Wallace Fowler in officeThere is hardly any empty space on the walls of Professor Wallace Fowler’s office. The shelves that run from the ground up not only hold books; they also keep student work, graduate course reference material and memories all the way back to his high school years. In his collection, he keeps a copy of the USAF Aircraft Recognition Manual for the Ground Observer Corps, a memory of his time spent scanning the skies for Russian aircraft as a volunteer in the Ground Observer Corps. He first became interested in airplanes in the late 1940s, watching B-36 bombers on low-level training flights as they flew over his grandmother’s house in Greenville, Texas.

In front of the books are small airplanes – an image on a drinking glass of a Cessna 182 which he was part owner of for over a decade, a laser etched P-51 presented to him at the end of his year as the 2000-2001president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), photographs of students and family, and trinkets and toys. Point to anything in the office, and he will tell you a background story. 

On the far wall opposite his desk, a chalkboard takes up most of the space. Students come in and he uses it to communicate what computers wouldn’t allow him to. “I’m not tied down to any given technology,” he said. “The job of a professor is to communicate.”

Fowler, holder of the Paul D. & Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professorship in Engineering, is a Longhorn through and through. Not only has he taught at UT Austin, he also obtained all three of his degrees at the university – a bachelor’s in mathematics, and a master’s and doctorate in engineering mechanics.

He has received many prestigious awards during his academic career for his excellence in teaching and involvement with student progress. Among them are a UT Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award in 1991, induction into the UT Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 1997, a University of Texas Women in Engineering Advocate Award in 2007 and a University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2010. He is a Fellow of both the ASEE and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Fowler’s research focuses on the area of design methodology, the modeling and design of spacecraft, and planetary exploration systems. He served as associate director (1992-2001) and director (2002-2016) of the NASA Texas Space Grant Consortium, co-authored Statics and Dynamics with Professor Emeritus Anthony Bedford, and published more than 50 technical articles and reports.

As Professor Byron Tapley’s second Ph.D. student, Fowler started teaching statics in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (ASE/EM) while still a graduate student in 1964. When he was asked to join the department as a full-time faculty member in 1965, there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that he would stay. 

Dr. Fowler with students
Dr. Fowler is known for his humor and hands-on teaching style. Here he works with students on a design project.

With over half a century’s experience as a faculty member in the department, he sees his relationship with his students is a symbiotic one, in which he and the students are enthused by the work they do together.

“Teaching at the university is probably the best job there is,” he said. “You don’t realize you’re getting old because you’re always around people who are in their late teens, early twenties, mid-twenties. You’re almost never dealing with a bunch of old codgers.”

There are too many favorite memories for Fowler to name just one. He takes pleasure in seeing his students leave his classroom and accomplish great feats in agencies like NASA-JPL, JSC, Goddard Space Flight Center and abroad.

In his office, he can take out a book and tell you what the material is about and why it is relevant to engineering. While walking in the hallway, he points to posters that depict the work of some of his capstone design teams. 

“My heart is really with the students,” he said. “You can either make it or break somebody’s life by what you do in the classroom.”

His highest achievement is “turning out lots of good students”— including graduating approximately 80 master’s and 16 doctoral students.

“Basically I think I’d rather send out an army of good students,” Fowler said. “I could have gone out to work in JPL or wherever I wanted to go to work, or I chose to try to send out an army to go work there.”

Hector Alvidres, a former student of Fowler, remembers a time he had an appointment with the professor in his office. Alvidres overheard Fowler speaking to security over the phone about a visitor that would be arriving shortly. After Alvidres questioned him, Fowler told him to “Be quiet and just stand there.”  

“A few seconds later, this man walks into his office,” Alvidres said. “Dr. Fowler turns to me and says, ‘Hector, I would like you to meet Buzz Aldrin.’ My jaw dropped.” 

Whether it’s in the hallway or in the office break room, Fowler always stops to speak to the student workers, staff members and his students. They know that when he passes by to get his coffee, more than a few puns will come their way.

His personable demeanor is also a part of his interaction with his students. In his spacecraft mission design course, he may start speaking at the front of the room, but he finds a way to work himself into the middle of the rows of desks. As students talk about the progress of their projects, he questions them.

Celebrating Professor Wallace Fowler

One of Fowler’s current students, aerospace engineering senior Claire Burditt, said that it’s critical thinking skills he’s honing in on.

“Everything we say to him, he questions us,” she said. “He makes us think harder, makes us think why we are saying that, why were doing something. As it get’s more technical, he’ll question us then.”

As he is teaching, sitting on a swivel chair so he can turn to everyone in class, he finds a way to bring up an anecdote or make his students chuckle with a pun or two.

“The job of the teacher is to take a complex topic and make it seem like the most logical thing in the world,” he said. “You can’t always do that, but on the days that I am able to do that, I’m a good teacher.”

Fowler, who plans to retire in January, said he will still be involved with aerospace engineering in some manner or another after he leaves the campus. For now, his plans after retiring are to dedicate more time to his family and grandchildren.

“What I tell students is, — “Find something to do with your life that you would do even if they didn’t pay you to do it; then, figure a way to get them to pay you to do it. And you win the game.”

Everyone should have a professor like Fowler at least once in their life. Goodbye, Dr. Fowler, and “May the Force be with you.”

The ASE/EM Department will be hosting a mini symposium in honor of Dr. Fowler’s retirement on Thursday, January 26. Learn more. 

If you want to let Dr. Fowler know the impact he's made on your life, please consider making a gift to the Marsha and Wallace Fowler Scholarship. You can make a gift online or by contacting Bliss Angerman at 512-232-7085 or bliss.angerman@austin.utexas.edu