Delve Talks: Ian Robertson, UW-Madison College of Engineering | Delve
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Mechanical Engineering

Delve Talks: Ian Robertson, UW-Madison College of Engineering

March 03, 2020

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our second season continues to explore how to create a culture that supports innovation through interviews with leaders of startups, educational and banking institutions, and multinational corporations.


Dave Franchino [00:00:00] Welcome and hello, everybody. Dave Franchino here, and I'm really pleased to be joined by our V.P. of Strategy, Stef Norvaisas, who's gonna be joining me on this podcast. And we're really excited to welcome Dean Ian Robertson, Dr. Ian Robertson, professor and dean of the College of Engineering, the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, where you've been since 2013. And you've been serving as the ninth dean of the College of Engineering. It's a College that serves more than 4,000 undergrads and 1,500 graduate students. And the dean manages an annual budget of more than $200 million. So, on behalf of all of us, welcome and thanks for joining.

Ian Robertson [00:00:38] Thank you for the opportunity.

Dave Franchino [00:00:39] So just as a reminder, everybody. The objective, this podcast we started last year and we're trying to explore creating a culture of innovation and that's been having conversations with a wide range of people in a variety of topics and backgrounds and trying to glean some insights into their experience and what could be applied to any field. So welcome. We're really excited to talk to you today. And one thing that we think we wanted to point out, it probably will be apparent to our listeners pretty quickly. My background is in engineering. Stef's background is in the social sciences and cultural anthropology. So hopefully we'll be tag teaming with some questions and from different perspectives. 

Maybe you could start and tell us a little bit about yourself. How and why did you decide to become an engineer and a researcher? And give us a little bit of your background and some context for your comments.

Ian Robertson [00:01:31] Well, that's a hard question to start with. So how did I become an engineer? There was really nothing in my background that said I should be an engineer. I was educated in Glasgow in applied physics. I thought I'd be a physicist, then that was a hard field to get jobs. And that I spent a summer at one of the European research centers in Italy doing experiments. And we were looking at how materials are changed by radiation. And I couldn't see what the radiation was doing to the actual material. So, I decided I wanted to study defects in, say, materials. I wanted to see them. That led me to pursue a Ph.D. using an electron microscope so I could see atomic-level structures. Moved to Oxford university to do my Ph.D., not in the physics department because all electron microscopes are in metallurgy departments. So I had to become a metallurgist. 

As I was leaving Oxford, I got a call from the department head and he said, "I have a friend at the University of Illinois. He's got a problem with electron microscopy. You need to do some design work to actually build the equipment to do the experiments. That's what you're good at. You should go there and help them solve the problem." I already had a job, so that was a little bit awkward, but that was the advice of the head of the department and so I decided to do that. Went to Illinois with the intention of staying there for maybe one, maybe two years. Ended up being there for 30 years. I started as a post-doc, went through the faculty ranks, became the head of the department there. I moved from there to the National Science Foundation, where I was the director for the material research program there. And that's about a $300 million budget to sponsor research across the nation. When I was leaving there, the opportunity at Madison came up. I applied and I thought it was a good opportunity to help move a college of engineering forward in different ways. So that's a snapshot of my background.

Dave Franchino [00:04:03] That's a fascinating background. One thing I think our listeners, many of our listeners, will be able to relate to is you come from a deep technical background and now you're having to apply some of those skills in an area where many of the problems that you're working on, or the opportunities, are around managing people. How do you think those two connect with one another?

Ian Robertson [00:04:25] Well, the part I missed out was how I got involved in department management. At Illinois, we were going through a change in degree programs. We were we're trying to marry the ceramics department and the metallurgy department to create a materials science and engineering department. We were having some internal problems and the sort of management, not the leadership side of building the new department, but just in the day-to-day management. And a group of four of us were the executive committee and in one of our meetings we said, "We need someone new to manage the department and make sure we get everything done."

