James Madison University

LOGO: JMUAbout this series: This is the fourth 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.

Hands-on Learning Philosophy Brought Holland Back to JMU

A project to build and launch a rocket didn't exactly propel him into teaching, but Dr. Keith Holland said it did light a spark.

"My goal was to get my master’s degree and go on to industry, but through that project, that was where I really got involved with students. I really enjoyed my time working with them," said Holland, a 2000 ISAT graduate who is in his third year as an assistant professor of engineering.

Holland was working on his master's degree at the University of Virginia when he and about 30 undergraduate students supporting his research built the rocket and launched it from Wallops Island. The undergraduates were responsible for designing and building the 22-foot-tall rocket, which carried an infra-red sensor Holland designed to monitor carbon monoxide in the atmosphere.

PHOTO: Keith HollandWhile his career path may have deviated a bit from what he expected, his interest in mechanical things has not. Holland says that interest started as a child when he would spend time with his grandfather, who had a lot of gardening and farming machinery. "He wouldn’t take anything to a mechanic, he would fix it himself," said Holland, who became fascinated by the gears and other working parts.

In school, Holland liked science and math and when the time came to look for colleges, he became interested in a relatively new program at JMU called integrated science and technology. "I really liked what they were trying to do with the ISAT program. The things that really impressed me about JMU were the hands-on projects and the attention that was provided by the faculty members," he said. "It turns out that my ISAT degree was very helpful because a lot of what I did in graduate school, although I have a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, was quite multi-disciplinary."

Holland said he was ready to start a career after finishing his master's degree, but his advisor talked him into staying one more year to get his doctorate. When told of his decision, Holland said, his mother joked that with the doctorate, he could return to JMU to teach—something he didn't consider likely.

While in the Ph.D. program, Holland and his advisor developed environmental sensor technology that they turned into a business. Their initial design led to sensor equipment that could measure and quantify emissions from smoke stacks, something the Environmental Protection Agency could use from a distance without gaining access to factory property. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks , they adapted the technology so it could detect chemicals that could be used in chemical attacks. The sensors could be used to protect both military and civilian populations, Holland said.

PHOTO: Keith HollandAfter six years, the company's funding began drying up and its future was a bit uncertain. Holland had been keeping in touch with faculty he knew at JMU and decided to apply for a teaching position in the newly formed Department of Engineering. "I really loved what the program was all about, especially the application portion of the program and trying to take the theory and really have students experience applying engineering knowledge to solving complex problems," he said.

One of the most rewarding teaching experiences so far, Holland said, was designing the Engineering 313 course, a course on circuits and instrumentation. The course is based on a mix of what he observed other programs doing and his own experiences. After spending the beginning of the course learning theory, the students put what they learn to practice in the final three weeks by building something. "They build some circuits and use some sensors to do something and it’s kind of open ended," Holland said. "They can do anything they want, but it’s all based on the material taught in the course."

As for the future of the first graduates from the Department of Engineering, Holland said the possibilities are numerous. "The feedback that we're hearing from the industry partners that we work with is that an engineer who is trained as a generalist and has the ability to analyze complex problems is incredibly valuable, especially in today’s market. "

And perhaps some future engineering teachers as well.

Series At A Glance