The Final Frontier: A Longtime UT Engineering Professor Bids Farewell

It was 1957, and Wallace Fowler’s life was about to be altered forever. A self-proclaimed airplane nut and a recent high school graduate, Fowler, BA ’60, MS ’61, PhD ’65, Life Member, was arriving on the Forty Acres to major in mathematics. Simultaneously, on the other side of the world, the Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, sending the world into an all-out space race.

As the U.S. government began investing in engineering and mathematics, UT developed a space-related section in the engineering department. After getting his doctorate in engineering mechanics in 1965, Fowler joined the recently created Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics full time. He’d remain at UT for the next 50 years.

“I could’ve gone out and worked” Fowler says. “But I thought it’d be better to try and send out a bunch of good people.”

Now Fowler, who holds the Paul D. & Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professorship in Engineering, is retiring. His research in orbital mechanics has focused on spacecraft design and modeling and planetary exploration systems. Throughout his career, he’s served as associate director and director of the NASA Texas Space Grant Consortium, published more than 50 articles, and co-authored three books. The Alcalde spoke with Fowler about his time on the Forty Acres.

What drew you to teaching?

In 1963, while I was a grad student, the head of the engineering mechanics department had a National Science Foundation grant to instruct community college teachers and junior college teachers on how we taught basic engineering courses. He had this project in which we would lecture every other weekend, and he asked me to be his teaching assistant. So there I was on Saturdays leading 25 participants, some of whom had maybe 20 or 30 years of  teaching experience. I had a year-long internship on how to teach engineering. I think they learned a little bit and I learned a lot. It was a unique experience that pointed me in the right direction.

What are some of your favorite memories as a professor?

There was a fellow in the early 1970s. He was older than every student. It was an experimental teaching course, and we would grade the exams in front of the students. I just offhandedly mentioned the Pythagorean theorem, and he said, “The what?” He said he’d never heard those words in his life. He had been the slowest student in the class, and he came back in the next day and said, “Did you know you can do almost all of trigonometry with that Pythagorean theorem?” Four weeks later he was the fastest guy in the class. We had found a missing brick in his foundation. Once the brick was there, he took off like a rocket. Maybe for a lot of people there is a missing brick in their foundation, and if you can find that brick, the person that was a poor student becomes a really good student.

What has been the most rewarding part about being a UT professor?

You feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives. You bring in freshmen that are basically very weak in their engineering background, and you turn out people who can go out and do real engineering at the end of their four to six years. You end up developing human talent over anything else.

But the neatest thing about being at the university is that you never realize you’re getting old. You’re working with people in their early 20s your entire career, and you never realize that you’re older than they are. That’s a fantastic feeling. I’m 78, and I know people my age who don’t know how to use computers, and I probably use half a dozen different computer applications every day. Staying up with the world around you is a necessity if you’re teaching at a university, especially in engineering.

What are your plans after you retire?

I’m going to continue research. I’m a pack rat. I’m going to pull together material that I’ve accumulated over the years and try to put it in a form that’s usable to other orbital mechanics and space-related faculty members. I’m going to continue to work at the Center for Space Research.

What are some significant ways you’ve seen UT change over the years?

As I tell people, the only thing I’ve seen that’s been constant at UT has been “The Hole.” The Hole appears in the ground, and they put a building in it, and The Hole crawls somewhere else, and they put a building in it. That hole has been around forever. It’s just a migratory hole that moves around campus. When I first came here, there were 17,000 students. When I registered, Gregory Gym did not have air conditioning and we sat in the bleachers and pulled an IBM card for each course, and you hoped the section was open. I once waited a day and a half for a class. Registration is totally different, and the campus is totally different.

Which of your many awards are you most proud of?

The Academy of Distinguished Teachers Award. It recognized the thing I was doing. My focus has always been: It’s not me, it’s the students. I’m not important in the classroom. If there’s a failure to communicate, it’s my failure, not theirs. Teaching to me has been probably more important even than the research because you turn out say 50 people. They can do a lot more than just one of you does.    

What do you want your students to know as they move forward?

I want the best for all of them. When they say, “What should I do?” I say to find something to do with your life you would do even if you weren’t paid to do it. Then figure out a way to get them to pay you to do it. That’s how you win the game of life. And I feel like I won. Teaching is something I would do even if they didn’t pay me to do it.

Photo courtesy of Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, UT-Austin


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