[00:05:06] I was slow that day. I was the last one to step back. And so the other three were out the door saying, "You're it." So that's how I got into department administration. Turns out, I was good at it. We built a very successful department. So I did that for four years and then moved to the college and the dean asked me to run the, basically the continuing education program. And at that time it was the early times of online education and we were doing a lot of development. Now, online education wasn't really why I was interested in developing that. But he wanted an office that was revenue positive, which it wasn't when I started. I had a meeting and an impact within the College of Engineering. So I ran that office for for some time. And let's say there were some problems in my old department and the dean told me I was going back to run the department. And then I became the department head. 

So, I got sort of pushed into these jobs of academic administration by chance. Well, there were opportunities. And I say these were good parts for me to go. I guess I was successful at them and kept getting asked to do more of them. So, that's really how I ended up getting into the management side. And I think the fact that I started when I was a relatively young faculty member learning the sort of management, not the leadership side and having to develop the new visions of where we're going, but learning how to operate and convince faculty, who all basically are independent operators, to convince them that these were the directions in which we had to move the department. And this is how we would do it. So, I think that was good training. The other part that was really important to me is I had good mentors, all of whom said, "Never go into department administration."

Ian Robertson [00:07:19] And as I went further and they said, "Well, that's OK. You're still connected to the science." I think if someone now would say, "Well, you're still connected to the science, but if you do anything else, then you've really crossed to the dark side." And I'd lose some of their friendships. But being a department administrator, a college administrator, is a challenge.

Dave Franchino [00:07:41] Yeah. And you're you're clearly very good at it. I mean, I appreciate your being a little bit self-deprecating, but I think your career shows that. What traits do you think have allowed you to be successful as a technical researcher? But then, what are the traits that allowed you to be successful more in the managerial aspects?

Ian Robertson [00:08:02] So, I think part of it is understanding the problem. Developing a vision of where we want to go, developing the plan to get to that vision, maybe realizing that I don't have all the skills that are necessary to actually fully implement the plan. Then identifying people who are really good at those other areas, hiring them, empowering them to go and do their task, and trusting that they will get it done. And I've been lucky in both Illinois and at Madison. I've been surrounded by incredibly good staff. So these would be my associate deans who do a tremendous job at the parts I'm not good at.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:08:49] I think it's really interesting because you listed out the key elements of your job and your skill set. And it sounds a lot to me like the design thinking process and how we talk about it. So you talked about understanding the problem in the first place, right? Having a vision for what, you know, we talk about in design, thinking, innovating from the future. And so having a vision of how it could be if it were ideal, right? Then making a plan from how to get from here to there. Identifying missing skill sets and resources. Hiring those those resources, empowering them, and then trusting people. I mean, that's a really beautiful sort of summary of what it takes to be successful. Given our focus on a culture of innovation, I'm wondering how you see creativity tying into that mix?

Ian Robertson [00:09:48] So, if you look at the challenges that we face in each of the areas for running a college, so we have the academic side. We have our research sides and we can never stay still in either either of those areas. We always have to be thinking of what's the new way to teach the students, what are the new areas to bring in so that they are the best engineers that any company can hire. So, we have to be creative in how we actually bring a new curriculum. We have to be creative in the ways that we develop teaching. I think we've been very successful in those areas. The same is true in research. I mean, all of us get very comfortable and building a career in the area we know. I think one of the things that helps within engineering, we have to find money to support our research and the federal agencies change where their needs are and what their directions are. And if you're not creative in how you use your research skills, you quickly end up not having a research program that's funded, which for us would be a terrible thing. So I think we all have to be creative in how we how we select the problems and how we take that approach to solving them.

12 Delve Talks Ian Robertson
"Our value statement is we're always going to continue to improve the quality of the education." - Ian Robertson

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:11:12] Just to follow up. You talked about the academic side in the research side, and it's clear when you when you describe it like that, the critical role of creativity. But you used a word that I'd like to learn a little bit more about your point of view on, which is comfortable. So we do get comfortable, so which in terms of creativity, how do you manage the need to be uncomfortable with a group of people that -- either on the academic side or on the research side -- where maybe they're not necessarily wired for that?

