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The LEHI Story

S. David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

What do the escalator, the first implantable working artificial heart, and one of the most successful automobile companies in history have in common?

They were all created by Lehigh engineering alumni. Now, thanks to the hard work of some young and seasoned engineering college alumni, faculty, and staff, there is an interactive online outlet where all this rich information about Lehigh's engineering heritage can be shared.

The Lehigh Engineering Heritage Initiative (LEHI) is an online resource of, by, and for Lehigh engineers to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of alumni, faculty, and associates of Lehigh's engineering program throughout history. It presents a compilation of stories, recollections, and images that illustrates Lehigh's contributions to the field of engineering.

"As a faculty member at Lehigh for almost 20 years, I always felt that while Lehigh has such a glorious history in engineering, we actually know relatively little about the accomplishments of our alumni and faculty," says S. David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. "I thought it would be great if we could capture all this knowledge and create a comprehensive permanent record."

LEHI (www.Lehigh.edu/heritage) is being presented in a wiki format, a type of Web site that allows visitors to add, remove, and edit information in a collaborative way. This will allow members of the Lehigh engineering community to contribute their own knowledge concerning Lehigh's engineering heritage.

"The beauty of the wiki format is that not only can people add new facts about a particular alumnus or faculty member, they may also add more names for others to add onto," Wu says.

The online initiative was the result of the right things happening at the right time. Even before he assumed the office of dean, Wu was engaged with several members of the faculty and alumni community on the topic of honoring and promoting Lehigh's engineering heritage. One of the first alums to become involved was Joe King '61.

"I have been involved with Lehigh for 50 years as an applicant, student, and alumnus and have been exposed to numerous stories about Lehigh alumni over that time period," King says. "So a few years ago, when the idea of a Smithsonian Museum of Industry was proposed for the Bethlehem Steel site, it struck me that, while Lehigh has a first-class Hall of Fame for athletes, it doesn't have a strong presence recognizing alumni for their achievements in the professions for which their Lehigh education prepared them.

"Another realization came when the mantra 'Connected, Engaged, Involved' was adopted for the Alumni Association," King adds. "Lehigh makes a great effort to engage alumni in all kinds of ways, but I think engagement by the academic departments was lagging behind that of the Alumni Association, the Development Office, and the Athletic Department. It seemed to me that we were missing the prime connection alumni had with Lehigh as undergraduates -- their undergraduate academic studies. We needed to work on the academic connection, which is a universal connection."

And the Heritage Initiative was a perfect means to begin forming the link between alums and the academic roots that have made them so successful.

Roger Slutter (left), assistant engineer of tests, and Lynn Beedle, research professor of engineering, closely inspect the broadband satellite Telstar after conducting prelaunch tests on it in 1962.

Over time, the project gained momentum. In spring 2006, Lehigh engineering alumnus John Patrick '67 joined the Dean's Engineering Advisory Board and took an immediate interest in helping the college learn about the power of relatively new Web communications tools. Already on the board was Chris Tihansky '86, who'd been working with a group of interested faculty, administration, and alumni on preliminary plans to showcase the accomplishments of Lehigh engineering folks.

"We came up with about 40 individuals who really spanned from the origins of Lehigh from the 1860s up to the present day," Tihansky says. "But that's just a start. We have the initial group of folks who are identified or highlighted in the Heritage Initiative that will spark people to say, 'I want to remind you of so and so.' The site will be a venue for folks to make recommendations and write entries about other alums or faculty members and their accomplishments."

Patrick, a 25-year veteran of IBM who served as vice president of the firm's Internet technologies division, brought an interesting perspective to the project early on. "For some years now, I have felt that wikis, blogs, and other 'social networking' tools can be very powerful in connecting the vision of the university with the views of the many alumni, students, potential students, and faculty," Patrick says.

At the same time, Brad Woodward '07, an English/mechanical engineering dual major, and engineering alum Richard Kurz '06 were having some interesting conversations behind the scenes.

