A Teacher’s Teacher in Engineering Education

Dr. James Stice in the 90sJim Stice spent the majority of his career in engineering education, teaching past, current, and future academicians the art of teaching. He first explored his interest in engineering education as assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, and then moved to The University of Texas at Austin at the invitation of Dean John J. McKetta Jr.

At the beginning of his tenure at UT Austin, he created and directed the Bureau of Engineering Teaching, believed to be the first engineering teaching and learning center. It was through this center that he created the first course on college teaching for engineering students. He was then asked to found and direct one of the nation’s first university-wide centers for teaching effectiveness at UT Austin. This center offered many high-impact faculty professional development workshops. He then took the local faculty professional development activities to the national level through the National Effective Teaching Institute, which he co-founded with Richard Felder. He returned to teaching full-time in the Chemical Engineering Department at UT Austin before retiring in 1996.

Dr. James E. Stice

Bob R. Dorsey Professor Emeritus in Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin
B.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Arkansas, 1949
M.S., Chemical Engineering, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1952
Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1963

The business of helping people learn

I joined the University of Arkansas as an Assistant Professor in 1954, after five years in industry. It was here that I first discovered my love for teaching. I never considered myself a first-rate researcher; however, I did do pretty well as a teacher. It was while teaching thermodynamics that I came across a Science article by Mina Rees on the use of computers in teaching medical students. I read it and thought that was a neat idea. So I applied for a National Science Foundation grant with another colleague in chemical engineering (Dr. Buddy Babcock) and one in psychology (Dr. Robert Hickson) to bring computer-assisted instruction into the thermodynamics course. I learned a lot from implementing the idea in the classroom, and my colleagues and I wrote a report on it. I don’t think it rattled many people’s cages, but it was an interesting experiment. That really made me decide that teaching is where I belonged. It also got me all fired up about this whole business of helping people learn.

Broadening impact through faculty development

I found out about the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) while finishing up my Ph.D. My first attendance at an annual meeting was in 1968 at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was after giving a talk at the Gulf–Southwest Section meeting of ASEE that John McKetta approached me with the idea of starting a Bureau of Engineering Teaching at the University of Texas. I jumped at the chance because it was a new idea. Nobody else was doing that kind of thing, and it sounded like it would be fun to try.

As the creator and the director of the Bureau of Engineering Teaching, I did a series of weekly presentations of teaching strategies that I had tried and that had worked for me. I also lined up monthly luncheons where faculty members and visitors presented their teaching practices, such as self-paced instruction for mastery and use of learning objectives, to an audience of engineering professors. These luncheons were sponsored by Dean McKetta.

I also started a course in college teaching for engineering graduate students. This course outlined many methods that can help people learn: using instructional objectives, lecturing, programmed instruction, self-paced instruction, guided design, tips on test taking and test preparation, personality profiles, problem students, audiovisual materials and equipment, etc. It was taught to small classes (about 12 students), and the students read and discussed articles I provided, and they did several projects. The intent was to give them useful ideas if they decided to become professors, but also to allow them to see if a career in education would appeal to them. As far as I know, this was the first such course for engineering students in the country. We also had mathematicians, physicists, and chemists who sat in on the course, because they heard about it and wanted to participate. The course was popular, and I taught it until I retired in 1996.

With the success of the Bureau of Engineering Teaching came the charge to found and direct the University of Texas Center for Teaching Effectiveness. In 1973, the chairman of the faculty senate proposed the formation of an office like the Bureau of Engineering Teaching for the entire campus. I was already at the university, I was available, and I would not be too expensive. They offered me the job, and I took it. I founded and directed one of the nation’s early university-wide centers for helping faculty members improve their teaching. Later, other universities followed suit and created their own centers for teaching effectiveness.

At the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, a staff of four (myself, Dr. Marilla Svinicki, Dr. Karron Lewis, and our incredible secretary, Karen Keeler) offered faculty professional development courses. In 1981, we began offering a one-week seminar for new professors, of whatever rank, the week before classes began in late August, and through the courtesy of President Peter Flawn, we paid them a week’s salary. We got about 80 percent of the new faculty hires, and they were conscientious in their attendance. After five years, the Texas economy shrank, and we could no longer pay the participants’ salaries; the enrollment percentage dropped to about half of what it had been. The participants still were enthusiastic about their experience.

