Tim Healy–The Spark in Electrical Engineering for 50 Years
Tim Healy is a live wire. Ideas swarm in his brain like extra electrons in his outer valence band, and for five decades, he’s brought that spark and connection to the SCU electrical engineering faculty. Respected, revered, and treasured by students and colleagues alike, with his impish smile, bright blue eyes, and inquisitive and thoughtful nature, Healy is the go-to guy for everything from deep discussions on the future of engineering to pedagogical advice or recipes for dinner. If he’s not in the classroom, lab, or outside assisting students with an experiment, he’s in his office with the door open—welcoming you to stop in for a chat. Dean Godfrey Mungal says, “While Tim Healy may be among the oldest of the faculty, he is among the youngest at heart, as demonstrated by his creation of the Latimer Energy Laboratory in 2012 and his enthusiastic adoption of active learning methods.”
Recently, Heidi Williams, director of communications for the School of Engineering, interviewed Healy about his half century at SCU.
Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like, and was anyone in your family an engineer?
I grew up in Bellingham, Washington; born during a lightning storm, I’m told—I don’t recall it, myself. My parents were both lawyers, educated at the University of Washington. My uncle, who turned out to be something of a figurehead for me, wasn’t an engineer exactly, he was a contractor, so he built buildings. He worked on the State Prison in Walla Walla, Washington; he worked on various shipyards in Portland; and I really had a lot of respect for him. And because of him—because of his contracting work—I started out at the University of Washington as a civil engineering student.
The first day of class my father died. My father was a very, very strict, strong person and was the guiding force around the house. He told everybody what to do. I hadn’t grown up with enough self-control, so I kind of blew off the first year, and I more or less flunked out of the freshman year at the University of Washington.
So I got drafted into the Navy. Went in during the Korean War and the Navy sent me to electronics school. I spent nine months’ wonderful duty on Treasure Island in San Francisco [where] they taught me all about electronics, and then I wandered around the Western Pacific on an aircraft carrier for 14 months and loved it. When I got out I decided to go back to school and study electrical engineering. So I went to Seattle University, where I met my wife, Mary. We enjoyed life, did a lot of hiking, and got married in 1958, after I finished my degree.
How did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?
Well, I had a scholarship to go to Stanford. So we moved down to Stanford, a little place called Barron Park just south of Palo Alto. And I took a year there to get an M.S. degree. At the end of the year I was offered a job back at Seattle University, but I turned it down because I wanted a year of experience in industry. I went to work for a company called Sperry Gyroscope, which was located in Sunnyvale, in a wide open field with nothing but fruit trees around it—no houses, no development, just fruit trees and open ground. I worked for them for a year, had a good time. And then I got a second offer from Seattle University. So I went up there and taught for four years. It became obvious to me that I probably couldn’t teach forever with an M.S. degree, so I decided to get a Ph.D. So Mary and I and our daughter Peggy went trekking off to Colorado and spent two years there, which we loved. Had a wonderful time—we liked Boulder—and I got the Ph.D. in 1966.
During that time, I was theoretically on a leave of absence from Seattle University, and I was supposed to return, but I ended up finishing in two years instead of the expected three. [When] I wrote them a letter and said I was all ready to come back next fall, they wrote me back and said, “Well, we don’t have an open line for this fall.” So I went out and looked for a job and found two places of interest. One was Boston University—not Boston College, they don’t have engineering—and the other was Santa Clara.
So I came out here in February. Everybody ought to interview out here in February—especially if you’re from the East Coast, which I wasn’t, but I was from rainy Seattle. So, I loved it. I never did go check out Boston University despite a very nice letter offering to welcome me “to the land of the bean and the cod.” [By the time I eventually got a contract from Seattle University, I was kind of committed to Santa Clara. And Mary was not a fan of the rain; she didn’t really want to go back up to Seattle. So it was an easy decision; we decided to come down here.
What was your outlook on engineering education when you first started teaching?
[Laughing] I don’t think I had an outlook. That developed only later on. I just liked to teach. I think it’s just a natural thing for me. I don’t know why, but I enjoy teaching. I think I was just born to teach.
