David L. Wells, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering
Published August 2016
Innovation is the watchword for David Wells. In addition to teaching core courses in manufacturing engineering, he inspires and motivates students to advance their creative thinking in new product development through his mentoring of NDSU's innovation teams: Bison Microventure, Bison Proventure and Dynamic Cell Culture.
He earned his doctorate in engineering management at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
How did you decide to pursue your profession?
By accident. I was managing a small factory in a small town in southern Ohio when I had a conversation with the dean of technology at a local community college. He was bewailing his difficulty in finding a qualified instructor for a cost-estimating course. I said, “I can do that.” After about half-a-dozen terms of teaching an increasing variety of topics in the evenings, I became aware that the University of Cincinnati was seeking to fill a full-time faculty position that sounded like a fit for my skill set and interests. So, I left the industrial world after 20 years for a career change to academics.
What do you like best about teaching?
I get to spend my days surrounded by very bright young men and women. I like my students and enjoy talking and working with them.
What is your favorite class or topic to teach?
I like the main-line courses for their intensity and challenge. I would have to say, however, that the innovation team courses are the most stimulating and fulfilling. There, we are less structured and get to expand our imaginations and create more new things.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Informal, conversational and hands-on. I prefer a discovery-learning environment, talking with the students about how to apply theories to solve assigned problems. With the innovation teams, I seek out students from multiple disciplines. Getting differing slants on a problem is stimulating and fun. My innovation team courses have attracted students from 21 disciplines and 11 colleges during the past nine years.
I think that I set high standards, and then set about striving to see that every student meets or exceeds those standards.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome as a teacher?
When I first started in the professoriate, I tried to teach students everything I had learned in 20 years as a manufacturing engineer and manager in one term. I had to learn to take a more gradual approach.
How do you know you’ve succeeded with a student or a class?
In the short term, there are some indictors. Sometimes, I get an especially good set of answers to an exam question. Other times, project reports are unusually articulate. However, most of my appreciation of "quality" is extracted from conversational feedback. In the longer term, I watch alumni career trajectories. When I see rapid and substantive upward mobility with an employer or the founding of a new high-tech enterprise, I have the sense that something I have done might have contributed to those successes.
What is the most common trait or traits of successful students?
Not everyone learns in the same way. Nor does success look the same for everyone. I suppose that some of the most useful traits are seriousness, curiosity, creativity, persistence and courageousness. In every case, success is more about heart than about brainpower.
What has been the best moment of your teaching career so far?
Twice in a 31-year teaching career – once in Manufacturing Strategy and once in Production Engineering – I have awarded everyone in the class an A grade. Those were really special moments and ones that I will never forget. Another "best moment" occurs when a student founds a new company, files a patent application, is invited to speak to a public group or earns a national or international award. Those are precious moments.
What have you learned from your students?
Students in mainstream courses are continually finding ways to solve assigned problems that I had not thought of. And by their very nature, innovation teams focus on new things. All of my innovation teams work on projects of their own creation, very often teaching me some new and interesting technology along the way. I continually learn from students about the creative spirit, the inquiring mind and the fertility of imagination. I am enriched every day.
How have you grown as a teacher over time?
I have learned never to say no to a student idea. I have become less constrained by my own factual knowledge limits and more able to apply my understanding of learning processes to help others learn.
What is something every student should experience before they graduate from NDSU?
NDSU students should test their personal affinity for innovation and entrepreneurship. Not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur, but the entrepreneurial trait of taking ownership of your ideas is enormously valuable in any situation. Innovation happens everywhere. There are many avenues at NDSU for exploring this side of one’s persona, such as the Innovation Challenge or the Clinton Global Initiative University Network or maybe one of the many student organizations.
What is your favorite NDSU tradition?
I am an avid Bison sports fan. I revel in the five straight football titles, the arm lock held by women’s track on the Summit League and the scrappy successes by the softball team. This tradition of winning also applies to academics. You don’t win in football or track or softball without exemplary dedication and a great deal of hard work. It's likewise in academics. Students who decide to do what it takes to be national and international leaders can become so. So, my favorite NDSU tradition is "achievement."