The people who came to the course seemed to profit from it and always responded positively. For example, one adjunct faculty wrote that he was really worried, losing sleep over how he was going to teach his course. After attending our seminar, he had the entire course sketched out in his mind, and he said that he was sleeping like a baby again. (That professor was James Michener, the author.) So we thought the seminar accomplished what it was supposed to do. We offered that summer seminar for about twenty years and considered it a very real bonus for new professors. And then the funds ran out.

Moving to the national level with NETI

In 1989, I met with Richard Felder at the ASEE conference at the University of Portland in Oregon. I found out that he and one of his colleagues were running workshops similar to ours at North Carolina State University. We toyed with the idea of hosting a series of workshops for engineering professors at the national level. We also called up some chemical industries to see if they might give us a little money to work with, and nearly all of them (DuPont, Union Carbide, Exxon, Dow Chemical) contributed to the co-founding of a first three-day workshop—the National Effective Teaching Institute (NETI)—on the national level.

NETI was offered to 50 people at its first meeting at New Orleans in June, 1991, and has been going gangbusters ever since then. We always had more people trying to get into it then we could handle. Richard Felder and colleagues are now hosting three workshops a year: one in January, one in June at the ASEE conference, and one in August. So it has proliferated. I am proud of that. I think we made a real dent in things, because there are an awful lot of people out there who have participated in NETI. They have returned to their own campuses, and some of them have started giving workshops or teaching courses in college teaching. So we knew that NETI was already useful and would be more so as time goes on.


Coming full circle as an engineering educator

Professor Emeritus Jim Stice stands next to an ASEE representative and accepts a plaque in honor of his Lifetime Achievement Award.
As Director of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, I applied for a grant with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to experiment with the Personalized System of Instruction (the Keller Plan), within the College of Engineering. This effort was led by Dr. Billy Koen in the Mechanical Engineering Department. However, as is often the case, when the initial experiment has been completed and the money goes away, nobody else wants to do it! I think we got all the people who would be interested in putting that kind of time in it on the first pass. The other people in the department saw what they did and how much work it was, and they didn’t want to do it themselves. Most want to teach their courses with as little effort as possible and do their research, which is what they get rewarded for in higher education these days. Research grants help pay for faculty summer salaries, graduate students’ stipends, staff, travel, janitorial services, supplies, utilities, etc.  Many universities need these funds to survive. However, you are going to find a lot of professors out there who would rather spend more time and energy on their teaching, but they fear they would be committing academic suicide, so they don’t do it.

Faculty, however, are pretty laissez-faire. I think they figure if old Joe over here wants to do his thing, it’s all right with them, as long as he doesn’t get in their way. I was not in anybody’s way. I had, however, to persuade deans that what we were doing was noble and good. I would ask to “let me give it a try,” and most of them were willing, even though they did not provide any money. When the Texas state income slump began, however, I had to do some fairly heavy arguing with upper-level administration. They had whole departments screaming for money, and I had this little four-person operation that just couldn’t compete with the needs of all those departments. As time went on (18 years), the bureaucracy and scrounging for support got to me. I figured I would go back to my department and be more useful there. So I left the reins of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness in the competent hands of Dr. Marilla Svinicki and went back to my first love: doing experimental teaching full-time at the Department of Chemical Engineering. I retired after six more years; however, it was great fun! I could wonder how something would work and then try it out. Sometimes things didn’t go well—not everything does. But you kept the ones that worked and spread the word about them. You don‘t try the ones that didn’t work for you again.

If I were to give a new professor advice, I’d tell him or her to try one or two new ideas per semester, and pay attention to how things go. Trying too many new things at once won’t work and will drive you nuts. Keep what works for you, and stay on the lookout for new and interesting strategies. Going to ASEE meetings helps you stay up to date. I believe this will help one to do a reasonably good job of instructing students.

*This profile was authored by Gurlovleen Kaur Rathore, Texas A&M University, based on her interview with Dr. Stice in 2014. The phrase “a teacher’s teacher” in the profile title is borrowed from Richard Felder‘s 2009 “Random Thoughts” column about Dr. Stice. Previously published on the University of Washington’s Engineering Education Pioneers blog.

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