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Stint Bridges Western Ideas with Czech History

Photos and Story by

By Mark Evertz

Photo: Brian Davis and seven tour guides pose outside a Czech Museum.

Brian Davis, PCC’s dean of the Engineering, Mathematics and Technology division, spent fall term teaching at the Czech Technical University in Prague. In addition to building up his leg muscles after biking more than 2,000 miles throughout the region, Davis left with a profound respect for the Czech people, its rich history and with a deeper understanding for engineering issues on a global scale. Davis shared his thoughts just prior to his retirement in June.

ME: You spent an entire term this last fall teaching at Czech Technical University in Prague. In addition to teaching classes, you advised university leaders on streamlining engineering education there. Give me a sense of how those discussions went. What advice did you give them?

BD: This tiny country, half the size of Oregon, produced automobiles, airplanes, mining equipment, and machine tools that were the most advanced in the world, more advanced than in the U.S or in Western Europe, pre-WWII. The same was true of Czech art, Czech music, and Czech literature. Then Nazi domination followed by 40 years of Soviet domination put all of this into a tragic state of suspended animation. My experience at The Czech Technical University in Prague was one of witnessing a moment in a gradual thaw, a recovery from a profound state of shock. I came away feeling that, if anything, we (here in the U.S.) fail to appreciate how complete and pervasive the effects of totalitarian governments are. What advice did I give? Mostly, I confined myself to answering questions about U.S. engineering education and the functioning of the U.S. engineering culture in general. It’s a very sensitive area. The Czechs are proud of their technical history, they admire the American "can do" attitude and achievements, but they are offended by our sometimes naïve pride, and aren’t entirely enamored with the uglier parts of our culture that we export. I learned by watching the very old people and the young people. The oldest remembered being free, and their memories had persisted with amazing power and tenacity. The young had the same hope, curiosity, energy, and some of the same arrogance that young people have everywhere. I learned about the strength of the human spirit.

ME: This trip was made possible through PCC’s partnership with Community Colleges for International Development (CCID). What was their role in your teaching assignment in Prague? What value do you see in this relationship?

ME: I learned about CCID through Doug Draper, one of PCC’s electrical engineering instructors. CCID is now most active in South America and Central Europe … When I

e-mailed the organization, they asked me if I’d prefer going to Warsaw, Moscow, or Prague. I’d heard so much about the beauty and history of Prague, that I followed up. The whole thing happened in a matter of days. CCID acts as a matchmaker between technical people (mostly instructors) in U.S. community colleges and technical universities overseas. Once the initial contact was made, it was left pretty much to me and the university to arrange details of pay (about $200/month) and lodging.

For me, the value of this kind of relationship is that anything that helps PCC’s faculty and administration enlarge their view of the world is helpful. It’s too easy to be immersed in our own culture and forget that many of our students come from very different worlds. It’s also really refreshing to turn your attention away from the usual daily responsibilities and return to PCC with fresh eyes.

ME: Tell me a little about yourself. You’ve been at the helm of PCC’s Engineering, Mathematics and Technology division for 6 years, right? What did you do before you came to PCC? Why engineering?

BD: I was a teacher for 12 years; first in public and private U.S. high schools, then for three years, in an American university for Turkish students in Istanbul. This was followed by 16 years of various kinds of engineering management work in Oregon. I was the planning manager for Tektronix Laboratories for two years, then got swept up by the wave of "startup" companies that grew up in the early ’80s. These were heady times and I was privileged to have co-founded Metheus, a startup that concentrated on computer-aided design of very large scale integrated (VLSI) circuits, and of Planar Systems, a company that manufactures electro-luminescent flat panel display screens for computers. Then, for the seven years prior to joining PCC, I managed the program management group for OECO Corporation, a local manufacturer of custom high-frequency switching power supplies.

ME: So why engineering and particularly engineering technology education?

ME: My interest has always been the interface between technology and people, especially in the people who develop and teach the technology.

Contrary to the stereotype of engineers and mathematicians as one-dimensional nerds without people skills or aesthetic sensitivity, I have found them to be among the more empathic, thoughtful, and considerate people. My own education is as a physicist so, of course, I also just like the more internal intellectual challenge of solving technical problems. But, in reality, people are the highest technology of all, and I love to work at the interface between technical people and the non-technical world.

ME: On the eve of your retirement, what are some of the issues you see facing the profession. How can PCC help find those answers?

BD: In Oregon, as in other states, the historical separation between people who work with their heads and those who work with their hands is institutionalized in the form of programs in "engineering" and those in "engineering technology." The result is that a student who earns a degree in engineering technology must often start almost from scratch to continue toward a degree in engineering or to gain professional certification. The result is needless repetition and lost time. This is an issue that is gaining attention at both the state and national levels. Much of engineering education has not really addressed the needs for improved communication skills, teamwork, and social consciousness. Community colleges, with their small classes, skilled teachers, and close ties to the community, have a unique opportunity to contribute in these areas.

ME: Do you see private sector/community college partnerships helping shape the future of engineering education? If you were the Engineering, Mathematics, and Technology czar for Oregon, what would you do to build those bridges between industry and the community college in this area?

BD: As long as such partnerships don’t interfere with the faculty’s right and responsibility to determine the curriculum, they are a very good thing. And, so far, I’ve seen no evidence of such interference. Notably in the semiconductor area, several local companies have been quite supportive of our programs. And, of course, each of our "professional-technical" programs has an industrial advisory committee that helps us to keep the curricula current and relevant. Also, many of our students take "co-op" jobs (paid and unpaid internships) in industry as part of their associate’s degree work. These experiences are very valuable for both students and their employers. We need to do a better job of promoting the co-op program

What would I do if I were the Czar? I’d spend a lot of time with industry partners helping them understand the benefits of supporting education at the community college level; and I’d encourage them to provide more support for students while they are still in school. In areas other than semiconductors, companies are often not large enough to provide such support alone; but I’d work with groups of smaller companies to help them do this collectively.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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