ASEE presidential profile: Meet Ernest Smerdon

ASEE presidential profile: Meet Ernest Smerdon

Hendley, Vicky

Ernest Smerdon works for engineering education on two fronts: at ASEE, as 1998-99 president; and at the National Science Foundation, as senior education associate in the Engineering Education and Centers Division of the Engineering Directorate. Smerdon, a civil engineer and expert on water resource issues, started his career as a U.S. Air Force meteorologist. After his military service, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC), for his master’s and Ph.D. He began his teaching career at UMC’s engineering college, and soon thereafter added consulting work to his teaching duties. His consulting assignments took him to Europe, Asia, Central and South America, and the Middle East.

Smerdon spent the last 10 years at the University of Arizona as a civil engineering faculty member and vice-provost and dean of the college of engineering. In January, after first conferring with NSF lawyers to obviate any potential conflict-of-interest issues that might arise from fulfilling professional commitments to both ASEE and NSF, Smerdon settled into NSF’s Arlington, Virginia headquarters.

While he’s not permitted to handle any ASEE-related matters at NSF, Smerdon says he can still offer ASEE members valuable insight into NSF’s engineering education programs, and NSF significant insight into the current state of ASEE’s engineering education activities. Smerdon’s NSF duties include coordinating the Action Agenda for Systemic Engineering Education Reform program; and working with the Educating for the Future (EFF) program, which is developing a report on undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education. Because his NSF office is just a few miles across the Potomac River from ASEE’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, Smerdon says the proximity should help him stay involved in ASEE business on a regular basis.

Strengthening Membership Base

At the top of Smerdon’s ASEE agenda is building a strong membership base to lead the association into the next century. Attracting a more diverse constituency is key to that effort, he says. “We will not have a complete engineering profession until we have men and women with different views and different backgrounds somewhat equitably represented,” Smerdon says. He adds that a more diverse group includes engineering educators of different ethnicity, gender, and of all ages.

“A fairly large percentage of our members have been members for 25 years or more,” Smerdon says. “Any organization that becomes too reliant on older people can find itself in some trouble. We have to attract younger people and redistribute our membership balance or within the next 10 years, when a large number of our current members retire, we will have a significant membership drop.”

At the same time, Smerdon emphasizes that ASEE values the resources and experience veteran members bring to the association. “We have to make sure all groups know that their contributions are important,” he explains.

ASEE also has a responsibility to meet the needs of its older members. One issue Smerdon wants to address is how technology changes affect more senior educators. “Most people don’t realize that older people, even older engineers who are supposed to be the technologists, can be threatened by technology,” he says. “The level of change sometimes creates insecurity. We have to make people feel secure.”

Assessment as Improvement

Another change that makes many engineering educatorsfrom all groups-feel insecure is the requirement for new assessment processes as specified in the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s Engineering Criteria 2000. “I’ve heard a number of faculty members say, `Well, what’s wrong with what we are doing?’ And the answer is that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, but there are opportunities to do it better,” he explains.

Smerdon thinks the reason for implementing assessment processes often gets lost amidst the concern over dealing with change. “We assess in order to improve,” he explains. “We need to couple assessment with why we really want to assess, and that is to find out if we are making progress. We assess to compare ourselves to others.”

A Broader Field

Along with the new assessment standards, Engineering Criteria 2000 emphasizes intra- and interdisciplinary cooperation. Smerdon sees such cooperation as an important part of efforts to improve engineering education and the engineering profession, but admits that many engineering educators may not share his view. “Engineering is a wonderful field, but it has a weakness: We do not work enough with other disciplines. We isolate ourselves,” he says.

He understands why this happens: “Engineering can be really hard work, and sometimes we lose sight of other issues.” But, he adds, “We need to work to make it a broader field.”

Engineering education’s emphasis on diversity and interdisciplinary cooperation can only improve the discipline and the field. “I’ve always been a believer that when we work together we do our jobs better,” Smerdon assures.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Sep 1998

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