Ian Robertson [00:11:50] Oh, that's that's really that's a tough question. So in the research side, I think it's somewhat easier because the faculty are basically their own organization and so they are self-motivated. So getting them to move from one field to another, I think that's part of their DNA. They just do that because that's what they need to do to survive. On the educational side, that's more of a challenge, because now you have to convince departments to change their academic curriculum. And you tend to have people who say, "Well, we've taught this way for the last 50 years. It's also the way I was taught. So it's been around for a long time. It works. So why change it?" The good thing is that we do realize that our students learn differently. That's a big motivator because if we really are going to educate engineers that we'll be leaders and that's what we believe that we do at Wisconsin; we create future leaders of companies. We understand that you have to sort of change how we teach. You have to change the content. There are certain things that we used to teach 20 years ago that really aren't relevant anymore. And it is a tough conversation with faculty members to say to them, "Your favorite area, well, it's no longer so relevant." This is hard as it used to be or as required for our future employers. It's tough, but you have to be able to do it. And it does work. It just takes time.

Dave Franchino [00:13:38] Those are hard conversations that I think every leader can relate to in some aspects. But the need to make sure that you stay current with what your customers, if I can call them that, demand is important. I'm just kind of curious, obviously society and technology are changing so rapidly. What changes have you seen personally in both the opportunities and the expectations for young engineers? How are the expectations of young engineers changing and how is that changing your approach to educating them?

Ian Robertson [00:14:09] So almost every company we meet with has different goals and expectations for what they want from our students. And so you have to actually look at what all of them are telling you and see if there's commonalities. We can't sort of chase one area because not all of our students get employed in that one area. So we have to try and synthesize all the information we get. I'd say clearly design project oriented teaching methods have become a very significant part of our educational program. Getting students who are now maybe mechanical engineers, getting them to work with electrical engineers, getting them to work with people who want to be material scientists. You have to bring them together. And that is a challenge, right? Because we're still somewhat stovepiped by discipline. But more and more, we're hearing companies want the depth in mechanical engineering, but experiences with electrical, with materials. The other one, I'd say, in the big change that we're hearing now is the ability of our engineers to work with large data sets. We are putting sensors within ourselves and everything that we make. And there's questions of how can you use that data to better inform the decisions that you're making, whether it's to do maintenance on a piece of equipment, or just say that this is a business's decision to change how our factory is operating. Our engineers need to understand that. And that's been a challenge to introduce because it does require different skills than where sort of traditionally in all our engineering disciplines. I'd say that probably those two areas are probably the two biggest ones. The two biggest challenges we face on the educational front.

Dave Franchino [00:16:03] Yeah, I'd like to dove into that a little bit more because I think many of our listeners can relate to that as the boundaries between traditional disciplines in our organization start to erode. Stef and I coming from very different backgrounds, but work on projects collaboratively together. So what tools can you use? I've sometimes thought that there's probably no more inherently stovepiped organization in the world than higher education. What tools can you use to find ways to break down the barriers and collaborate across fields where much of the motivation is to stay deeply expert within your particular field?

Ian Robertson [00:16:44] So this was supposed be friendly. I know it is a good question and it is hard.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:16:52] We're just hoping you have the answer. Because we need the answer.

Ian Robertson [00:16:55] No, I don't have the answer. The good part is that all of our units are engaged with people in industry and whether it's the Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board, they're telling that department, "You cannot just be a mechanical engineer. You need the expertise in these other areas." And the same is true for the Industrial Engineering Board. They're telling the faculty, "You need to change." So rather than coming from me, it's coming from the people who will employ our students. And that means we need to change. So the faculty are hearing that. And so they're saying, "How can we start making the change? One of the things that's enabled us to bring in new programs is the development of a maker space within the College of Engineering that's been instrumental in driving change.

Ian Robertson [00:17:56] We now do senior design projects that bring together civil engineers with mechanical with electrical. We are bringing together different teams to try and solve problems. The departments are accepting those multidisciplinary courses and projects as their senior design capstone course. And so that allows us to get the integration and start as a pilot project. And as it develops, more and more units are going, "We need to get partners in that." So that's really how the change is being driven. It's one by the companies telling the faculty these changes need to happen and my side of it is I need to provide the facilities and the resources to enable that change. And building the maker space was a big part of that.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:18:47] I've seen some of our clients approach integrating different disciplines or different departments in a lot of different ways and trying to bring innovation into an organization that's used to doing things in one particular way. I think the maker space is brilliant because what it does is ... it's not one group space that they're sharing, it's an "our space" not a "my space". There's some element of that that might create some other cultural ripples. And I was wondering if you experienced any of it. I've seen it happen in some of my client organizations where they create this fun space, where all of this innovation work is happening and others feel jealous or angry or feel left out. Or have you somehow created a space that people feel invited to?

