by Jenny Collins '05
With 50-degree temperatures and 40-mph winds, Lake Johanna swelled with white caps on a cool September day. But the brisk elements didn’t deter Dr. Matt Hyre’s Intro to Engineering students from gathering on the Island beachfront to test the results of their assignment: to design and construct a pair of floatable walking “shoes” for a person to walk on water.
Resembling duct-taped foam models of amphibious vehicles or prototype galactic transports, their inventions also sparked friendly competition to see which team designed the most functional model. Those not testing the water “shoes” formed an eager cheering section on the shoreline, rooting for their “water walkers” as they nimbly, or not so nimbly, maneuvered on the waves to a flag finish. While one winner skated on the surface to victory, most only traveled a few yards before plunging.
One soaked and shivering freshman exclaimed jokingly that he would rather take an ‘F’ for the assignment than get back in the water, as he emerged to find a towel. The experiment—and the elements—tested their mettle in military training fashion, minus the shouting drill sergeants and uniforms.
But for Professor Hyre, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, the value of hands-on research and experiential learning is far more important than his students’ ability to withstand the elements.
Philosophy to army to engineering
With a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Hyre holds eight patents to date and has secured several research contracts. But his impressive career initially began in philosophy.
“The farther I got along in philosophy, the fewer questions I could actually answer. At some point I wanted to wrap my head around a conclusion,” said Hyre. This conclusion about his academic interests led to a switch to engineering his final year at West Point before being commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Finding faith at MIT
After reentering civilian life, Hyre worked in nuclear engineering while earning his master’s degree. At the encouragement of a mentor, he pursued his doctorate at MIT. The path to a Ph.D. proved pivotal in Hyre’s life—academically and spiritually. Describing himself during this time as a “militant agnostic,” Hyre admitted, “I was arrogant. And my position was ‘I don’t know and there’s no point in trying to know—you’re wasting your time.’”
He then met a Christian woman named Wendy (now his wife of 16 years) at a mutual friend’s wedding and he credits her—and a patient pastor—for eventually leading him to salvation.
“MIT is a tough place to become a biblically grounded Christian. It’s pretty scientific. So it really forced me to understand why I believed what I believe.
“It’s still a journey. [For] most of the people I know—[faith] is not a topic they are interested in talking about. It’s not something that’s meant to cross over. On the other hand, with the people you know well enough to talk to about it, the discussions are never minor.”
With his relatively fresh faith, Hyre went on to teach at LeTourneau University, but the Texas climate wasn’t a fit for the native New Englander. He taught at the Virginia Military Institute and after nearly 10 years, felt a call back to Christian higher education.
He chose Northwestern because “I saw the potential that existed here—the ability to grow both myself and the program. I knew I could build something here. To me, that was a fun challenge.”
A 3/2 punch
One of the practical draws for Hyre to Northwestern was its innovative 3/2 dual degree program in collaboration with the University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering. Several Minnesota institutions participate in the 3/2 program, in which students do three years of study at a participating college, then transfer to the U of M for their final two years. Northwestern’s collaborative set up allows a student to earn two bachelor’s degrees in five years—one in applied math from NWC and one in engineering from the U of M.
This approach has several advantages for students, according to Hyre, including starting engineering studies with smaller class sizes, personalized interaction with faculty and being grounded in biblical education for three years. “Then being able to go and apply their faith in a university setting and having the access to the research facilities at the U of M—it’s a nice combination.”
Mutual admiration and learning
When Hyre began at NWC in 2010, he was impressed with his students’ academic level (noting their high math and problem-solving skills) and their spiritual depth. “They come from a point of view that is almost foreign to me,” Hyre shared. “They speak in a language and with an ease about their faith that I’d never been around for long.”
Students are grateful for Hyre’s expertise and influence. “Dr. Hyre is a genius,” said John Gisler ’15, an engineering major from Stewartville, Minn. “He is an awesome professor and explains things very well.”
“His classes are hard,” admitted Elizabeth Balke ’14, an engineering major from Floodwood, Minn. “It’s not uncommon for his homework assignments to require a great deal of time, mental energy, and collaboration with classmates.” But she added, “Outside of class, he is always willing to answer any questions I have, whether they’re about the assignment he gave, my computer, or chaos theory.”
Hyre is purposeful in his challenge of students. “The most important things I can teach are critical thinking, analytical skills, intellectual independence, and an ability to pose and answer questions that will follow them to other courses and beyond.”
Opening up research to students
Gisler pointed out that Hyre’s teaching is so effective because he is active in engineering research outside of class, giving students the opportunity to work with him on projects in various fields (see sidebar). One glance at Hyre’s resume and you’d see research is a passion of his; yet, he noted, “I see no dichotomy between research and teaching. One of the most effective ways to teach is through student-driven undergraduate research.
“As engineers, my students should not only be able to solve complex engineering problems, but should also be able to tell if the results achieved make sense or not. The best way for students to grasp this concept is through hands-on research.”
Learning isn’t the only benefit, either. “By opening up the world of research to students, they get a much better idea of the types of work they can do after graduation.”
With his focus in computational modeling, Hyre has received funding for three diverse areas of research: biomedicine, glass formation and environmental technologies. He boils down the seemingly unrelated areas into one theme: “I take complex physical phenomenon and create a virtual model on a computer so researchers can get a better understanding of the underlying physics.”
Outside the classroom and lab, Hyre especially enjoys collaborating with his students. “It’s those times at the office when students and I are working frantically on some problem and have totally lost track of time—when they are more like colleagues— that’s when I’m most excited.
“When you can get them to the point where they’re willing to interact and even question what you’re doing and say, ‘I don’t think that’s right,’—that’s even better,” he stated emphatically, “because they’re not afraid to interject their ideas and thoughts into a project. Those moments are really great.”