Why I Teach at Baylor: Dr. Ken Van Treuren Lecture

May 16, 2023
Dr. Ken Van Treuren lecture

Why I Teach at Baylor (And Some Things I’ve Learned)

2022 Baylor University Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year Lecture

Ken Van Treuren, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Lecture given March 30, 2023, at Baylor University School of Engineering and Computer Science

Transcript edited by Meredith Hooten and Lane Murphy. Watch the full video on YouTube.

Award Press Release

I'm honored and humbled to be the recipient of this award. I look at the names of previous honorees on the program and see some of my heroes. I've been here long enough to know most of them, and I'm just excited to be considered. I've been teaching engineering for about 30 years, and getting an award is nice, but it's not why I do this. Why we do this. I’m going to give you some insight into who I am, how God brought me to Baylor (because I do believe that He did), and what it's like for me to teach here at Baylor.

There might be many stereotypes about engineers in society, they are helping to save lives and create fantastic new technologies for advancement, technological advancements that can improve the way we live. Who doesn't want to be an engineer? That's so exciting, and that's what we have to look forward to now.

What are some things in the last century that engineers have been involved with? How about electricity? If we didn't have electricity, we'd be sitting in the dark right now, right? No lights, no electricity. How about cars and airplanes and helicopters? How about radio, television, computers, telephone? And if you live in the south, you are so glad God invented air conditioning. These are just a few of the things that engineers have had a part in helping to improve our lives.

Did I always want to be an engineer? No, I wanted to be a pilot. Where's the best place to go in the United States to get an education, to be a pilot? Air Force Academy. What a great place. My dad was a commercial pilot, but he never went to college. You need to go to college now to be a pilot, but back then he didn't have to, so that got me started thinking about airplanes.

My grandparents were immigrants. They came through Ellis Island from Holland, and my grandfather was a laundry truck driver. I'm the first person in my family to go through college, first generation, so I know exactly what some people that are coming in right now are going through, because my parents didn't have a clue what college was all about.  

My parents also didn't have a clue what the military was all about. At the Academy, 1973, I studied aeronautical engineering. I fell in love with gas turbines and rocket engines; those things are cool. I loved what I did there and had a great time doing that, and I still wanted to be a pilot.

But the most important thing happened to me while I was there: I met this young lady. It was truly a miracle because when I went to that school, it was an all-boys school. Just to meet a woman was pretty much a miracle, let alone one that you married. And here we are, 45 years later.

Here's my first takeaway. Education: It's the key to your future. That's why we're in this business. Never turn down education when you're offered, especially if it's free. I wanted to know what I was doing, so I learned how to be a lifelong learner. I tell everybody you need to learn how to learn. I love going to workshops and short courses and conferences. I love reading up on subjects. Since I teach aeronautical courses, I stay up on what's currently going on. I love learning. That's why I’m in a pretty good place. God knew that.

Next up was going to be pilot training, but I got more free education. I got a Guggenheim Fellowship to go study at Princeton University, which happened to be 20 minutes from where I grew up. I thought “this is great, I get to go home!” At Princeton I studied hydrocarbon combustion: that's the closest thing they had to gas turbines there. And I had to learn organic chemistry. Did you ever think that you would have to learn it? That's just for pre-med people, I thought. But here I had to learn to balance equations and do all those things again. So that was good. And the Air Force said, “Oh, by the way, you've got a year to finish your master's degree.” Okay. Take courses and do a thesis. Yeah, I can do that. How hard can Princeton be?

We also got married that year. We made it through the year and got it all done. My next stop was more free education. I was going to go to undergraduate pilot training. It was a year-long training to go to the military training, which is the best flight training in the world. But that's what we all thought. Let's go strap on the jet and go fly. That's what we wanted to do, and everybody at pilot training gets hero pictures. What a wonderful year it was, and it led me to a career in the military flying just like it can, right?

I always wanted to fly and I finally got to do it. What a great thing that was. My goal was to be the best pilot, because God would want me to be the best pilot that I could possibly be. So we did. I got to fly all over the world; oh it was so cool. But they call you up and they can't tell you where you're going, can't tell you when you're coming home. That was one of these trips. And so Renee's home all by herself, she didn't know where I was. She didn't know what I was doing. They said we could send home postcards if we wanted. We said, isn't this a great view where we are? Didn't say who we were or where we were, but we said, Hey, isn't this great? Beautiful. I got to see the pyramids, I got to see the King Tut mask. I got to see all this stuff, which was wonderful and I really loved doing that.

But then God brought this little girl. Oh, that's my little Sherry. And when she was nine months old, I'd been out of the country five months of her life. That was hard because back then we didn't have the internet, we didn't have social media, we didn't have any of that. We wrote letters and put a stamp on it and sent it home. It took about three weeks to get there. So I said, “God, the desire of my heart is to stay home and watch my little girl grow up.” That's what I wanted to do. And I walked up to my squadron commander, and I said, “Sir, I love flying airplanes for you, but if I can't be home and watch my little girl grow up, I'm going to have to get out of service.” That's like the kiss of death of your career to tell your commander that. But it's what I had in my heart. And another miracle, two months later, I'm back at the Air Force Academy teaching in the Aeronautics Department. Let me tell you, it's so much nicer giving tests rather than taking them.