Ian Robertson [00:19:39] So I hope we have. One of the good things is the maker space has two employees. Two full time employees. One is an engineer. The other is not an engineer. He's in industrial design or art design. It's a great partnership. I didn't think was going to work in the beginning, but it is a great partnership because they complement each other. Some of the things that they've done is that they open up the maker space to different groups in the evenings and teach them how to use the tools within the maker space. And so they've done things where they'll invite groups from different parts of campus to actually come in and use the tools and learn about the maker space. If any student group or any faculty member has a particular need, they don't have to be an engineer to get to use the maker space. So we do have faculty from the vet school coming in because they want to make prototypes for for vet med, for animal care.

Ian Robertson [00:20:49] We've had one where the faculty had an ancient bowl and fragments but didn't want to touch it so we 3D scanned it. We then printed it and give them all the components. And of course, now we can just play with the bowl and assemble it and it's doing things like that. So if the campus knows the facility resides within engineering, but we're always open to being collaborative. So I think it's that openness and willingness to share the resource is actually an important thing.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:21:24] I think that is a brilliant lesson to share with our listeners, is that you've created this space, but you've also opened it up to the public. And there's one thing about opening up not to the public, but to others in your organization. There's one thing about opening up and there's another like helping people and engaging them and teaching them and making them feel welcome. And I think that's really great advice.

Ian Robertson [00:21:48] So I think one of the beauties of that maker space and it's obviously one of things is good about academia -- we have really talented students. So there are only two full time employees, but we have 20 to 30 undergraduates who run the entire maker space. So if you come in and you don't know how to do the CAD drawing, we have students there who help you. If it's 3D printing, they'll help you with the 3D printing. If it's the scanning, they'll help you with that. It's run by the students. And they're always interested in helping each other and they'll spread the word to their friends about it. So we do provide that service and that help through our students. In fact, that's why the faculty member from from Vet Med was in. He said, "You have the people that know how to actually do all the design. Your instruments are better than ones we have." That's why he's up there and he just likes working with the students.

Dave Franchino [00:22:48] You hit on a topic that is of great interest to me, and that's making sure that the engineers are working on problems that are broader application and knowledge -- making engineering accessible. You've talked about getting engineers involved in a multidisciplinary approach, which is something that I think our business has seen is really important. At the same time, I know you're under tremendous pressure to make sure that an engineering education is affordable and people can graduate in a reasonable amount of time. And I know that those two are in conflict with one another. What types of things do you do personally to sort of manage wanting to teach engineers the broad range of skills they need, not just to be good engineers, but good citizens of the world, but also just pragmatically try to keep the cost of education reasonable?

Ian Robertson [00:23:40] Yeah, that I mean, that is one of our big challenges, right? We could easily add more courses to teach, say, data science and the application of data science to engineering problems. But if we do that without changing or saying we're no longer going to teach this aspect, we increased the time to degree. That would also result in a cost increase and that we really have to avoid. So I think one of the things we do see a lot of creativity is how do you take the main subject content and marry it in with another course? So some of the mathematics we can actually teach through the data analytics courses. Some of the stats we can also teach through the data analytics courses. So you'll see us bringing together two different topics and being creative about how we impart that knowledge to the students. 

So I think one of the things that means that we have to be really creative. How we actually teach the students in multidisciplinary design. We are starting to put into there what's the cost of the project. Now, a lot of our students will do projects abroad or in local communities. We're now telling them you need to have a financial plan to make sure whatever model you spend in that country and that sort of city in Wisconsin, it has to be viable for the community. You have to look at the financial side. That means we need to start teaching them some engineering business courses, right? But we are teaching them through the applied and the application rather than a specialized course. So I think that's one way we do it. When we think of ethics and social responsibility, that's also something that we will teach when we're going, "Is this the right thing to do within this group or in this part of the country or in this part of the world?" So we bring them into these other elements and in different ways. So we've impart that knowledge to our students.

