Amy Molls to-do list is substantial: Æ Nurture a fledgling doctorate program in materials science at Boise State Universitys College of Engineering.
Æ Double the number of graduates in the colleges computer-science program to meet intense demand from Idaho companies.
Æ Make a favorable showing for the $700,000 the schools computer-science program will receive from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, or IGEM, the Legislatures attempt to turn college work into jobs that can benefit the workplace.
Æ Improve the engineering schools 72 percent retention rate from the freshman to sophomore year.
Æ Attract more women into engineering.
Æ Raise more money for scholarships.
Æ Pay for more math tutors.
Moll, 47, was promoted to dean in August, after serving as acting dean for 18 months. [She jokingly refers to herself now as the real dean.]
She is one of about 40 women deans in colleges of engineering in the United States and Canada.
She administers a $10 million budget for the school that has been supplemented by a $13 million gift from Micron Technology Inc. to launch the materials-science doctorate. She says the most intractable problem she faces is smart allocation of resources for one of Boise States most prized colleges.
Where do I place [them] when the needs I have are bigger than the resources I have? she says.
Business Insider talked with Moll about her new job, her challenges and her wish list.
Q. Tell me about yourself and the journey that brought you to Boise State University.
A. Its sort of the classic story. I always enjoyed math and science in high school. Grew up in the suburbs of Illinois. Went to the University of Illinois. My undergraduate degree is in ceramic engineering. [I was] attracted to that discipline of ceramics and materials science. It was a very interdisciplinary field, which is why I was attracted to it. Goofed off a little bit between undergraduate and grad school. Spent a year at IBM research. Then went to Berkeley for grad school, materials science masters and a Ph.D. Then I went to Hewlett Packard Co. down in San Jose. I was an engineer and a production manager making light-emitting diodes.
Q. What drew you into engineering?
A. It is a lot easier to get out of engineering than into engineering. So I figured I could get in and start there, and if I dont like it, get out. If you start somewhere else, it is very hard to transfer to engineering.
Q. So you were doing this at a time when there was a lot of discussion about how there arent very many women in this field. How did you navigate that?
A. I dont know that I noticed that much at that age. It didnt affect me. I didnt see it as a barrier. I dont know that I ever had a female faculty member in an engineering class. I dont think I did, actually, in any math, engineering or science class.
The sad thing is, since then, it hasnt gotten any better. Its about the same percentage of women in the engineering field that are pursuing engineering degrees. Its about 13 percent at Boise State University. Thats below the national average of 18 percent.
Q. Why is that?
A. If you look when I was in undergraduate in the late 1980s, medicine and law were very similar to engineering. Around 20 percent women. Those fields have gone to about 50 percent women. And engineering has not. The best theory I have ever heard is we dont have our own TV show. We dont have shows where there are cool, hip people who are engineers or scientists, either male or female.
Q. What brought you here?
A. Always talked about going back to academia, and my husband [Bill Knowlton] is also on the faculty, also a materials scientist. Hes an avid whitewater kayaker, and we both love the outdoors. I think we had been in Idaho every summer to run the river. They didnt have the materials engineering program yet. I was in mechanical. He was in electrical. Micron was very influential in starting the masters degree program [in materials science], and they really wanted some more course work in materials science.
Q. What did you find in an engineering school when you first got here?
A. I always like to say we were still getting the wheels on. You had great support from Micron. But we still were figuring out how many classes we needed to offer and how we start to build research program.
Q. What has Micron meant to this school?
A. I would say they are the reason we exist. They are the ones who have really driven the university and the state to create this college. And they have consistently come in support of us. Everything, [including] funding for the Micron Engineering Building. They were the funding and the push creating the materials science department, and then the funding for the electrical engineering Ph.D., and then last year they provided the support to start up the materials science [doctorate].
Q. A lot of this is in Microns interest, because it could produce employees for them. But it goes beyond that, doesnt it?
A. Its also having the researchers, the educators, the scientists here that are doing research that may not necessarily directly be of interest, but it builds those capabilites. And it builds that culture. Think about the Silicon Valley. Not everything that came out of Stanford University resulted in a company, but you just start to build that cohort of people a culture of research in these areas.
Q. Compare and contrast the engineering school of 2001 and 2012.
A. A lot more programs. A lot more research activity. I would say we kind of parallel the football team in a lot of ways. If you think back, they were OK, but nothing spectacular. All of a sudden you do something really cool, and people go, Yeah, yeah, yeah, its just a fluke, but they are not for real. But then you start to do a few things, and people go, Thats cool.
