West Point East: Barry Shoop

This is the first in a series of articles about IEEE members involved in humanitarian projects

6 April 2009

In 2004, U.S. Army Col. Barry L. Shoop began his part in an odyssey that would lead to the first engineering-focused military school in Afghanistan.

The National Military Academy of Afghanistan is modeled after the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in New York. In January, the NMAA graduated its first class of 84 cadets, each with a technical degree and the rank of second lieutenant in the Afghan Army.

“West Point was founded in 1802. It became an engineering school to help build the infrastructure of a nascent nation,” says Shoop, IEEE Secretary and senior member, and a professor and deputy head of West Point’s department of electrical engineering and computer science, where he specializes in optics and photonics. “Afghanistan is not a young nation, but it’s a broken one from decades of war. We’re optimistic that this school can contribute to the infrastructure for rebuilding Afghanistan.”

Shoop is one of more than 100 West Point professors who have trekked to the Asian country during the last five years to sort out facilities, curriculum, educational concepts, and mentoring programs. Their challenge has been complicated by Afghanistan’s antiquated infrastructure, sociopolitical environment, and educational philosophy.

On his first trip there, in 2004, Shoop and his colleagues helped local government officials scout out an old Afghan Air Force facility on the outskirts of Kabul for the site of the academy. The property had no power or water, but within a year it was refurbished and cleared of land mines. Shoop and his colleagues hired faculty, devised ways to attract and test potential students academically, and developed a curriculum that bridged educational philosophies.

“The Afghan people were used to an education style of rote memorization, as opposed to the modern approach of actively engaging students,” Shoop says. “They also needed time set aside for prayer, as well as courses in local history, Islam, English, and the country’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto."

Shoop and his associates rolled out the curriculum one year ahead of the students. “We’d get the first-year courses together,” he explains, “and while the students were going through that year, we’d work out the second one.”

The 300 cadets enrolled in the academy major in civil engineering, law, computer science, or general engineering. Last month, 30 men and 10 women began a new medical-training track involving a year of premed courses followed by seven years of medical school.

DISTINGUISHED CAREER Shoop grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Ashland, Pa. He planned to become an auto mechanic until his father persuaded him to study electronics. A high school teacher urged him to attend college, and he went to Pennsylvania State University on an ROTC scholarship. Shoop fell in love with electrical engineering at Penn State and joined IEEE as a student member. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1980, the year he joined the army, and then a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Calif., in 1986, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1992, all in EE. He spent a year at the U.S. Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., before joining West Point as an assistant EE professor in 1993. Still on active duty, he became a full professor in 2003 and the department head in 2008. Along the way, he earned eight military and engineering awards and served as a science advisor for the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

He is a member of several IEEE societies, and he served on the IEEE Board of Directors for four years. He was elected IEEE Secretary last year; his term ends in December.

His military career has taken him to Afghanistan four times and Iraq twice. His last trip to the NMAA was in March 2005 for the school’s opening ceremonies. He says he hopes to return as part of a 2010–2011 sabbatical to mentor faculty and help refine the curriculum.

“This humanitarian effort is incredibly satisfying and the most professionally rewarding thing I’ve done in my 30-year army career,” he says.

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