ASEE President Walt Buchanan

By Kara Bounds Socol

Education leader, lifelong learner

The man leading the nation's most influential engineering education organization is perfect for the job. His insatiable love of learning has led him to his newest academic endeavor, taking the helm of the American Society for Engineering Education.

When Walter Buchanan attended his first American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference in 1985, he was a junior faculty member at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and a Texas A&M dean was soon to be ASEE president.

The ASEE annual conference returns to Atlanta in June 2013, and once again a Texas A&M professor will be president. This time, Buchanan himself will fill that position.

"Never could I imagine that the next time I went to the conference in Atlanta, I'd be president," says Buchanan, head of Texas A&M's Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution.

In its 120-year history, ASEE has elected four Texas A&M faculty members to its presidency. Only Penn State exceeds that number, with five presidents. Buchanan is only the second society president from the field of engineering technology.

Technological problem solvers

When the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the space race was on. This new era in engineering required a new type of engineer.

Since the 1940s, a basic form of engineering technology had been offered as a two-year technical program. But now the aeronautical industry needed people with the hands-on skills of an engineering technician coupled with the mathematical skills of a traditional engineer. The four-year engineering technology degree thus emerged.

Buchanan is a product of the space race era and knows firsthand how crucial the skills of a four-year engineering technology graduate can be.

In its 120-year history, ASEE has elected four Texas A&M faculty members to its presidency. Buchanan is only the second society president from the field of engineering technology.

Engineering technology, Buchanan says, prepares students to be technological problem solvers. The field focuses more on actual application than does traditional engineering, so its graduates are typically the ones closest to the production process. Their jobs often involve using both engineering principles and modern technology to improve production.

Engineering technology graduates apply modern technology to real-world technological problems, Buchanan explains. And students in the partner field of industrial distribution study technological subjects to succeed in manufacturing sales.

Doing what you enjoy 

Engineering didn't always interest Buchanan, but mathematics did. At Indiana University, he double-majored in mathematics and Russian and minored in astronomy, physics and German. When he graduated in 1963, the Martin Co. immediately offered him a job as an aerospace engineer. This first job, though, was not the result of the space race, but rather of the Cold War.

Perhaps nothing symbolized the fear of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union more than the 54 Titan II missile sites on alert across the United States. The Titan II could launch in 58 seconds and could deliver a nuclear warhead to targets more than 6,300 miles away. 

As a young engineer, Buchanan did system analysis on the Titan II missile program. But when Martin did not receive a Titan II follow-up contract, Buchanan moved to the Boeing Co., where an even more exciting project was taking shape: the Saturn V rocket program.

In his job as a systems analyst, Buchanan served as a mathematics liaison between the Saturn V programmers and electrical engineers. In 1969, this rocket would launch the spacecraft that would land men on the moon. But by then, Buchanan had moved on to his next challenge.

In 1965, the Vietnam War was raging and Buchanan wanted to be on the nuclear engineering side of things. He enlisted in the Navy, eventually serving on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, his last billet being to serve as its gunnery officer.

As an officer, Buchanan participated in courts martial when soldiers under his command got into trouble. The legal process fascinated him. Upon returning home, he decided, he would become an attorney.

"I didn’t consider it work. I treated it more like a hobby. If you do what you enjoy doing, it’s not work."

In 1970, Buchanan began working as an audit coordinator for the Indiana State Tax Board by day, and he studied law by night. Three years later, he graduated from law school and worked in administrative law for the Veterans Administration in Indianapolis.

But once again, Buchanan became restless. So he began taking night courses in engineering, thinking he would go into patent law. However, he enjoyed engineering so much that he never went back to law and went to work as an electronics engineer for the Naval Avionics Center. 

By 1993, Buchanan had earned five degrees (four of them in night school): a bachelor's degree in mathematics and Russian, a law degree, a bachelor's degree in engineering, a master's degree in engineering, and a doctoral degree in higher education. He's a member of the Indiana State Bar and is a registered professional engineer in six states.

"I didn't consider it work," Buchanan says of his educational pursuits. "I treated it more like a hobby. If you do what you enjoy doing, it's not work."

Influencing engineering education

With engineering degrees in hand, Buchanan says he was ready to teach others what real life had taught him.

Beginning as an assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Buchanan moved up the academic ladder, teaching at four more universities before securing the top engineering technology post at Texas A&M in 2005. In June 2012, the J.R. Thompson Endowed Chair took his post as ASEE president.

Focusing on the teaching of engineering and engineering technology, ASEE was founded more than a century ago. Although some engineering faculty members are involved in the organization, Buchanan says, many ASEE members work in engineering technology.

By 1993, Buchanan had earned five degrees: a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and Russian, a law degree, a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in engineering, and a doctoral degree in higher education.

"In engineering technology, the focus is more on teaching than on research," he says. "Our faculty on the average teach two times as many classes as engineering faculty, but we only do half the amount of research."

While serving as president, Buchanan will travel extensively for a year, speaking at university conferences around the globe. He says he'd also like to use his influence to help students afford college, particularly through online courses and transfers from two-year to four-year programs. 

Also critical, Buchanan says, is to excite elementary and secondary schoolchildren about engineering. He hopes to do so by encouraging ASEE members to become active in these schools, whether through classroom presentations or simply by judging science fairs.

Buchanan jokes about how his life has come full circle since he earned his first bachelor's degree. As a college senior, he was saving up for a trip to Russia after graduation. But as so often happens, life put his plans on hold—for almost five decades.

But the wait will soon be over. In November, Buchanan will travel to Kazan, Russia, as part of his ASEE duties.

"I never dreamed that when I went to Russia, it would be 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and they would be paying me to go there," he says.

Dr. Walter Buchanan
Dr. Walter Buchanan, P.E.
Department Head
J.R. Thompson Endowed Chair
Engineering Technology & Industrial Distribution