Getting to know Mike Dyrenfurth
Michael Dyrenfurth, professor in the Department of Technology Leadership & Innovation, has been at Purdue since 2001. He joined the College of Technology administration as the assistant dean for graduate studies to help reinstitute the college’s doctoral program. He returned to full-time teaching in the Department of Industrial Technology (now TLI) in 2005. His 40-year career has also included tenures at Iowa State University as a graduate professor of industrial education and technology and graduate program coordinator, and at the University of Missouri as a senior professor and co-director of the Research Institute for Technical Education and Workforce Development in the Department of Practical Arts and Vocational-Technical Education. He has served as chairman of the World Council of Associations for Technology Education, president of the National Association of Industrial Technical Teacher Educators and as a member of the American Vocational Association’s board of directors.
On innovation: Everybody talks about innovation. My take on it is “what’s that really mean?” It’s a matter of looking at the theory behind innovation. My research is trying to figure out how might we structure technological education to make it more likely that people will innovate. I’m convinced that there’s something in our minds that makes some of us more able to innovate than others. Our job is to help students see the challenges of the intersection between technology and society and do better. And the do-bettering, that’s where this concept of innovation comes in. That’s where it gets exciting and motivates people like me. If you love what you do, it’s hard to separate work from play. Those of use in that position are fortunate in one way and, frankly, cursed in another way.
On his approach to teaching: When my students ask me the single most important thing I learned as an undergraduate, I tell them systems theory. Why? Because it just helps me analyze what’s coming down the pike and understand it better. Probably more than most, I believe in theory; frankly that isn’t the American penchant. We tend to believe in application and practices, but I would submit we have to have some way of representing. I have to have a systems picture in my mind.
One of the things I believe in is information accessing. I’m an information hound. I bring people like [Purdue librarians] Amy Van Epps and Michael Fossmire into my classes. We help the students search better, know information sources better. They will be synthesizing a lot of information, and to do that, you have to evaluate what you are getting. I teach my students, at all levels, “are you going to go to Wikipedia or are you going to The National Academies Press and see what the leading scholars in a given field have pulled together?” You know you have some platinum information if you get it from there.
If we’re not valuable to industry, the question is, are we valuable as professors of technology? We have to be industry-facing, at least to some degree, especially if you look at something as exciting as TLI being created. If we aren’t, are we doing the right stuff?
On the importance of international exposure: I was born in Germany, educated in Canada, and I got my PhD in the United States. That created a different mindset for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s national identity or if it’s gender, ethnicity or religion; diversity means “not the same.” Diversity exists within a culture and a nation; so what you do is you see things with different eyes and you have different senses about what might be possible. Engineers see things different than scientists; educators see things different than technologists.
For the last four years, I’ve led a Maymester study abroad class, “Technology, Innovation and Culture in ‘fill-in-the-country-name.’” I’ve involved partner universities and industries overseas. The students get to see some cutting edge technologies, interact with executives and workers, meet with their counterpart students. This coming year we’re going to Ireland and Scotland.
I have an avowed goal of visiting or working in a new country every year. I’ve exceeded that in the last several years. My next goal is Australia or New Zealand. There’s something to be admired in every country I’ve been in.
On the power of networking: I also believe in networking. I carry around with me probably 6,000-7,000 contacts. I try to teach my students to get to conferences early, meet others, meet gurus in the fields. I don’t think I would have been here if I hadn’t crossed paths with [former Assistant Dean of Technology] Fred Emshousen on a study tour of Germany with NSF.
Outside of Purdue: I really like the blues, actually music of most genres. The older the blues, the better. I also drive once a month to Bloomington to see the opera. I’m a died-in-the-wool drag racer; I enjoy automobile racing and street rodding. I have a 1927 Model T; it’s in my garage waiting for me. There’s so much exciting stuff to see and do in this world.