I’ve taught a lot of different things. I taught a course for OSHER [Santa Clara’s lifelong learning center] once on “The Nature of the Brain,” and all I can say is, I hope that none of the people who took that course ever were brain surgeons! Anyway, I just like to teach things. I have a new course in my mind right now. I’d like to teach a course about two women from British Columbia. One is Margaret Craven who wrote I Heard the Owl Call My Name, and the other is Emily Carr, who is perhaps the most competent painter in all of Canadian history—not woman painter; painter. Both of them attempted to capture the waning years of the First Nations people in British Columbia. I just like putting things like that together.
So you said you only developed an outlook on engineering education over time?
Yes, particularly in the last ten years when there has been so much interest in how to teach best and the recent interest in active learning. I never had any sense for the first 40 years I taught that there was a difference between ways to teach to kids. I just taught along, and I used basically a lecturing format. I was the “sage on the stage,” as folks around here who like to talk about teaching distinguish between the “sage on the stage” and the “guide on the side,” and I never thought about any of that stuff. I got up there and lectured. And I love lecturing. While I bought into the active learning style later on, I loved just sitting there and talking to these kids for 50 minutes. So in a way I was kind of sorry to see that go, but I enjoy now the active learning very, very much. It’s a different kind of teaching, and I believe in it. I believe in getting the student involved instead of letting them listen to you. Now, whether or not it makes all that much difference in their learning, I’m not so sure. If people who are deep into engineering teaching techniques talk about how much better it is to teach this way or that way, I keep thinking, well look, we built the 20th century on a straight lecture method pretty much, and the 20th century was a pretty successful era in engineering. So I don’t know. I believe today in active learning techniques and getting students involved, and that’s fine.
How has SCU changed over the past five decades?
Lots and lots of ways. The obvious one is that when I got here there were essentially no women. There was one woman in civil engineering [with whom] I had no contact and didn’t know very much. Then this gradually began to change. In the ’70s a few women came along, and by the ’80s or so they were probably up to around 30 percent of the engineering student population. Lee Hornberger [associate professor of mechanical engineering 1992–2005, associate dean of graduate studies 1998–2002] was very, very successful in encouraging women to come here. [At] first it was pretty hard to be a woman in engineering, you were just kind of off there all by yourself. Now it’s gotten to the point where I don’t think it makes any difference. So I think that’s a major change.
The change in faculty that’s very important is that when I started most of the faculty in engineering had an M.S. degree, not a Ph.D. There were some Ph.D.s—Drago Siljak, Shu-Park Chan, and Dick Dorf—but most were not, and they did almost no research. They were teachers, not scholars. That began to change in the ’70s and ’80s. Today you wouldn’t even consider looking at an M.S. as a candidate for a full-time position in engineering, and I think that’s been a good change. When I sit on rank and tenure committees and look at the records that come over the table, and the accomplishments these people have, I’m very impressed. I like very much the fact that we haven’t lost interest in teaching as we’ve gained a greater interest in research. I think the professors’ doors are still open; people are still friendly. It’s just been a good change. People who teach today are brighter and closer to the major problems in the outside world, and that’s a good thing.
I also believe now that the students have changed. I didn’t used to think so. If you go back to the 1980s and ’90s, it was very, very common for faculty to say, “Oh, the students, they’re just not like they used to be. Back in my day the students were more dedicated and so on, but they’re just not like that anymore.” My answer was always: “Students never change. They’re always the same. There’s no difference in the students today and 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago.” But I’ve changed my mind. In the last ten, fifteen years students are far more—I don’t know what the best word is—entrepreneurial or outgoing or self-motivated. These kids today do things that nobody in my class would have thought about doing. We didn’t do that stuff. We kept our mouths shut, listened to what the professor said, and tried to pass the next test. People didn’t do things like the Solar Decathlons and other projects where they get involved and they take charge.
The iconic image I have in my memory is that of being in Washington, D.C., for the first Solar Decathlon we participated in. The team had just gotten word that the truck transporting SCU’s solar-powered house had broken down and was going to be three days late for the competition, if it ever arrived. And I’m watching as three 19- or 20-year-olds are sitting there on cell phones. One of them is calling a mechanic in Iowa whom he’d never met in his life to fix the broken axle on the truck. Another is calling the axle maker in Woodland, California, to get him to ship the replacement axles out to Iowa. The third one is calling state capitals all across the country, begging for permission to have the truck travel at night so it could make up lost time. I was in awe of their ability to handle the situation. And I said to myself, “Oh my goodness’ sakes, where did these kids come from?”
