James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 14th installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Military Career Groomed Harper For Teaching

Growing up in a military family and then having a career in the military prepared Dr. Steven Harper well for handling change and adapting to new things. So the prospect of joining the faculty in a new engineering program that approached teaching the discipline in new ways did not cause him any pause.

"Being new for me is good," said Harper, an assistant professor of engineering who retired from the Navy as a commander in 2002. "I'm not afraid of things changing. In fact, I think it's necessary or you get stagnant. So you have to keep changing to keep growing; to keep learning."

PHOTO: Steven HarperHarper clearly has an appetite for learning. He began his college career at the University of California at Berkeley on a Navy ROTC scholarship, where he studied engineering physics. He chose engineering, he said, because he had an aptitude for it. "My father was an engineer and was in the Navy too. I thought it was great when I got into it and started to do things."

After getting his bachelor's degree in 1981, Harper began his military career working on nuclear submarines. He was even interviewed by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy. Before he could be stationed on a sub, though, he had to attend the U.S. Naval Submarine School and the Nuclear Propulsion Program. Harper said the school resembled a graduate program in nuclear power engineering. The school consisted of six months of classroom learning and then six months training in a prototype nuclear power plant.

"For the officers, you do all the jobs throughout the plant to learn how things are done so when you give orders you can hopefully recognize when things are going right and things are going wrong outside of the control room," he said.

Five years after the submarine school, Harper returned to a university, this time teaching in the ROTC program at the University of Virginia while simultaneously earning a master's degree in electrical engineering. It was during that time that he realized how much he enjoyed teaching.

"I thought it was a great life," he said. "It was lots of fun, so I decided I wanted to get back to it sometime. So I guess I caught the teaching bug there."

PHOTO: Steven HarperIn 1994, Harper entered the Naval War College, where he studied national security and strategic studies. In 2003, following his retirement from the Navy, he went to the University of Illinois for a master's degree in business administration and then a doctorate in systems and entrepreneurial engineering,

When he came to JMU in 2007, he taught in the College of Business. For the past three years, he has been assigned to the Department of Engineering to teach the business side of engineering. He teaches a two course sequence in engineering management.

"The first one is product development and entrepreneurial engineering to give the students a feel for the business side of what they're going to be doing once they get a job," Harper said. "That's for the sophomores in the spring, and then in the fall I teach a project management course to the juniors, which corresponds to the beginning of their capstone project."

Outside the classroom, Harper said he enjoys being a handy man around the house and reading. But it seems he's never far from a classroom. In addition to teaching in the Department of Engineering, Harper also teaches project management, operations management and quality assurance in the senior managers course run by the Center of International Stabilization and Recovery at JMU. The program trains managers in charge of mine removal and weapons abatement programs in more than 30 countries.

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