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Charles C. Nguyen on frontline of STEM education

When AAAS Fellow Charles C. Nguyen first became dean of the School of Engineering at Catholic University of America (CUA), the school was faltering amid low enrollments. Through targeted marketing, both domestically and abroad, Nguyen has nearly tripled the department's size. (Photo: Selby Frame)

AAAS Fellow Charles C. Nguyen has often found himself on the frontlines.

Growing up in Da Nang, Vietnam, in the 1960s, it was the frontlines of war, where it was a daily occurrence for Nguyen and his family to dodge bombs.

"We were rich enough to build a bunker under our house," recalls Nguyen, dean of the School of Engineering at Catholic University of America (CUA), in Washington, D.C. "Typically, every morning we would come up and it would happen that the next house was gone because it was bombarded.  Neighbors, gone. I still have nightmares about that."

Nguyen eventually made his way to Germany to study electrical engineering, earning a Diplom-Ingenieur from Konstanz University in 1978, before emigrating to the U.S. to join family members who had already resettled here. After graduating from George Washington University with a Master's and Doctorate in electrical engineering, Nguyen was hired at CUA where he worked his way up through the ranks to become chair, and eventually dean—a position he has held since 2001. He was, and remains, the only Vietnamese-American dean at any U.S. college or university, he says.

Nguyen is candid, if not outspoken, about the difficulties of advancing in academia as a minority. During a 2009 speech at a Voice of Vietnamese Americans event, Nguyen recalled his early days at CUA: "At the 1984 commencement, after I spent two whole years at CU, the dean walked up to me and said, 'Congratulations!' after the ceremony. After thinking for a moment, it dawned on me that the dean thought I was a doctoral candidate ... [and I thought] 'Wow,' I have been invisible."

When the dean did it again the next year, Nguyen approached him and said, "I am not a student, but I have been a faculty member and your colleague for the last three years." The dean was shocked and apologized. The incident never recurred.

"It is a glass ceiling for a minority," says Nguyen. "You know, I work like three times as hard as my colleagues to be promoted. In order to be at the same administrative level as someone, I have to show that I can be three times as good as my peers."

Nguyen set out to prove himself early on. He secured a research fellowship in 1984 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where his good timing and hard work again prevailed. Nguyen's pioneering research on control of robot manipulators proved highly valuable to NASA, then in the midst of building the international space station.

Nguyen was part of a collaborative research team that developed an independent robotic arm and hand system that could handle the many exacting tasks of construction in space. "You can provide very high precision motion, up to one-thousandth of an inch," he says of the robotic hand.

Nguyen then adapted this robot system for use in minimally invasive spinal surgeries and for breast surgeries, working with Georgetown University to pioneer surgical techniques that today are commonplace. He subsequently published widely on the subject of medical robotics.

One must traverse two richly appointed antechambers to reach Nguyen's inner sanctum, its institutional windows festooned with luxurious red drapes. An entire wall is covered with plaques—awards and accolades for his accomplishments in engineering, education, diversity and Vietnamese-American relations (among them a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Automation Congress for his contribution to robotics and intelligent automation).

When Nguyen first assumed the role of dean, the school of engineering was faltering amid low enrollments (approximately 175 students). Through targeted marketing, both domestically and abroad, Nguyen has nearly tripled the department's size at a time when other STEM programs are struggling for footing. Currently, there are roughly 650 students (475 undergraduates) and 44 faculty members, who have nearly $10 million in research grants.

"It took me about 10 years to figure out that you have to be unique, to have a niche, otherwise you can't recruit students," observes Nguyen. Ultimately, he built on the program's setting within a Catholic institution that emphasizes character development and ethics. "That is part of the Catholic mission, to build ethical people," says Nguyen.

Nguyen's most savvy—though some might call it controversial—strategy was to systematically market to top international students. Currently, CUA has variations on 2-plus-2 agreements with universities in India, Brazil and Vietnam, Nguyen's "old country." In fact, 10% of the department's student body is Vietnamese, and those students rank in the top 50th percentile.

Some might argue that the preponderance of foreign students takes away from American slots, but Nguyen says they have allowed CUA to expand the department, creating more opportunities for all students. Most significantly, he says, their presence—particularly those from Asian countries where outsourcing is prevalent—builds American students' skills and comfort levels for competing in increasingly global STEM markets.

The wave of international students seems to have also helped raise the bar on academic achievement among domestic students. Some CUA science and technology faculty who formerly approached Nguyen with concerns about having to grade on a curve, report that a majority of American students now are keeping up.

Nguyen says it's time for U.S. higher education to do more than give lip service to expanding access and diversification—particularly in STEM fields. "I think diversity is a big thing for the United States. It's not much of a choice; it's just a matter of time...So, wake up! It's the future."