Today there are, in any set of kids, a certain number who will reach out and grab the reins and take off. I’m not saying all of them are like that. I still think there’s a mix of very strong dedicated people, and some in the middle, and some who are not very motivated. But it’s that entrepreneurial slice, that 30 percent or so, that I think is really different.
I think part of that, maybe, is that they believe that they have these opportunities.
And I think the digital world sort of gives them a form of confidence. I think the cell phone, the Internet, the ability to communicate helps give them confidence that they can do this.
What gets you out of bed and excited to get into the classroom each morning?
[Chuckling] I get out of bed easily because I’m a morning person. So, I’d be up early in the morning no matter what the situation. If you ask what motivates me to teach every day, I just like explaining stuff. And I love finding new ways to explain something. That is my science. That’s my research. Discovering, seeking different ways to present something that I’ve maybe talked about for 40 years and all of a sudden found a new way to look at, a new perspective … that’s what I really love.
Today, after we’re done here, I’ve got to work on a set of problems for a tutorial I’ve written for one of my classes. I can’t wait to get started on it—it’s a ball! When I find a new way of looking at things or when a new idea just pops into my head—a new way to look at something—I get charged up! I get up and walk around the house and I get kind of nervous from the excitement of seeing this new thing, and then I have this terrible urge to get on the phone and call up all my old students and say, “Look at this, look at this! Look what I just saw! Is this cool or what?!” So, I guess coming up with new ways to explain something and then explaining it, that’s what gets me up in the morning.
Other than explaining things, what is your favorite thing about teaching electrical engineering in particular?
It is almost certainly the most abstract of our engineering disciplines. It doesn’t have the natural, hands-on feeling of a machine, of a lever, of a pulley. Finding a way to take that abstract field and coming up with an analogy, coming up with a way to make it feel real—I love that part.
Can you give an example?
Well, we have in electricity a very important concept called electric potential, or voltage, and it can be a little hard to visualize just what voltage is, just what that means. What I will commonly do in class is go to a mechanical analogy; that is, to talk about mechanical potential energy. That’s very easy to see because you can put a weight/mass on the floor and lift it up about three feet off the floor and say to the students, “What I’m doing right now is increasing the potential energy of this mass. When I get it up to this upper position here, it now has potential energy with respect to the floor.” And I’ll drop it. It goes down and bangs on the floor, and I’ll say, “I can use this potential energy to do some work. For example, if I put it on a little pulley system—kind of like an elevator—and put the weight on there, that would go down to the floor and it would lift up something or other on the other side. That would be some practical work getting done. Electricity is very much like that. We increase the potential of a charged particle, and then we say, now that it has all that potential we can use it in any way we want. If you want to run your cell phone, you can do that; if you want to make toast, you can do that; if you want to turn on your television, you can do that. That’s the job we can do, and that’s very much like this weight being lifted up in the air to give it energy.”
I like that; even an English major can understand that! How have you implemented the Jesuit mission into your teaching and scholarship?
Certainly in no overt ways. I don’t talk about the Jesuit mission; I’d say it would have to be more implicit than that. I try to live my life consistent with what I consider to be Jesuit principles. But when I go into the classroom, I am trying to educate in the sense of encouraging students to learn new things; I’m trying to get them to think about the things they do in life, how they do it. I don’t bring morality directly into the class, I don’t talk about ethical problems in my class. I could, but I don’t get into it; electrical engineering is a pretty abstract area all by itself anyway. So, I don’t do that, but I guess the best answer would be that I try to live my life in such a way that it would be consistent with those principles.
With your Latimer Energy Laboratory students, though, it seems like you raise ethical issues with them.
I initiated the Latimer Energy Laboratory with the purpose of developing students [who have] an interest in sustainable energy. Sustainable energy, I think, obviously has some strong moral content. It’s an ethical stance for human beings to take in my opinion, and the students with the lab are generally already bought in to that idea, so I don’t have to convince them. They understand the importance of living in a world in which the energy advantages that we have in our day are passed on to our children in later times. We’re going to have to have sustainable energy in order to do that. So those are certainly moral questions. I don’t tend to pose them as such, but I think what we’re doing is moral work, ethical work.
Aside from engineering, what other projects/initiatives have you been involved with at SCU or in your life outside of SCU?
