Remembering Lyle Wilcox, Pioneer in Advancing Engineering Education

This Life Senior Member worked to increase the number of female and minority students in engineering programs

30 November 2018

IEEE Life Senior Member Lyle Wilcox, my grandfather, was an educator, researcher, and entrepreneur. He pursued opportunities not only to advance engineering but also to expand the field’s inclusiveness. He died on 5 October at the age of 86.

EDUCATION IS KEY

Recognizing the importance of solving real-world problems, my grandfather worked at the forefront of engineering. After graduating in 1964 with his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Michigan State University, in East Lansing, he was the chief engineer and director of operations at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Southern Medical Support Center, in Little Rock, Ark. There he researched the application of computers for medical research and clinical care.

Although he started his career working in health care, he recognized the importance of facilitating interdisciplinary engineering in educational institutions. While serving as dean of engineering at Clemson University, in South Carolina, from 1970 to 1980, he established collaborative projects that brought together government, businesses, and educational programs to integrate computers in manufacturing, medicine, communications, and education.

One company he worked with was Greenwood Mills, a textile business in South Carolina. At the time, textiles still formed the bedrock of the state’s economy, and my grandfather sought to improve the industry by having faculty members and graduate students research process control, operations, and pollution-monitoring systems design. He created the Instructional Systems Development Laboratory, which was housed in Clemson’s Rhodes Engineering Research Center. The goal was to accelerate the use of computers in engineering education and research.

Under my grandfather’s leadership, the university implemented progressive policies such as recruiting minority students into its engineering programs. In 1978 he launched engineering and computer summer workshops for African-American high school students. The workshops improved the students’ computer literacy and introduced them to basic engineering concepts. Nearly every student who attended the workshops went on to attend college, with two-thirds majoring in engineering, according to Clemson University College of Engineering: One Hundred Years of Progress.

He established a similar workshop for female high school students. Within six years, the number of young women enrolling in Clemson’s engineering program jumped by 9 percent.

My grandfather understood the interconnectedness of engineering, the economy, and international relations. He left Clemson in 1980 to serve as president of the University of Southern Colorado, now Colorado State University, in Pueblo. There he helped establish the Pueblo Economic Development Corp. charter. PEDCO works to bring companies to the area and expand existing ones.

My grandfather’s career took an unexpected turn in 1984. For the next four years, he served as deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy. He oversaw the funding for research on nuclear reactors, reactors with alternative fuels, and deep-space nuclear power. Additionally, he was involved with negotiations between the United States and Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and other countries on nuclear energy, specifically liquid-metal fast-breeder reactor technology.

GUIDING THE FUTURE

My dad, Michael Wilcox, is also an electrical engineer and an IEEE member. He was encouraged by my grandfather to stay focused on what was important to him. My grandfather taught him that progress comes with challenges such as relocating for work and maintaining a work-life balance. One of my grandfather’s favorite metaphors was of a Looney Tunes cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil. Taz often spun in circles, leading to little progress—which my grandfather used as a cautionary tale of how someone could lose focus.

My grandfather set a high benchmark for giving back to the community. He donated his time and talent to improving the lives of his students and those around him. He taught his students, coworkers, and family the importance of comparing yourself not to others but to where you were yesterday. He believed that improvement naturally flows from self-awareness, and he encouraged others to evaluate themselves before offering his counsel.

Although two generations and 60 years separate the beginning of his electrical engineering career and my own, I felt the impact of his progressive thinking when I was a counselor at a camp for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I still feel it today working in China as a Fulbright researcher.

Research that he conducted in digital computation, solid-state electronics, and bioengineering was fundamental to my dad’s and my own higher education. My dad has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in EE, and I have a bachelor’s degree.

Several of the emerging technologies my grandfather researched have fulfilled and surpassed his vision and are now so integral to daily life that my generation has never known a world without them, such as computers in the classroom.

Some problems my grandfather sought to mediate still linger in the STEM field, however. Engineering remains a white male–dominated field even though undergraduate enrollment for women and minorities has grown. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2013 report on enrollment, the most recent data published, the number of women has increased nearly 20 percent and the number of minorities has grown by almost 39 percent in 10 years. Today initiatives similar to the program my grandfather established still function as one of the methods to recruit students from minority communities.

The engineering field has given three generations of my family many opportunities. My father and I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and pursued electrical engineering, while my brother pursued mechanical engineering. My family and I would like to say thank you to the engineers of my grandfather’s generation who laid the foundation for the work we do today.

Clemson University established the Dr. Lyle and Pat Wilcox Scholarship Fund for engineering majors to honor my grandparents, Lyle and Patricia Wilcox, and remember their love for students. To learn more about my grandfather, read the university’s tribute to him.

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