• Spring 2012

    Volume 34, Number 3

    Virginia Tech Magazine, spring 2012
  • Gary Downey

    • Internationally recognized as a leader in engineering studies, committed to asking questions such as "What is engineering for?" and "What are engineers for?"

    • Alumni Distinguished Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS), affiliated professor in women's and gender studies, sociology, and engineering education

    • Outstanding Faculty Award, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 2011

    • Virginia Tech awards: William E. Wine Award, 2004; XCaliber Award for high-quality instructional technology, 2003; Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, 1997

    • Author or editor of four books and three special journal issues, including "The Machine in Me: An Anthropologist Sits Among Computer Engineers"


    Spring 2012

    The Science of Inspiration: Hokies envision the next space odyssey

    Automatic: Like many others in the region, robotics company thrives

    We Remember: The fifth anniversary of April 16

    Who's Running the Country? How political appointees impact government performance

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    Gary Downey

    When Worlds Collide

    by Sarah Fitzgerald Gary Downey; photo by Logan Wallace.

    LEANING INTO LIFE: Around Blacksburg, Gary Downey is known for his moped—and his sense of humor.

    Snowflakes fell gently outside a Lane Hall classroom on a Wednesday morning. Inside, as graduate students filtered in, Gary Downey prepared for another educational expedition. The Alumni Distinguished Professor of Science and Technology in Society (STS) guided the students through "check-in": Each person shared stories, issues, or concerns, weaving an oral tapestry that depicted their intersecting and divergent paths of life.

    "Each class is an experiment. I never know where it's going to go, and that's incredibly exciting," said Downey. "I'm challenging students to become critical of their own knowledge and values and to understand the world through others' eyes, and I get to learn from them in the process."

    These expeditions into the minds of his students have become a trademark of Downey's teaching. Investigating how knowledge shapes people has allowed him to link research, service, and teaching, and his dedication earned him the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia's 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award.

    As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, Downey began his studies in mechanical engineering. But his interest in controversies over nuclear power and the environment would reshape his educational trajectory.

    "I understood everyone's arguments, both for and against, because I was well-trained in a technical sense as an engineer," said Downey. "What I couldn't understand is why they were arguing. What was at stake, politically or ideologically? The more I studied the debates, the more I got interested in the social dimensions of the issues at hand, and that really changed things for me."

    Downey transferred into a five-year program that led to degrees in both engineering and social relations and then took a "flying leap," as he called it, into cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. Uniting the technical nature of engineering with liberal arts took full flight when Downey, teaching STS at Tech, decided to focus on the study of engineers themselves. He wanted to delve more deeply into a personal observation—that an engineer's technical thinking process often relies on solving a problem rather than thinking about how the problem is defined and how others might define it.

    "I often found that, for me as well as many other engineers, we're learning to solve problems and get [the answer] right. It's either right or it's wrong. You do this enough times, there's a predisposition, a tendency, to divide the world into two parts: right and wrong. I became interested in how engineers can learn to work effectively with both engineers and non-engineers who define problems in a different way than they do."

    Downey's inventive interdisciplinary approach played a foundational role in the developing field of engineering studies, which draws on but extends beyond STS. As his teaching assistant, Tom Faigle, said, the field "explores the questions that engineers often ask but don't have the [time or training] to explore."

    Sumitra Nair, a Ph.D. advisee of Downey, admired his professor's approach. "His view that ‘we're all in this together' … tells us that there is value in re-examining ideas, to never assume we know something fully from the inside out."

    In his construction of the engineering studies field, Downey first developed a new course, Engineering Cultures. By composing video lectures and making them available online at no charge, Downey extended his lessons beyond Blacksburg. Since the 1990s, more than 10,000 students and engineers from all over the world have benefitted from Downey's teachings; and as the class's popularity grew, so did interest in expansion of the field. The professor's focus on contrasting perspectives caught the eye of the departments of sociology, women's and gender studies, and engineering education at Tech, all of which extended him the title of affiliated professor.

    Downey built the infrastructure for an entire professional society as founding organizer of the International Network for Engineering Studies. He is also founding editor of the organization's journal, Engineering Studies, and editor of a book series by the same title—all in addition to a frenzied schedule of workshops, lectures, research publications, and teaching. While many may find his undertakings and accomplishments overwhelming, Downey said there is much more to do.

    "My ambitions far exceed my capabilities; the work is just getting going. I'm proud, in a way, of having solved a difficult identity crisis I long had, as an engineer who was also an anthropologist and an STS scholar, [of] how to pull that all together.

    But the real challenge is to make a difference, both in the world of engineering and in the worlds in which people deal with the effects of engineering."

    Downey's enthusiasm for bringing students' points of view alive also inspires other teachers. He mentors Saul Halfon, an associate professor in STS who recognizes the precedent Downey sets.

    "He represents the best of what faculty teaching and scholarship should be," said Halfon. "[Downey] sets a tone that is very much about caring for the students. He's developed an inward focus on student education and research within the department and the university, and he combines that with a strong outward focus toward building an academic field."

    In 2007, while compiling an advisory committee for his doctoral studies in STS, Faigle initially was nervous about meeting a tenured professor of Downey's stature. But Faigle discovered a professor who worked tirelessly to further STS and engineering studies—and who had an even more important quality. "Dr. Downey always asks me about my son before anything else when we meet," Faigle said, "this is the greatest compliment that anyone can show me as a parent, as it's a sign that he cares about not only my research and work but the things that matter to me most."

    Though Downey has already shaped engineering studies and STS in significant ways, many pathways remain uncharted. While helping students figure out where they want to go and how to get there, Downey eagerly challenges himself as well.

    "I view myself as this working-class kid from Pittsburgh who gets to interact every day with an amazing range of talented and interesting people. I didn't know back then that all these worlds existed. Exploring them has been a great adventure, and it continues to be—I don't want it to end."

    Sarah Fitzgerald, a junior majoring in communication and English, is an intern with Virginia Tech Magazine.

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