I have always had an interest in the arts. Mary and I had season tickets to the theater for decades; that was a very important part of our life. I particularly have always loved plays, and I’ve always loved art. I read quite broadly and enjoy that aspect of life.
We also over the years were very involved with the liturgies on campus. We participated in those in some detail—working with two or three or four or five people to decide what the components of the Mass would be, the readings, the music, processions and rituals, For many years in the ’70s and ’80s, the lay participation in forming those structures was a very big part of the University. And Mary and I were very active in that and enjoyed that process very much.
Outside of the University, I didn’t have a great deal of activity. We did like to travel; we got away to a number of places, but I never had too much in the way of sustained hobbies. My hobby was teaching, and I didn’t need some big things outside to occupy my mind or my time. I did take six months once to build a boat. I’ve always liked sailing, and I ran across this boat. It was a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-wide boat called a Bobcat. It took me about six months; I loved doing it. And it’s a funny thing … I saw a phenomenon there that has shown up in many other places in my life. I’d get to the end of the evening—I’d work for three or four hours on it—and there would be a problem at the end of the evening that would just have me stumped. How do you bend that piece of wood to make the structure right, to set it right? I just had no idea what to do with that. So I’d sleep on it and wake up, and the next evening the idea would be there and I’d know what to do.
Interestingly, that is still part of my life. I love doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. It comes out on Sunday. I don’t try to go through the puzzle all in one sitting. What I do is, I go through a good part of it, maybe get about 15 to 20 percent of it done on Sunday, then set it aside. Every morning when I’m having breakfast I sit down with the crossword puzzle and go through it. And what happens is, there will be a clue that made no sense at all on Sunday, but on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday it becomes obvious. I think, “Oh, yeah, yeah—I recognize that now!” I usually can finish the crossword puzzle by Friday morning. Not always correct, but more often than I used to. But it’s that process of just sort of sleeping on it that really makes a great deal of difference. And it happens in my educational life, too. When I was going to school, I had a lot of trouble with calculus. So I would work on calculus until 7, 8, 9, 10:00 at night and have no clue in the world what to do with it. But then I’d wake up in the morning and the answer would be there. So that process of sleeping on it has always worked well for me.
What have been some of your most gratifying moments as an educator?
Well, almost every class I teach is a gratifying experience. I’ve really loved the process over the last couple of years, thinking about the new STEM concept—not so much Santa Clara’s new STEM building, but the STEM concept—and I hope to continue to be active in working on that. The STEM idea, as I read it, is to educate students so that they can take their strengths, their specialization, and work together with other people on highly complex problems of the world in the years to come. And how do you do that best? It’s very challenging. It’s satisfying to think about it, but I can’t tell you that we know how to do it yet. So that is a satisfying challenge, if that’s a proper term.
Also, one of the great pleasures of my life here at Santa Clara was to serve on the University’s Board of Trustees in the 1970s. That was a wonderful experience because I learned an awful lot about the University and how it functions and how it works, and I think that’s been helpful to me in the years since then—helpful to think about the processes and what’s going on. So I loved that very much; that was good.
What have been your greatest challenges?
How to come up with that new idea in the class; how to get that best thing going. Hmmm … challenges …?
What about when—I don’t know if you want to talk about this—but wasn’t there a time they were thinking about doing away with the School of Engineering?
They were. I wouldn’t call it so much a challenge; there was a threat but I didn’t take it terribly seriously. In the 1970s, call it 1973, we had an oil crisis and engineering declined in popularity, Silicon Valley or no. And we had a meeting one day of the School of Engineering and Academic Vice President Jim Albertson, who said we were going to have to teach some new core courses for the University or we would be shut down. So a number of us did that. I developed a course on electricity. It was called “Energy, Electric Power, and Man.” That was just at the end of when I was allowed to use the term “man.” It soon became politically incorrect, and when we put out a revision of the book we called it Energy and Society. Ian Murray [in mechanical engineering] taught a course on the dynamics of sailing. Eugene Fischer [in mechanical engineering] taught a course on how to maintain your house. Who else? That’s all I can think of, there were probably some more. But we taught these core courses and weathered the whole thing, and Silicon Valley came back and energy came back. I don’t know if I’d call that a challenge, it was just kind of a threat that we had to respond to.