But I had a great time at the Air Force Academy. We spent a tour of duty there, which was four years and a little more. And then they said, “you’ve got to go back to flying.” I said, oh, if I have to, I will. I mean it's not so bad to go fly, right? Flying's fine. But then the first Gulf War happened and after the Gulf War, I called up Strategic Air Command headquarters and Dave Jensen, the guy who's handling my career. He was my navigator from when we flew KC-135s. Well, the Air Force Academy was going to send me to Oxford University to get a PhD. I'd really love to go there. And that's where we went. Talk about miracles. When you look back on your life and you see these things, you just go, thank you, God. Thank you God.

So we went to Oxford. Now 1845 seems pretty old, doesn't it, for Baylor? We talk about that all the time. It was in Texas, before it was even a state. My college at Oxford was Burton College, founded in 1264. The dining facility looked just like Harry Potter. It was so cool to study there. I had a project with Rolls Royce. I was looking at impingement cooling of tubine blades; three years to work on the same problem. But I loved doing it. I get close to the end of my time there and I get this phone call: “Hi, this is Roll Royce. Can you tell us what you'd recommend for the next target plate to impingement plate spacing in our new turbine blades that we're making?” So I went and presented my research to show them, and it was so cool to be able to do those kinds of things. I had a great time.

So after my PhD, we were back teaching again at the Air Force Academy for another four years. That ignited my passion because now I could see the path forward. I knew I could go teach and I loved doing it.

Then it came time to leave the Air Force. Now what do I do? I could fly for the airlines. I could go work for any of these engine companies. Or I could teach. I ended up coming to Baylor for my very first job interview of my entire life. In fact, I was in this exact same room [Rogers 109] where I’m giving this presentation. Talk about deja vu, right? Sure enough, Dean Bargainer gave me a job offer. Now I loved Baylor; I thought it was a great place.

And when I said that to Dean Bargainer, he said, “You'd really might like to go interview at a couple more schools.” Who tells you that? He goes, “Ken, the job's yours when you want it.” I didn't know how rare that was. I went to a couple other schools, but my heart was always being pulled back to Baylor. I loved the Christian mission. I loved being able to be who I was in the classroom with students. I love that. I couldn't do that at the Air Force Academy. So here we are 24 years later, still teaching. We have accomplished a lot. When you think about all the people's lives you've touched while you're here, that's a really, really exciting thing for me to think about. I wanted to be the best professor that I could be, like God wants us to be the most excellent that we can according to our abilities. If you ask Renee, what she would probably say is all we did in the last 24 years was write papers, but it's important that we share what we learned.

So here we are at Baylor in 1998. Look at the statistics; about 11,000 students, about 1,800 grad students, 460 in ECS. And we had only two departments, engineering and computer science. Five professors each for Mechanical Engineering Department and the Electrical and Computer Science Department. That was it. We graduated about 20 people a year…let that sink in. And we didn't have any graduate programs.

But look where we are today in 2023: a lot more undergraduates, a lot more graduate students. Our enrollment in the school of ECS more than double what it was. And you start to look at the three departments. In mechanical we have 24 faculty, and we graduate about a hundred a year on average from our department. That's amazing when you think about the growth over that time period.

So why come to Baylor? Well, not for the reasons why students come to Baylor now: strong focus on research, academic reputation, rigorous academics, and of course learning experience in Christian faith. That's all important, but in 1998 wasn't quite like that. In fact, I told people I was going to come teach engineering at Baylor, I was pretty excited, and was met with surprise because nobody knew about us. We've come a long way. People know Baylor now, but they didn't back then. But the Christian mission was very, very strong. And that's what attracted most of us to this place.

And since then, we’ve had the strategic vision, five year goals, Illuminate… we're setting high visions for what we're doing here at Baylor, and the reality is these are high goals, but if we seek God, Baylor will definitely be blessed. And Baylor has been blessed; we're in the top on all these lists of things. Best places to work, R1 research… all of these things are things that I think God has blessed us for because we have kept true to who we are, and we're trying to keep that true.

What makes us important is the importance of a Christian worldview. When you look at the Baylor University mission statement, you see “integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment in a caring university.” That's a big thing. And when I look at the school of Engineering and Computer Science, it says “professional practice and responsible leadership in a Christian worldview.” It's in there. And then when we look at the Mechanical Engineering mission statement “motivated by Christian ideals and a vocational calling to improve the quality of life worldwide.” Who doesn't want to be an engineer? Who doesn't want to be a mechanical engineer? Those are great things to think about. And when I first came here, we did a lot of thinking. We did a lot of talking and we wrote a lot of papers: integrating faith in the academic environment, integrating faith in the academic environment, best practices…

God created the universe of which I am a part. These beliefs, coupled with the knowledge and skills developed through the engineering curriculum, motivate me to live the life God would have me live engaged in the vocation of engineering to make a difference in the world according to his will.

