a common framework for teaching and using basic engineering principles. This systems, accounting and modeling approach is so unique in engineering education that Richards had to write the course’s 400-page, self-published textbook during a sabbatical break from teaching in 2001. (Updating the publication is among Richards’ retirement plans.)

Finding balance between engineering, science and mathematics also was the objective of the new academic programs on campus that helped students succeed in the challenging first two years of their college coursework. That’s especially true of the Sophomore Engineering Curriculum which was developed as part of Rose-Hulman’s participation in the National Science Foundation-funded Foundation Coalition. This sophomore-year curriculum was at one time taken by all biomedical, electrical, computer and mechanical engineering students and was a “life-changing” experience for them, according to Richards.

“We found that students in different engineering and science disciplines were learning the same elementary principles under different languages,” Richards says. “The goal of the Sophomore Engineering Curriculum was to help students see the similarities and not just focus on the differences. With the right framework, students from any discipline can predict the behavior of any system by defining a system, keeping track of what flows in and out and what is stored inside the system. This is the ‘ConApps’ approach. Here, at Rose-Hulman, we’re teaching a common language that I believe is most helpful for our students and alumni when they have to work with others in multidisciplinary teams in the workplace.”

It’s this search for something new and working with colleagues to improve the curriculum that has excited Richards since arriving in 1988, and what he’ll miss most about not being at Rose-Hulman on a daily basis.

“I love the interaction with my faculty colleagues, from interesting lunchroom conversations in the Faculty/Staff Dining Room to summer workshops,” he says. “I have enjoyed working together with colleagues to tackle problems and seek solutions. A willingness to try something new is one of Rose-Hulman’s great strengths and I’ve been delighted to be a part of it.”