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Riley ready to lead as dean of the School of Engineering

March 31, 2023 - by Kim Delker

photo: Donna Riley
Donna Riley

Donna Riley, a recognized leader in engineering education and in bringing diverse views into the field of engineering, begins April 1 as the Jim and Ellen King Dean of Engineering and Computing at The University of New Mexico.

She is the 22nd — and first female — dean of the School of Engineering, which was founded in 1906. She also holds the rank of professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at UNM.

She joins UNM from Purdue University, where she was the Kamyar Haghighi Head and Professor in the School of Engineering Education since 2017. She previously was professor and interim head in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, and from 2013-2015 served as program director for engineering education at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Riley spent 13 years as a founding faculty member of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college. She is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and recently was elected as vice president of scholarship for ASEE, a two-year term beginning at the 2023 ASEE Conference and Expo in Baltimore in June.

Riley’s research focuses on the field of engineering education, especially the integration of ethics, communication, social analysis, lifelong learning and how those skillsets help in the formation of engineering professionals. She is the author of two books, Engineering and Social Justice and Engineering Thermodynamics and 21st Century Energy Problems. She is the recipient of the 2016 Alfred N. Goldsmith Award from the IEEE Professional Communications Society, the 2012 Sterling Olmsted Award from ASEE, and the 2010 Educator of the Year award from Out to Innovate.

While she was at Smith, she received an NSF CAREER Award in 2005 for “Liberative Pedagogies in Engineering Education.” The award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of early career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.

For early-career faculty, especially those with an eye toward advancing their research and academic administrative careers, the NSF CAREER Award is a highly sought-after credential, and Riley of course was interested in seeking the award. However, due to her initial scholarly interests in transdisciplinary approaches to environmental justice, she was discouraged to learn her topic fell in between two funding directorates at the National Science Foundation.

“I was told that I could never win a CAREER Award because my research didn’t fit into one of the predetermined categories. They told me not to apply. I was crushed.”

But thanks to her connections with some mentors and professionals in the engineering education arena, she was encouraged to pursue an award after learning there was a new engineering education category. Riley drew on innovative approaches to teaching engineering that she had been exploring in Smith’s new engineering program, drawing both inspiration and encouragement from author bell hooks, with whom she had a conversation during one of hooks’s visits to Smith. Riley said hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, had a profound impact on her, and she shared some of her ideas sparked by the book with the author.

When she told hooks her thoughts about what eventually became the subject of her CAREER Award — developing critical pedagogies for engineering classroom implementations — the trailblazing author and academic gave her the validation that helped her find success.

She said, ‘You have to write about this.’ And so I did, and it became my NSF CAREER Award project,” Riley said. “It was a bit of an unusual experience that led me to win the award.”

Riley was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it was actually the city’s legendary smog that first piqued her interest in engineering and environmental concerns. Her father was a first-generation college graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from what is now Missouri S&T and pursuing a career in the oil and gas industry.

Taking his advice, she also pursued chemical engineering, earning a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. Having a passion for environmental science and the ways that engineering and policy intersect, she earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in engineering and public policy.

Always curious about fields outside engineering, Riley enjoyed taking various courses in social sciences and not only found the subject matter engaging, but also the teaching methods. She noticed a marked difference in the way a literature course that is focused on ideas and questions and discussion was presented in comparison to a typical engineering course, which often is presented in a one-way lecture style.

“I kept thinking, ‘How do I teach more like they do in the social sciences?’ ” That is really what got me interested in the field of engineering education.”

While being a dean is a new role for Riley, she said she and her female assistant professor colleagues at Smith started preparing early, connecting with a network of female academics and deans of engineering who have served as mentors through the years.

Although as a female in engineering she is used to being one of the only women in a room (she was the only female department head in the College of Engineering at Purdue), coming in as the first woman dean of UNM Engineering will be a new milestone: “This will be the first time I’m a first.”

One of the things she liked about UNM was that the university is open to change and new ideas, and that is no different in the traditionally male field of engineering.

“Many of the university’s leaders are female — including some who are engineers — so I think UNM is ready for it,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”

Riley and her spouse are looking forward to enjoying some things she couldn’t experience in the Midwest: New Mexican culture and learning about xeriscaping. She also enjoys hiking, running, art, food (“both cooking and eating”) and crafting, especially knitting.

As dean, she is ready to hit the ground running the next few weeks with a listening tour to gather information about the School of Engineering’s successes, opportunities, challenges and more. She will then synthesize that feedback into a comprehensive plan that will guide her priorities for the School.

She will be fine-tuning her priorities over the coming months, but two areas she wants to focus on are creating and growing partnerships for research, economic development, and education, and inclusive excellence, including how we can own the fact that we are both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an R1 institution where impactful research is key.

UNM’s 2040 goals will be front and center as well.

“UNM 2040 was one of things that excited me about UNM,” she said. “There is a clarity of purpose and vision, with a focus on how to use discovery, learning, and engagement to improve lives while also leveraging inclusive excellence.”

While she expects some new focuses, she said the vision of the School of Engineering will likely have a lot of familiar aspects to it.

“I believe in not fixing what isn’t broken,” she said. “I look forward to the challenge of bringing together different perspectives of various groups, both internal and external, to move us forward toward a common goal.”

A continued emphasis on building UNM and the School of Engineering as a leader will undoubtedly be a priority for Riley.

“We have to remind ourselves why we are here. We are here for the students, and for the people of New Mexico, to improve lives and further economic development,” she said. “We have got to have a better-prepared workforce. This has to be a collaborative effort, and with UNM as the state’s flagship institution, it is our role to take the lead.”