Dave Franchino [00:25:44] I'd like to, if it's OK, I'd like to change directions a little bit and talk about another topic, which is one that we're grappling with a great deal. Every organization I know is grappling with how to attract, recruit, and retain a more diverse workforce and one that better represents racial and gender diversity within society. And it's really acute in the STEM fields. So as an educator, you're obviously on the front lines of that. And I'm wondering what types of things you're doing or feel the university can do to be more innovative in a broad sense in terms of opening up those opportunities.

Ian Robertson [00:26:19] So that might have been the third thing that companies tell us when we meet with them is that we have to attract more students, increase the diversity of the undergraduate body because that's one of their goals. And if we don't do it, they don't have the sort of the employability of our students, right? They just don't have the market. So one of the things that we have done is we've changed the message about how we talk about engineering. When I started, we would tell people, you have to be good at mathematics, physics, chemistry, and then maybe you'll be a good engineer. But if you think of being a doctor, we don't have to tell you that you have to be good at math, physics, chemistry, biology, all these other things. They would market to the student population, say, "This is the impact that this degree is going to have. You are going to change people's lives." We as engineering never did that. So, now we do. So we tell people that if we want to solve the societal problems that we're facing, whether it's in energy production, clean air, providing water, right? When we think of water as being a problem with clean water worldwide is a huge problem for us to solve. If you think of next generation transportation, communications, health care, there's engineering solutions, too. So now we talk to our students about "These are the impacts that you're going to have and you can have with an engineering degree." What we find is that's much more appealing to women and underrepresented or historically underrepresented students. And we find that that's making a difference. Our numbers have increased in the number of women that come in the College of Engineering. The first year of design projects, so we've emphasized that even further because they'll say, "We're not only going to talk about what you're going to do with the degree, we're going to give you a design problem that says this is what you will do with your biomedical degree or your electrical and computer engineering degree." So we actually show the students. We get them involved in projects in the communities. That also helps. They see they're going to have an impact and that helps with retention rates. So we are seeing, as we've changed our education we are seeing more students coming in, more females coming in, more underrepresented students going in. And the retention with engineering is also going up. So I think one of things we need to do is change the message and show people what is actually possible with an engineering degree. I think that's the message that we're taking. And it seems to be working. I think it's a powerful and exciting message that's really nicely phrased.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:29:14] Yeah, absolutely. So what I've heard you sort of lay out for us in this conversation is we talked early on about sort of this framework that you have that matches the design thinking framework of exploring and laying out the problem statement and all that. You talked about different attitudes that you're taking to solve some of these problems, which includes having a lot of empathy and listening to your different stakeholders like the students, the companies that you are helping prepare the students for, as well as the different stakeholders in the university. You talked about the maker space providing a learn do space that's really open to all. And that's what I think makes it attractive for everybody. And then you also touched a little bit on the values that your organization has. Can you talk a little bit more about the values in terms of messaging? You talked about messaging to create an impact, giving people more sort of applied skills. Has your value statement changed at all? Or do you anticipate it changing?

Ian Robertson [00:30:34] So I don't think our value statement will change. One of the things that I hear when I talk to our alums is that the reason that they've been successful, they can trace that success back to their education within the College of Engineering, UW Madison. They also then tell me "If you ever change the quality of the education, they're are going to be quite mad at me." Now, these are people who may have been retired for 10, 15, 20 years. They're still passionate about their education. They're quite clear about how it enabled their success. And they've told us that that's why their company still comes back and recruits at UW-Madison because they know the quality of education that we provide to our engineering students. So our value statement is we're always going to continue to improve the quality of the education. And we'll never make changes that would negatively impact the quality of the education experience our students get. We just can't.

Dave Franchino [00:31:44] I just maybe have one last question for you, which is, you know, you lead what's an arguably very large, very complicated organization. A lot of diverse interests. It's probably pretty hard to get everybody pointed in the same direction at any given time. And I I think that's probably something a lot of our listeners can relate to. And I'm just curious what sort of level advice you would have for creative or innovative business leaders who are faced with a large, complicated organization that, you know, you want and you can see a strategic vision, but it's not always obvious how to implement it.

