For the first time in 20 years, the fall semester has started at Binghamton University without Professor Roy McGrann.
As a faculty member in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science, McGrann has taught, mentored, and befriended hundreds of students over the years. In the first months of his retirement, he already misses the classroom.
âI like the influence that teachers can have on students,â he said. âI thought my educational experience was worth it and I wanted to pass it on to the younger generations. “
To many Watson alumni, McGrann is best known as the first year program director of the engineering design division (2004-08) and as the co-founder and co-director of the college’s minor in sustainability engineering. The minor in sustainability began in 2010 after students requested programs focusing on clean energy and environmentally friendly topics in the face of climate change.
âA lot of it was the student pressure on us and our recognition of the need to have this program in place,â he said. âWe had three core courses that we had initially set up, and then we did everything else as we choose. These three courses are now taught in the Engineering Design Division.
During his tenure, McGrann also taught a computer-assisted engineering course in the fall, followed by more âtraditionalâ mechanical engineering design courses in the spring.
âThe way I taught design at ME, the students had to do a full design,â he said. âThey had to find a problem that had a mechanical engineering solution, and then find and design, down to the detailed drawings and specifications, a solution to that problem.
âThey met with me individually twice a semester – the first meeting was 15 minutes and you had to explain your problem to me, then the second was up to 30 minutes and we would go over your drawings and I was going to write them up. This was not a problem when there were only 40 students in the class, but when there were 120 students, that made 240 meetings!
The most impressive students during McGrann’s years at Watson were those who were enthusiastic about finding new solutions to real-world problems. He once mentioned that it would be nice to have a cheap little robot to teach the lessons about the controls, and the next day a remarkable student arrived with a robot made from old CDs and a motherboard – a device which then resulted in a successful doctoral thesis. Another time, a student (who now works at Ford Motor Company) built a full CAD model of a gas turbine engine overnight.
âThere were two types of students in the design course,â McGrann said. “One guy was, ‘OK, I have to go through this. It’s just a compulsory course. Then there were the students who said, âOh my God, I can finally do anything I want. I set out to work on a problem that I have been thinking about for years.
Before coming to Binghamton, McGrann obtained a liberal arts degree from Brown University and believed he would teach philosophy. It didn’t work out, however, so he went to work in manufacturing as a machine operator. He realized that supervisors with engineering degrees earned more and decided to pursue a BS in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tulsa.
âI worked another 10 years as an engineering director after the baccalaureate, and then the company I worked for was sold,â he said. âI thought, ‘OK, this is a good time to finish the doctorate’. I went back to see my advisor [from the University of Tulsa] and said, ‘Hey, do you remember me?’ Fortunately, they did.
Although he studied mechanical metallurgy for his doctorate, he turned to engineering research after arriving at Binghamton, meaning his “lab” was the classroom. In 2008, he won the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
He attributes the influence of Watson’s former colleague Richard Culver to the new management – and as you would expect from someone interested in philosophy, he has some thoughts on the how the role of engineering fits into society at large.
“There is the dichotomy between those who think that engineering is more like physics or a science and those who think that engineering is more like sociology – that it is a social practice and that you have to develop in the students the responsibility for what you do, âhe said. “I’m obviously on the ‘developing accountability’ side.”
He also has some ideas about his own discipline: âA good mechanical engineer has the ability to see a problem, find a way to solve it, and then know the smallest details.
Since his retirement, McGrann has moved to Colorado and is enjoying his new life there. He will keep his hand in the world of engineering as an assessor for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which accredits post-secondary education programs in applied and natural sciences, computer science, in engineering and engineering technology. He would like to get more involved in Engineers Without Borders, which uses the technological skills of its members to promote projects in developing countries.
He also keeps in touch with several of his students, celebrating their accomplishments and even attending some of their weddings.
âOver the years, I have had exceptional graduate and undergraduate students who have accomplished great things. When they go out into the world and accomplish so much, I’m just like, âOK, you’ve been careful! “” He said with a laugh.