Those are good words to live by. And I think we need to go back and really think hard about what that means to us. So we look at the world around us and we're inspired. I love the word biomimicry because we look at what's around us and we get inspired by God's creation to solve human design challenges. And they're difficult problems. What engineers do is solve these problems. I was an engineer. We're just excited to do things like that, right? “Oh, that's cool. Who knew I'd been doing this right now?” I didn't know.

So I'm going to tell you change is going to happen. Be ready for it. Be ready for it. When I went to school, I was issued one a slide rule.That's the best you could get. And the very next year Hewlett Packard came out with HP 45. It was so cool.  I got a calculator that added, subtracted, multiplied, divided. And then just a few years later, I got a computer. I couldn't afford a real Apple. 64K of memory in the computer. Two floppy disk drives. But today, look at what I’ve got today. I have a desktop, a laptop, a Surface pro, and a cell phone that just won't quit. This is made by Caterpillar. I bet you didn’t even know they made phones. It's indestructible. It has a FLIR infrared camera, a laser range finder and an air quality meter built in. Ask me if I need all this… But they're cool to have, right? It's all in a cell phone. And I have a watch now that's smarter than I am.

But the point is: change is going to happen, be ready for it. 65% of the children entering primary school will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don't even exist. So as faculty, we have to train our students to be able to handle these kind of changes. Students, you need to be lifelong learners so you can actually adapt when the markets change and your skills need to change. You’ve got to be ready. And that's what this is telling us.

There was a day where my life changed very much, very completely: the day my house burned down. Oh, I don't wish that on anybody. I was coming back from the Student Life Center. And Bob Doty, one of my colleagues, says, “you need to go home. Your house is on fire.” As I'm driving home, in the distance I see the mushroom cloud of smoke. And the whole time I'm driving home, I know that's my house. I know my house is burning. And it was so cool because all my pastors were there and all my friends were there. They got there before I did. A lot of them, knew about it before I did.

And pastor Mike Toby goes, “Hey, you need to stay at the mission home. Nobody's in it. You guys got the mission home for us.” So we stayed there for two months. Chris Kraus was a vice president here on campus. Chris said, “We have a house at Fort Faculty. You can go live on campus for a while.” God just brought all these things together for us. And you just kind of go, that's amazing. Fast forward. We have a house again today. Took a year, one of our people in our Sunday school class was an architect, and she said, I'll draw the plans for your house. So I learned a lot of things through this.

God is good all the time. Amen. All the time God is good. And we have to depend on that. I couldn't do it by myself. I was this big strong Air Force guy who was really used to doing a lot of things on my own, but I couldn't do it all. And I learned not to let pride get in the way. Cause when people need to help you, you’ve got to let them do it. And that's what I learned. Let people help you because they're blessed and you're blessed as well. So those are all things that I learned the hard way. I wish I learned that one earlier.

This whole time I've been talking about being the best, but it’s because it's ingrained in me and my Christian ethic. It's ingrained in me. In the Air Force, we had this: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. That was what we lived by in the United States Air Force. And so I applied that to the classroom, to research, and to service. I wanted to make sure that I was doing the best because I wanted to glorify God through all that.

Character counts. If you don't think it does, look at the world today. Your character is important. We have the professional ethics in engineering, but that's a minimum, right? Our Christian ethics far surpass what that is. And when I sit here and I go, why do I do what I do? What do I want to be known for? It's working for the Lord, not for men. It's working for the Lord rather than for people. I think every one of us ought to be thinking about that.

The American culture is really putting a lot of pressure on Christian institutions right now, and we need to withstand that. It's getting harder and harder to do, right? We need to hold true to those ideals. When I came to Baylor, this was our discussion, we were talking about what does it mean to be a Christian university in the Baptist tradition, and we had some great conversations about what Baylor should look like. I'm excited to see that we still have Christian commitment in our mission statement. We don't ever want to lose that.

We need to make sure that we hold fast to the biblical truth. And this is what we see in Pro Ecclesia, right? Pursuit of knowledge, strengthened by the conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God and by a Baptist heritage. The champions of religious liberty and freedom of consciousness. That's what we need to hold to. That's in our website, that's in our equation. For me, holding Christian principles and beliefs puts everything else in its place, and we need to remember that. It brings me joy in Baylor with what I do now.

One last thing: Relationships are our legacy. Relationships with God, with family, with colleagues, with students. That's our legacy that we leave behind. In conclusion, we all have a life story. Talk about it. Don't let it hide under the bushel. Share your faith and who you are. Our students want to know. Take time to reflect on who you are. Take time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. We have life lessons. All of us need to share those as well. And then have fun because there are great opportunities all around us. Thank you.