But then you really build on that and show you are continually capable, whether it is research grants or best students going off to the best grad schools. We are not quite as famous as the football team. I realize that. But it kind of follows that same sort of trajectory. Whats exciting here is were not done.
Q. Where do students come from?
A. A lot come from Idaho. Were starting to see more California students, Oregon and Washington students, international students. We still have a large nontraditional student base. Students that are older and coming back. From military service, or [who] worked at Micron as a technician or operator for many years and want to get an engineering degree. Welders or electricians that come back for an engineering degree. The college itself is still about 30 percent nontraditional, which means over the age of 25.
Q. There is a lot of emphasis on making this engineering school work well as a way to define this university.
A. Yes. Science, engineering and math are a critical part of the new strategic plan.
Q. So what kind of pressure does that put you under?
A. I dont see it that way. What drives me is [whether I] am taking care of my students. Are our students getting the best education they can? Thats No. 1. If we do that well, everything else follows. The second piece of that: Am I taking care of the faculty members? Do they have the support they need in order to be instructors and do research?
Q. What were Boise State President Bob Kustras marching orders to you?
A. Take care of the college. Make sure the right things are happening. Make sure we are still making progress in terms of excellent research and a good education for our students.
Q. So how is that happening?
A. There are a lot of separate things happening, and then there is the global picture. For engineering especially, that freshman year is really critical. If you can make it through calculus 1, calculus 2, college chemistry, and physics with calculus, the statistics show youll make. it.
There is a lot of focus on retention and supporting those students. Weve increased the number of professional advisers we have focused on the freshman year, making sure the students are getting into the right classes and making sure they are succeeding in their classes. We are providing math tutoring support. Weve been looking at how math is taught. How do you teach math to engineers? How do you make sure they are successful? We have an introduction to engineering course [where] weve added a service-learning component. Students [are] doing projects to help support people with disabilities with different small devices. This course says, Here is what you get to do as an engineer.
Q. Whats the washout factor?
A. For our students, one of the toughest things is financial. We have very limited scholarship dollars, because we are such a new college. And if a student has to work outside, that just cuts into study time. We say for every hour you are in class, its two to three hours outside of class studying. So if you are taking 15 credits, thats at least another 30 hours outside. So now youre at 45 already. If you are trying to work 20 hours a week, you still should sleep, do your laundry and eat dinner. It can be difficult in terms of time management.
Q. How much money do you give out in scholarships?
A. Not enough. Its really low. [The average scholarship is $1,750 for the approximately 90 students who receive them each year.] The most likely donors for scholarship funds are alumni. Our first alums got out 14-15 years ago. They are not in the point in their lives where they donate large amounts back to their alma mater.
Q. Why is engineering so darned important?
A. You look at the technology you have today, your iPhone, iPad, your computers, the car you drive, the bridge you drive over, the building youre sitting in it was all engineered. That is what really drives economic development.
Q. If we need more engineers, how do you do that?
A. Step one is that retention piece. Lets make sure the ones who walk through the door, I keep.
I think the second piece is how do we get out to the high schools and K-12 and talk about what engineers do, so there is more interest. If we can start [with] elementary school teachers to understand what engineering is, they tell their students this is a cool career. Thats one place where I think we can have significant impact.
Q. You are in the process of launching a doctorate in materials science. How is that going?
A. Its going great. We probably have 12 students enrolled this fall. Five new faculty have accepted offers and are coming over the next year. Curriculum is all approved through the State Board of Education.
Q. What does a materials science Ph.D. do for this college and society?
A. Everything is made of something. So what materials scientists do is look at the materials themselves and say: How do I make that material better so you can build something out of it? So you are not designing the bridge, you are worrying about how do I put a coating on that steel so it doesnt rust in salt water. I am not designing the integrated circuit. Im worrying about how to process the silicon in a way that makes those circuits more efficient, faster.
Q. What does it mean to the university to have that kind of doctorate?
A. There is quite a bit of federal research funding. It really helps build our reputation as a college of engineering, as a university that is doing research. It brings in additional research funding, which gives more opportunities to our students and really more possibilities of economic development.
Q. IGEM is a new role for this college. The argument was we are not producing enough computer software engineers and we need to do more. So what are you doing with IGEM?
A. IGEM money is being focused on the computer science department and new faculty positions. So youve got more faculty to be able to teach more classes, able to offer more electives and do research in areas that attract students that help local companies.
Q. How many do you graduate now, and what is the goal?
A. Last year was around 25 computer-science students. We need to double that.
Bill Roberts 377-6408Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts