Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services


Engaging Engineering

Shepherding a new chemical engineering program to the College of Engineering, bringing more women into engineering fields and extolling the virtues of concrete are a few highlights from a conversation with JoAnn Browning, the David and Jennifer Spencer Distinguished Chair for the Dean of Engineering. With a desire to expand experiential learning for engineering students, community service and engagement are top priorities for Browning, who took her post at UTSA in August 2014.

JoAnn Browning, Dean College of Engineering

Do you have a philosophy for community engagement for yourself or the COE?
The number one thing that I always lead off with anytime I talk to students, to faculty, to our industry supporters, to people who want to hire our engineers or to people who use our faculty for experts for any reason is that the entire purpose for being an engineer is to help solve problems that are important to society. So by definition, engineering is community outreach. It has to be. Because any problem you're trying to solve, you have to understand the user needs before you can find a solution.

Where do you think the COE stands currently?
I find that UTSA is really engaged with San Antonio. I'd like to continue that. One of my main foci is to create student success in a way that increases experiential learning for our students. Experiential learning means getting out and learning things by doing them. We have community service as one of the elements of experiential learning that we want them to be able to experience, and that means sometimes having design projects in the class that reach out to the community and look for ways to improve whatever needs they have. When I was at [the University of Kansas], for example, we did a senior design project where the students had to learn structural design, and there was a couple that needed a footbridge built across a particularly murky area on their farm. So our students helped design and build that footbridge for them. I'd like to incorporate something like that into our senior design projects here.

What are some of the other elements?
The supplies were donated by doctors and dentists. But the costs of roughly $1,500 per student are an issue. The experience pays for itself, but it’s hard to convince people to spend this much just for the flight there.

It is a little broader than just working with the community, but under that student success umbrella we are launching soon a website for our students that points them to experiential learning being an important part of their education. There are five components— community service, internships, research experiences, international experience and being leaders in student organizations. We are telling them, "Yes, we want you to be technically sound, but we want you to have this experiential learning experience."

You are a part of several engineering organizations as well, including the American Concrete Institute, where you are on the board of directors, plus other roles. Why is that such an important aspect?
I am on one of the committees that, to me, is very special—the building code committee. There are 45 engineers on this committee who meet two or three times a year to come up with the provisions that we use to design new reinforced concrete buildings. So every single municipality in the United States uses this code to design safe buildings, and most of Latin America and some other parts of the world do as well. To me, that's very meaningful. I love working with concrete; that's a lot of fun. And I'm a professional engineer. It's important that I do something that also helps with the way the industry helps protect society.