Barry McNamara  |   Published September 26, 2019

Bringing Engineering to the Liberal Arts

New professor John Iselin on the ground floor of College’s ambitious engineering program.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – While tinkering in his father’s workshop and sailing on the open water, John Iselin developed a love of engineering.

He also has a passion for teaching college students.

Iselin is bringing those passions together as the first professor in Monmouth College’s new engineering program.

JOHN ISELIN: ?We're looking for those well-rounded, kind of Renaissance students who want to be a... JOHN ISELIN: “We're looking for those well-rounded, kind of Renaissance students who want to be able to do multiple different things while they're in college.”“My passion has always been high-quality undergraduate education,” said Iselin, who earned his doctoral degree at Iowa State University and has taught at Bucknell (Pa.) University and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “The reason I went to get my Ph.D. initially was so that I could teach engineering at places like Monmouth.”

Defining engineering

Iselin is quickly getting to know Monmouth’s students well, which is something he missed while teaching ever-expanding groups of students at Platteville. He’s also been busy communicating the message of what exactly engineering is, and why it will benefit current and future Monmouth students.

“Scientists discover what is,” said Iselin, paraphrasing one of his favorite quotations by Theodore von Kármán. “The engineer creates what has never been. … We’re about creating things and systems for the benefit of humans.”

Although the explanation is simple enough, Iselin said communicating the essence of engineering is still a challenge.

“People say, ‘Oh, yeah, those are really good jobs. That’s a great profession,’” he said. “But when you really press them, and you ask, ‘What do you think engineers do?’ they say, ‘I don’t know.’

“Engineers are always analyzing and looking for ways to improve the things and systems around them. Engineers break large tasks into smaller pieces, understanding and improving the smaller components, and then putting back them back together again at the end.”

The new professor called engineering a “creative” subject.

“Engineers devise innovative products and systems that hopefully make the world a better place for all. We can’t be creative like maybe the artist or the poet is – they can create a world that defies physical laws. Think of Harry Potter. Engineering is a creative subject, but we can’t defy the physical laws. We have to work within the constraints of what nature has given us to work with.”

A fit for Monmouth

Iselin said engineering is a good fit for Monmouth, because working as an engineer requires understanding of not just the technological aspects, but also the impacts on society, culture and the environment.

“Most technological endeavors don’t fail because of the technology,” he said. “They fail because of lack of funding, political will, marketing, popular support, etc., which some consider external type of things. Engineering needs to consider all these aspects.

“It’s all those things that Monmouth College talks about when we talk about giving students a global, societal and very wide education that’s informed from many different areas. Monmouth is a great place for this because we’re really looking to not put engineering on the side of the liberal arts education, but to really have it be integrated with the liberal arts education.”

Setting sail for Illinois

Within the field of engineering, Iselin’s area of specialty is fluid dynamics, which deals with the motion of liquid and gases. Specifically, he deals with the computational side of the interest, using computers to simulate fluid flow.

One of his lifelong hobbies is related to his specialty, as Iselin has enjoyed sailing for the past 40 years.

“Sailboats are very mechanical devices, and there are a lot of engineering principles involved in sailing,” he said. “So when I went to engineering school at the University of Dayton, fluid dynamics was something I gravitated toward.”

Those sailing excursions have gone on for years despite the fact that Iselin has been located primarily in the Midwest, studying in Ohio and Iowa and working in Wisconsin, including the last five years in industry in the Milwaukee area. This is his first time living and working in the Land of Lincoln.

“Before this, Illinois was always the state we drove through to get someplace else,” he joked.

Iselin called his time in Milwaukee “very educational, but I missed the students a lot. I thought, ‘Let’s go someplace where we can start something new.’”

And he’s looking for students to join him in the new adventure.

“We’re looking for students who want to be on the ground floor of something new and who have a passion for being creative – who have some talent in math and science. We’re looking for those well-rounded, kind of Renaissance students who want to be able to do multiple different things while they’re in college.”

Listen Up …

Hear John Iselin talk about his vision for the engineering program on the 1853 Podcast; interview begins at the 1:06 mark of the episode.

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