I don’t so much look at my days here as having too much in the way of challenges. Individual ones, yes—how to teach that new class, what to do about this or that or the next thing. I don’t remember the challenges so much as I do the opportunities.
You were chair of the department?
Three or four times, I can’t count. I didn’t enjoy chairing very much; that’s not my first love. I tend to be something of a smoother. I like to try to agree with everybody, but a department chair can’t agree with everybody. There are controversies that need to be straightened out and rules that need to be followed, and that sort of thing. I didn’t enjoy that part of it. I like the classroom; I like teaching. The chairing was never something that I took a great deal of pride in.
I did try to be a dean twice. Fortunately, I never was; I wouldn’t have made a good dean, for the reasons I just mentioned. But when Bob Parden stepped down as engineering dean in 1982 I applied for that position and it went instead to an outsider, Ken Haughton, who was a fine dean. And then I applied at Seattle University in the mid-1980s and was on the short list of engineering dean candidates there, but they picked someone else. And I think in retrospect it’s good that I never got to be a dean, because, once again, it’s that controversy thing. And, also, a dean is supposed to raise money, and ever since grade school cookie sales I have not liked trying to raise money from people; that’s just not my cup of tea. So, I’m glad I never got to be a dean, although I was pretty unhappy at the time.
After 50 years of teaching, you are one of the most innovative educators I know; you hear something new—a new pedagogy, active learning or whatever, and you’re the first one to want to try it. Have you always been that way? Where does that come from?
I have no idea. I am pretty comfortable with life. I can accept things pretty well. So, I don’t fear things too much and it makes it easier then to poke around and try something new because it isn’t too much of a threat. So I think maybe that’s it, and maybe just a sense that I like to try new things. I don’t know why that’s true; I have no idea.
Every once in a while when I go to a bookstore I like to pick up a book that I don’t want to read, or that doesn’t hit me right. Just to read it and see what it does, see where it goes. I just take off on that. I’m reading right now a book by George Sand whom I haven’t read before, called Consuelo. And it was kind of a risk to pick it up; I wasn’t sure I’d get into it. But then the deeper I got, the more enthused I got. It started out for about 100 pages in Venice, and I know a bit about Venice so I could see the canals and the barges and boats. It’s a great story, and now it has moved to Bavaria. And I know a little bit about Bavaria, and there’s an awful lot of history in there, and I’ve always loved history … so it’s just kind of a weird thing, but I like to reach out and grab some new things. And I like doing that when I teach; I like to find another way to say something, or another way to do it, or a different perspective on it, an analogy or something like that that’s fun. In reading through this book, Consuelo, I’m struck by the fact that even though it was written in French 150 years ago about a very different country, a very different land, the ideas, the expressions she uses are very much up-to-date. I’ll read a passage and think, “Yeah, I relate to that. That makes sense. Yeah, that’s the same way I’ve seen it in situations like that.” It’s nice to kick around some different things.
What are your hopes for SCU Engineering in the next 50 years?
Well, I’m highly confident that we will continue the growth of the last 50 years. The Teacher–Scholar model will persist. I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will not lose our interest in teaching—that it will always be a paramount thing. That when we hire people, we will not hire people we don’t think will be effective teachers. That’s very important for me.
I’m greatly intrigued by this STEM idea. I just don’t know where it’s going to go. But we are living in an increasingly complex world. The marriage of biology and engineering which has been going on for some time is just going to get stronger and stronger and stronger. And those problems are going to be really difficult. They’re going to be biological, they’re going to be physical, electrical; they’re going to be ethical. They’re going to involve mechanics. They’re going to involve all kinds of different aspects. And this idea of convergence that we’ve talked about on our campus—not that disciplines converge, not that physics and chemistry become one thing, but that people with physics expertise and with chemistry expertise and with engineering expertise converge together to create teams that are effective in facing real, complex problems—I think that’s an exciting future. My guess is Santa Clara University will go in that direction. And to the extent that we do, I think that if we are able to bring our relatively unusual Jesuit viewpoint and our philosophy of living in the world effectively together with the idea of convergence, I think we can make a contribution that is, if not unique, perhaps unusual.
Anything else you would want to share?
It’s been fun! It sure beats working for a living.
Jan 30, 2017
Professor Healy, doing what he loves best. Photo: Joanne Lee, SCU Photographer