Honors Convocation

University of California, Irvine

June 18, 1999


J. Michael McCarthy, Professor

Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


Chancellor, colleagues, honor students, family and friends, I am pleased to speak for the faculty of UCI and say: "Congratulations, honor students, we have seen your hard work, we appreciate it very much, and we are happy to take this time today to say so."

I believe we can say even more, especially to your family and friends. But to do that, let me first say that my oldest is about a year away from graduating from college, I think. Actually, she will graduate in June 2000, if she does not change her major, again. Or change Universities, again.

Now, part of my job is advising students about their major, about courses, and I even help them find jobs. But was this of any use to my own daughter? The answer is: No. It was a professor at another university who helped her find her way.

And, I am no better now as my younger daughter worries about colleges and what major she might like. Frankly, this time around I do not dare to say a word. So recently, I was very surprised, when she asked me about Engineering as a career. Okay, it wasn't really a question. I don't think she even looked up when I came in. It went something like this: "Dad, Mom needs a ride home from work, and a lawyer called for you, and what do engineers do anyway, because Jenn's dad says it's a good career for a woman." Then the phone rang for her, and she was gone.

If I got another chance, I intended to be ready. So, later that night, I searched the Internet to see how people describe what engineers do. What I found seemed perfect: "How to tell if You are an engineer:"

The first item said:

I scanned down the list and saw many references to mentor-student relationships in stories ranging from Merlin and King Arthur through Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, including even the recent example of Morpheus and Neo in the "The Matrix.".

Then this item jumped out at me:

The point of bringing this up is that I think Engineers really do feel that their education is some kind of "Jedi" training that is very demanding and does not always make sense. I know that Engineering professors take very seriously their responsibility to provide society with well-educated engineers.

Furthermore, Engineering professors, like mentors in any of these stories, are grudgingly slow to admit that their students are ready; or even, that they as teachers have done enough. There always seems to be more the students should know. It comes out in statements like this, "Our students need Transform Theory just to be considered educated." And, sometimes in a more frustrated tone, it might sound like this, "How can we graduate engineers who have had only one Fluid Mechanics course." "Would you want to fly on an airplane that they designed?"

This point of view is grounded in the knowledge that the challenges our students will face are unpredictable, that success is not assured, and the consequences of failure can be severe.

This brings me to a little story.

We teach a course called Engineering Design in Industry where we try to show our students how to use the Engineering Theory that they have been learning over the past years. This means that we must bring into our academic world some of the unpredictability and risk of real engineering.

In a 10-week course, student teams take on problems that are of concern to local companies. We follow a process that provides structure in the face of competing demands, inconsistent specifications, and the time and cost pressures of engineering practice. It involves a mid-term design review and a formal final presentation.

Now for the story.

Last quarter, engineers from a local company worked with our students to the design and manufacture special connectors. These connectors were not like anything I had seen before, but that is not the point. The mid-term design review went fine. Our students were petrified as usual, but they had done a good job. And, as often happens, the meeting evolved into a bunch of engineers around a table trying to figure out how to make something work.

What I want to focus on is the final presentation. This usually occurs at UCI, and, because they are proud of their work and the quarter is over, the students are often ready to show off a little.

This time our liaisons asked the students to give this presentation to their management at their corporate headquarters not far from here. The students agreed. And, they soon found themselves in one of the more intimidating settings that I have ever experienced. It was a darkly paneled, dimly lit, conference room with many people behind rows of tables in deep upholstered chairs. I was just an observer, and I was nervous. I caught eye of the engineers who had worked with us all quarter, and they were very nervous.

The presentation began. The students were well prepared and they described their work clearly. About half way through, it happened, a question from the audience interrupted them, and for a moment there was dead silence. They responded, and then there was another question. What I saw was the students work together to smoothly address question after question as they maintained the flow of the presentation. In the end, the realization washed over me, they've got it, they can do it, and even more...they are doing great.

In stories, it is common to have the audience discover with the hero his or her true strength, at the moment that they face what seems to be an overwhelming challenge. Luke finally comes to trust the force, and destroys the Death Star. Neo finally recognizes that he doesn't have to dodge bullets, and overpowers the Agents. I think, this is the way our storytellers capture the drama that exists in the moment when a student grows beyond their teacher. When you catch yourself saying, they've actually got it, they can do it, and even more...they will be great.

Now I am not a Literature professor, I do not claim to understand drama or strategies of storytelling; and I certainly do not think Star Wars is about the relationship between an Engineering professor and his or her student. However, I do believe that these mentor-student stories reflect a deeper reality. I believe they aspire to describe just a piece of the complicated web of courage and fear, joy and sadness, sacrifice and luck, that makes indescribable the relationship between a parent and child.

It seems to me that there is a law of nature that stops you from being an impartial observer of your own son or daughter, or of your own parent, for that matter. So, please accept from me and from my colleagues, this simple message. We have seen it. They can do it. They will be great.

Thank you and congratulations.