Ian Robertson [00:32:21] If I had the answer that day, I could probably make a lot of money. The educational side, the university side is probably different than in any other business. You do have to get the faculty on board. You have to get them to buy into the idea. You have to get the staff to buy in. You have to get the students to buy in. And you have to get the alumni to buy into it and you have to get companies to buy in. And so you have to get buy in from a lot of different groups. One of the things that I did very early on when I came to Madison, we really needed a strategic plan for the next five years of the college. Now, at the end, I think we would admit today that it's not the best strategic plan that you could ever make. The real value in it was that it engaged the faculty of the College of Engineering, it engaged the undergraduates, it engaged the graduate students, engaged alumni and engaged the industry. So we did bring in all of that information and we tried to make a strategic plan. In reviewing it now, I'd say it's not the best strategic plan.

[00:33:36] The real value of it was it got many of those stakeholders to buy in and say, yes, we agree that's the direction we're going go. In one area in particular, people ask how we increased the number of women faculty. So we've gone from 12 percent. We're now at 20 percent. We're still not done. And people say, well, what did you do to make that change and hire more female faculty? And the answer is every department said we need to improve the diversity of the faculty body. And they were all committed to because they made the decision. They brought in to do it. And we're identifying and hiring some really talented women. So I think it's getting buy in and getting them to say, "We developed this. It might not be the best plan, but we've developed it and we want to make sure it's successful."

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:34:29] I think that finding that balance between a top-down and a bottom-up approach is incredibly valuable. And just the insight of creating a strategic plan might be more about the process and the conversation than the output. I think it's a really great wisdom as well.

Ian Robertson [00:34:52] It worked for us because it got faculty to buy in and it got the staff to buy in. And that did allow us to make changes within our organization because they said we want to achieve this. And then we said, well, the pathway to do this requires these changes to be made. They bought into the end goal and the pathway was one we picked. There were many options, but we picked one and they said, that's OK.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:35:22] The skill set that you have of bringing in a technical expertise, business acumen, and the people skills is, I think, part of the Holy Grail for success, too, is being able to wear those three very different hats and know when to apply them and how to prioritize. It's a tough job.

Ian Robertson [00:35:51] Yes, but it's a fun job, right? Because you're ... it's one thing for us is the student body changes every four years. So you're always seeing new faces, new ideas. We're hiring lots of new faculty. They come in with new ideas and they're driving a lot of change. And actually seeing that change is fun, especially when you say, well, I did something to help make that change. So it's actually nice sitting back and watching the college evolve and change its directions both in research and in teaching.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:36:33] One quick question. I know one of the things that I see organizations struggle with in getting change in their environment is providing metrics. So what financial metrics or performance review metrics that match up with that sort of strategic vision, did you have to do any of that?

Ian Robertson [00:36:56] Yeah, in each part of our strategic plan we did have metrics and I would say we were very successful in meeting the metrics for some. When you look at some of the other areas, we were less successful. What we learned from that strategic plan is that we had too many areas we were trying to focus on in a short period of time. We had created ourselves with such a large task that it was impossible to be successful in every area. The exercise we're going through now, which will be our next strategic plan, the faculty were involved saying we need fewer initiatives and we want to make it much bigger picture and we will raise the bar on the metrics in those areas, but then we'll have fewer of them. But that was a good learning exercise for us. Yeah, we did put metrics in there and we do report out on the metrics so people know how well we're doing.

Stefanie Norvaisas [00:37:58] Yeah, I think that's critical for that scale of cultural change really that you're managing.

Ian Robertson [00:38:05] It has helped. When people say we're not doing well in these areas, they'll go. What's the plan to fix that area? Because it is really important. And the priorities of some of the things we selected changes over three or four years. And so some of them were moved up in priority and some I moved down. That's fine. I think that's appropriate.

Dave Franchino [00:38:31] Ian, this has been great. I've really enjoyed and appreciate the conversation, have learned some great things, and it's been very kind of you to share your experience and expertise with our audience. Once again, our guest today, Ian Robertson, professor dean of the College of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And once again, this is Delve Talks. We've really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you very much.

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