Upward Trajectory

USD engineering dean Chell Roberts


For as long as he can remember, Chell Roberts, PhD, has been a big fan of numbers. While classmates were scaling jungle gyms and playing dodgeball at recess, a 10-year old Roberts would sequester himself in the library, poring over advanced algebra and calculus books in an attempt to understand all those strange symbols that were, for some unknown reason, so appealing.

“You know, I can’t put my finger on why, but I was really interested in math as a kid,” he recalls, smiling. “I’d sit with these advanced mathematics books and pretend I could read them; understand the language they were speaking. I thought it was so cool.”

With more than 40 years of experience as an accomplished educator and administrator in the field of engineering, it’s clear he still does. What’s also clear is that he couldn’t be more thrilled about the opportunity to chart the course of USD’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering as its founding dean.

“The way I see it, this is a chance to create something tremendously special,” he says. “For the past 25 years, the students and faculty here have built an exceptional department, and it’s my job to help take that to the next level. To do that, we need to be challenging ourselves to find ways to build for the future.”

Thanks to the vision and generosity of Darlene Marcos Shiley, that future is now. Her transformational $20 million gift enabled Roberts to begin the process of raising the profile of an already successful engineering department into that of a nationally recognized and ranked school. Immediate plans include upgrading student project and research space, hiring additional faculty and staff, and increasing the number of student scholarships to prospective students.

While there’s plenty of work to be done, Roberts is convinced the foundational pieces are in place for future success. “The aspiration is to be the top engineering school in the region, and we’ll do that by making that delta difference in our students,” he says. “That means getting the most out of them; preparing them to become leaders who are sought out for their expertise and innovation.”

Encouraging students to incorporate an outside-the-box approach to their studies and research work is nothing new for Roberts, who by his own admission is, “an educator first and foremost, and always will be.” In his previous position as executive dean and chair of engineering for the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University, he noticed a rift developing between what engineering students were learning in lectures and labs, and how they were applying that knowledge for the betterment of society and themselves.

To help bridge the gap between theory and practice, Roberts developed a curriculum that incorporated components of business management and entrepreneurship with the more traditional models of an engineering education. As part of the overhaul, he created iProjects, an award-winning program where student teams developed innovative solutions to challenges offered by partnering businesses from around the world.

“With iProjects, students had this great opportunity to partner their creativity with their education,” Roberts says. “It’s critical that they ask questions, think creatively and work collaboratively.”

He also believes students need to maintain a balanced and broad perspective in education and in life, even if that means stepping outside of their comfort zones to try something new. Roberts knows of what he speaks, having changed his major five times as an undergraduate at the University of Utah before finally settling on mathematics. He would go on to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in industrial engineering from the University of Utah and Virginia Tech University, respectively.

“Just because you’re an engineering major doesn’t mean you’re not a well-rounded and thoughtful person,” says Roberts, who was once convinced that theatre was his true calling. “Engineers need to be open to and engaged in a variety of different academic disciplines, which, interestingly, is one of the things that attracted me to USD.” As one of the few engineering schools in the nation where students earn a dual bachelor’s degree in science and the arts, USD’s unique blend of intensive technical training with a liberal arts education meshes perfectly with Roberts’ view of how to educate the complete engineer.

“The dual-degree program provides our students that opportunity to engage in the academic disciplines that may fall outside of their immediate academic focus, but will help them immeasurably in the future,” he says. — Mike Sauer