50th Anniversary Class Reflects on ME in 1970
In the year 1970, more than 160,000 young men were drafted into Vietnam and more than 6,000 killed. The world saw the invasion of Cambodia, war protests and the Kent State shooting. It cost 36 cents a gallon to fill up your Ford Pinto. Technology in the decade culminated in the development of accessible, attainable personal computers, 8-track tapes and an early VCR. Microsoft and Apple began their ascent into technology giants.
That is the backdrop of the country the year that the 1970 Speed School Mechanical Engineering class graduated from the University of Louisville. The 50-year anniversary of an event is always an important milestone that often prompts nostalgia and reflection. For three members of a reunion committee for the 1970 class of mechanical engineers, it was no exception. The group of alumnae: Bob Brand, John Keyer and Chris Hermann met recently, touring the Mechanical Engineering department and revisiting old haunts from their college days. They talked about days gone by and the sea change in the field of engineering in the last five decades.
Chris Hermann, a first generation college student and native of Louisville, became active with the Speed School Industrial Board of Advisors (IBA) in the 1990s. His first impression after being away from campus 25 years and coming back to be part of IBA was amazement. “The way that technology continues to expand is incredible,” he said.
“I walked past the Rapid Prototyping Center (now AMIST) recently and I remember when it opened and I couldn’t believe how they could set up a pattern to be manufactured and do it so quickly in 24-36 hours,” he said. “Now in the current lab, they take it fresh from desktop design straight into prototyping.”
Alumnus John Keyer said he walked around campus and while he recognized the exteriors of many buildings, what was happened inside had changed drastically. “The instructional tech that is happening now is just mind-boggling. One building that didn’t exist in Keyer’s day was the Engineering Garage, the makerspace used by Speed School students to work on their own projects.
“I wished we had that when I was in school, to have such a hands-on way to apply knowledge. We just had lectures and occasional projects. Keyer also said there was only one woman engineer he recalls during his time in mechanical engineering and none in his graduating class. Last year, 29% of Speed School’s undergraduate applicants were female.
One of the most fundamental changes in mechanical engineering, said alumnus Bob Brand, was moving from slide rules to the advent of computers. “Our class was one of the last to use slide rules, and it was a whole segment of our education and it made a big difference in how you performed. Today students think it’s this mysterious, quaint device.”
“We only learned one computer language then and it was FORTRAN, added Keyer, and you had to punch the code in on a paper tape or card. Data entry and computer is light years ahead now. It’s been a massive revolution.”
Alongside that technology revolution, a cultural revolution was occurring that would color the lives of the three alums. “It was turbulent times, with people burning their Vietnam draft cards in large crowds with some cheering and others not, and in the next couple years the civil rights movement and civil rights protests,” said Brand. “I remember when Martin Luther King came to UofL’s campus in 1967 and spoke inside the law school. I was peering through a window because it was too crowded to get any nearer.”
While the world and the mechanics of engineering have changed dramatically since 1970, the alumnae said some things seem to remain unchanged, such as the importance of co-op to budding engineers, and the academic rigor and quality of the program at Speed School.
The experience of co-op, a signature differentiator for Speed as an engineering school, was as important to student as it is now, said Chris Hermann. “Many of us had little idea what a real engineer did. Maybe we were attracted to engineering because we were good in math or for job security, but co-op allowed you to work around and under real engineers with real products and real projects. It was a great help,” he said.
What do the three hope to see in the next decades for Speed School?
Hermann said he wants today’s students to take some of the same life lessons from Speed School as he learned. “It was a crazy, demanding program, but it benefitted me by giving me a stronger worth ethic, learning attention to detail, and the necessity to work hard to get to some end. The current students in a contemporary environment are working much differently but I hope they leave with same sense of work ethic and perseverance to do whatever they choose, whether it’s research, entrepreneurial enterprise or the corporate world. An important part of what they learn is how to work hard and expect yourself to deliver quality results.
Keyer agreed with Hermann’s assessment. “The program was defined by rigor and challenging subjects that engaged you fully. If you were going to succeed at Speed you had to develop certain characteristics like persistence and dedication to goal,” he said. “Those have served me well.” Keyer also sees strength in Speed School’s growing diversity and wants to see that continue. “It’s good for society to have a broad and diverse engagement with engineering.”
Brand, who noted that Speed School faculty are as wonderfully dedicated as ever, said he wants to see Speed School thrive and it is important to him to see the school get the recognition it deserves. “It is one of the better engineering schools with a reputation that has been very local but has expanded to regional, but not yet national appreciation. It is great that the dean said it is one of his priorities to work on that.”
Hermann, who is very active in the 50th Reunion Committee, said alumni play an important role in helping Speed School continue to prosper and advance. He said he hopes the 1970 ME class will be the first Golden Reunion class to make a significant gift back to the university. “We’ve already raised over $140,000 for scholarships for students in need,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity to spark investment in the future of Speed School.”