"I got a job in the dean's office right after graduation, and one of the things I was working on was investigating potential usages for blogs, wikis, and other new Web communication tools," Kurz says. "I knew Brad was working one floor below to write articles on the accomplishments of Lehigh engineers for the Heritage project. All of a sudden, at the end of the summer, we had this lightbulb moment when we realized that the philosophy and mechanics of wikis fit beautifully with the needs of the Heritage project."

Woodward, who is researching and writing initial entries for the site, says, "We're working to organize the Web site to be alumni-friendly in the presentation of the biographies and images, but also in the interface that will allow alumni and other interested people to add to the site. We created a structure and format that we felt filled those needs, but as the user community grows, we'll constantly be looking for ways to improve things. In many entries throughout the site, for example, you'll see that biographies have been posted with just a few facts about a given individual; these are areas where users can quickly jump in and add or edit material."

(Click here to learn what you need to know for "Mastering the wiki.")

All involved with the project agreed that a wiki was the perfect format for the initiative. "A wiki is the name given to Web pages that are 'writable,'" Patrick says. "We think of Web pages as pages that we read, but some pages can also be written on. This relatively new technology allows a reader to click an 'edit' button and add their thoughts to a Web page."

Wikipedia is currently the best example of a successful wiki. "Wikipedia's content is created by the readers," Patrick says. "And it currently has more than five million articles in 250 languages, including more than 1.4 million articles in the English version."

The format of the Heritage Initiative entries includes information about the Lehigh community member's inventions and innovations, his or her affiliation with Lehigh, and other professional accomplishments. Each entry includes a box highlighting biographical, educational, and historical information, and in some cases, a photo of the Lehigh person of interest.

Although the Heritage Initiative's wiki format presents an open forum to which anyone who wishes is invited to contribute, as with other wikis, there are some safeguards in place to make sure the site is used for the intended purposes. By using administrative tools within the wiki, the engineering college staff will be able to easily monitor entries and make sure the site maintains the desired richness and quality of content.

James Ward Packard, founder of Packard Motor Car Company, in his first automobile, the Ohio Model A.

Part of the support of the day-to-day operations of the Heritage Initiative has come from behind-the-scenes work that both Kurz and Woodward have done with a group of former and current Lehigh students responsible for most of the public posting on the Lehigh entry of Wikipedia.org. This group has expressed interest in helping to support the Heritage Initiative, both in its current formation and in its future use.

Everyone involved has expressed hope that the Heritage Initiative will evolve beyond a Web site into a true online community -- a myspace.com of Lehigh engineering, if you will -- that helps alumni, faculty, staff, and students connect with each other and learn more about the triumphs and accomplishments of other Lehigh engineers.

"Lehigh has a very strong heritage, and I get totally excited when I think about it," Kurz says. "There are so many cool things that have come out of our graduates that people never knew about. The more we're seeking out these neat things alums have done, the more we're finding them. And I think the Heritage Initiative is a really good jump start to get this information about alums out there and to spark people to start writing pages about themselves, their professors, and other Lehigh people they know."

"Celebrating our heritage is about understanding who we are and the foundations on which we stand," Wu says. "The same process also helps us figure out what we can be as a whole university. Lehigh is fortunate to have an alumni community that is passionate about the institution and incredibly knowledgeable about the people who've made it great, so I look forward to seeing all of that translate into a rich, meaningful perspective on what it means to be a Lehigh engineer."

And although it is currently an engineering college project, the Heritage Initiative has infinite possibilities and could easily be applied in any of Lehigh's other three colleges. "There is great potential for the initiative to have a widespread impact on the alumni community as a whole," Woodward says. "The hope and expectation is that the site will eventually open up to include entries on all alums, faculty, and Lehigh community members from its nearly 150-year history who are or were remarkable cultural leaders, inventors, and innovators."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2007

Posted on Monday, March 26, 2007

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