Virginia Tech's Gary Downey receives commonwealth's highest faculty honor
Gary Downey, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, will be honored with the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award, the Commonwealth’s highest honor for faculty.
Recognized internationally as founding leader of a unique interdisciplinary field called Engineering Studies, Downey will be honored for excellence in teaching, research, and public service by Governor Robert F. McDonnell in front of the General Assembly on Thursday, Feb. 17. Downey, also an affiliated professor in engineering education, women’s and gender studies, and sociology, emerged as the highest-rated nominee out of 106 faculty members nominated from a dozen higher education institutions across the state.
The Outstanding Faculty Award program, now in its 25th year, is administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and funded by a grant from the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion.
Trained as a mechanical engineer and cultural anthropologist, Downey integrates research with pedagogy in what he calls “critical participation in broader discussions and debates about engineering education, research, practice, policy, and representation.”
"Downey is highly respected in science and technology studies and engineering education for his research examining relationships between the technical and the nontechnical dimensions of engineering education and practice and how these change over time and from place to place," said Sue Ott Rowlands, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
“Downey has bridged a daunting gap in higher education between engineering and the liberal arts,” said Ellsworth Fuhrman, chair of the Department of Science and Technology in Society. “His innovative approach to engineering education enables learners to better understand and analyze the broader value commitments in their technical work.”
In early research, Downey noted that “learning engineering challenges and shapes students as people.” His in-depth ethnography The Machine in Me: An Anthropologist Sits Among Computer Engineers won praise from reviewers for mapping the value tensions experienced by students and researchers who commit their careers to computer-aided design. Paul Rabinow, University of California at Berkeley, wrote, “Engaged in earnest and honest dialogue with the engineers he studies ... Downey shows us from the inside what working within a technology means to the lives of these engineers.”
This research led Downey to develop the award-winning course, Engineering Cultures. The course helps students become critical analysts of their own knowledge and values by learning that being an engineer has varied dramatically from country to country and over time. Since the 1990s, the course has helped more than 10,000 students and engineers prepare to work effectively with people who understand their work differently, especially in international settings.
Downey nurtured Engineering Studies by publishing synthetic reviews of research, founding the International Network for Engineering Studies, and then founding and editing the journal Engineering Studies and book series at both MIT Press and Morgan & Claypool Publishers.
Through publications, workshops, and distinguished lectures, Downey is undertaking a transformative project to redefine engineering as both problem solving and problem definition. His current book manuscript shows that when educators teach the mathematical engineering sciences they are also teaching social values. Gary Gabriele, former National Science Foundation division director and current engineering dean at Villanova, writes, “[I]f we are truly able to transform engineering education for the 21st century, we will look back at [Downey’s] writing as the seminal work that defined what we should be doing.”
Downey, a member of the Virginia Tech faculty for 27 years, has been a key curricular architect of Virginia Tech’s program in Science and Technology Studies. He has designed 15 new courses, and led two complete revisions of the Ph.D. program.
Downey completed his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and earned a pair of bachelor degrees from Lehigh University. His 55 publications include four books, three special journal issues, 22 articles in refereed journals, and 12 book chapters. He has received 17 external grants totaling $1.3 million. He has served on 79 Ph.D. and master's committees, including 40 as chair.
Elected Fellow of the American Anthropological Association, he is also winner of the American Society for Engineering Education’s Sterling Omsted Award, recognizing “distinguished contributions to liberal education in engineering education.” At Virginia Tech, he won the William E. Wine Award for career excellence in teaching, the XCaliber Award for excellence in teaching with technology, the Graduate School award for best dissertation advisor, and the Edward S. Diggs Teaching Scholars Award for innovative scholarship in teaching.