It’s an annual rite of passage: Rising first-year students attend orientation during the months of July and August to prepare for their new lives at the University of Virginia.
Students joining the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science also will meet a new leader in the office that shepherds their educational experience. Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Lloyd Harriott transitioned into the role last semester; former Associate Dean George Cahen is retiring after 40 years at UVA.
UVA Engineering has a tradition of excellence in undergraduate education, and the School attracts some of the best students in the country; 95 percent of 2015-2016’s first-year students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, and their median combined SAT score was 1430. Harriott, the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has dedicated himself to building upon that strength through innovation.
“It’s such an important transition for a young person, going from being a high school student to becoming a scientist or engineer,” Harriott said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity work with them through that transition.”
The Power of a Mentor
Harriott remembers only too well how important such a thoughtful approach was to him when he was in school. He was a beneficiary of a physics professor who knew how to motivate students.
At Hartwick College in New York in the early 1970s, Harriott wasn’t a star student, and he certainly wasn’t thinking about graduate school. But then he took a class from Professor David Barge, who made physics lessons sound like real stories, with characters and plots, history and philosophy.
“He was a real mentor for me,” Harriott said. “A lot of people thought he was off the wall, but he was very creative. He didn’t just stand up and teach out of a book. It made me want to dig in more.”
Barge’s influence was deep. Harriott’s undergraduate ambivalence turned into a passion for inquiry, and he went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the State University of New York in Binghamton in 1976 and 1980.
Harriott was inspired by the notion that he could one day become a great teacher and faculty member, in Barge’s model. “If it worked on someone like me, who wasn’t a particularly good student and wasn’t interested in academic pursuits, it can really work on anyone,” he said.
After earning his degrees, however, he was recruited to Bell Laboratories, then the research arm for AT&T.
At Bell Labs, Harriott specialized in lithography, which is a process of etching patterns onto the silicon surfaces that make up electrical transistors. Lithography is required to build the detailed structures that comprise transistors, which then are connected together to form electrical circuits. For his work innovating the process of lithography, Harriott won Bell Labs’ distinguished technical staff member award, and he was promoted to lead the advanced lithography research department in 1996.
Harriott worked with student interns at Bell Labs, and he was able to see differences in how various universities prepared their students for real-life engineering.
“I saw that it was very important, and something that wasn’t always done well,” he said.
An Opportunity for Change
After a 21-year career at Bell Labs, Harriott learned of an opportunity to fulfill the dream his long-ago physics professor had inspired.
When he visited UVA Engineering to consider a faculty position, the School’s professors spoke consistently about the importance of teaching and about the outstanding undergraduate program at UVA. Faculty members also emphasized their research collaboration.
“I could just feel the level of passion the faculty had,” he said.
Harriott joined the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2001. He served as chair of the department from 2004 to 2012, and initiated a curriculum review and overhaul that continues today. After finishing his tenure as chair, he carried on in the role of the department’s associate chair for undergraduate programs. He personally advised approximately 30 students, including all transfer students for his department.
“Lloyd cares deeply about our students, and he has an excellent track record of making improvements to our educational programs,” said Professor John Lach, who became department chair in 2012.
One visible example involved a significant overhaul to the core course sequence for electrical and computer engineering. Harriott led a committee of five faculty members to plan and implement the change.
“We began our work by trying to start from scratch and asking the question: ‘What does an Electrical Engineering undergraduate need to know, or know how to do, when they walk across the stage at graduation?’” Harriott said. “We gathered information from multiple sources to try to get an accounting of what the students need in order to be successful. We then compared it to our current curriculum to see what needed to be changed.”
What emerged is something affectionately dubbed the “FUN” curriculum – Fundamentals in Electrical Engineering. The course sequence combines lectures and hands-on lab work to engage students in every class session and to better connect theory and practice. In the past, the lectures and labs were separated.
Electrical systems are fundamental to modern life, from smart energy management to wireless communications to life-saving healthcare devices. Electrical engineering education also provides a foundation that enables students to succeed in many different fields. Once students experience the hands-on potential to use their engineering knowledge to make a difference in the world, they are hooked, much like Harriott was hooked years ago by a physics professor who connected his lectures to real life.
“The results have been extremely positive, and both students and faculty have embraced the change,” Lach said.
Looking Toward the Future
When George Cahen announced his retirement, Harriott saw another opportunity to make a difference.
“I wanted to have a similar focus on innovation at the school level as we have at the department level,” he said.
Craig Benson, UVA Engineering’s new dean, has a vision for a high-quality student experience that is rich in hands-on learning and that will inspire students to become engineering leaders who are trained to solve society’s most pressing challenges.
Harriott was a natural choice, said Maite Brandt-Pearce, executive associate dean for academic affairs.
“Lloyd is an accomplished researcher and engineering professional who cares about our undergraduate students,” she said. “He has a deep commitment to working with his colleagues, helping them grow as teachers and create outstanding educational experiences for students. We are extremely fortunate to have him in this critical role.”
Together with Brandt-Pearce, Harriott is focused on collaborating with faculty to improve course curricula, integrating theory and practice for students in a similar way to his department’s course overhaul. He also wants to provide all undergraduates with research, entrepreneurship, leadership, critical thinking and communications training.
Another priority is to ensure that all first-year students, including Class of 2020 students who are making orientation visits to Grounds this summer, experience engineering in a way that immediately demonstrates its far-reaching personal and societal benefits.
“It is such a transformative experience to take these bright and eager students and set them on the path toward becoming engineers,” Harriott said. “I’m excited to have the chance to work with them and help fulfill our School’s vision for undergraduate education.”