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The Many Hats of Prof. Steve Driscoll

UMass Lowell Prof. Steve Driscoll in plastics engineering lab

09/30/2016
By Geoffrey Douglas

Prof. Steve Driscoll ’66, ’72 was in Mumbai last January, teaching a class of 45 employees of the largest plastics firm in India. “I was on my feet all day,” he says, “from morning to night, answering all the questions they had. But in the process, I think I learned as much as I taught.” 

He has been in India often over the last 30 years, far too often to count. And in Taiwan, Israel, Japan, Germany, Mexico, France, Canada and England. Mostly he travels in the summer, or over semester breaks, when the classes he teaches in Lowell are in adjournment. And always, he says, “the best challenge is to learn about the students’ lives and work, to share in their industry’s problems. And the more you learn about them, the more knowledge you bring back, the better it is for your students stateside.”

Driscoll has taught plastics engineering at UMass Lowell for 49 years. He spent another six here before that, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. To his students (to judge by a sampling of their online comments) he is “a great professor,” “very understanding and fun,” “full of knowledge and wisdom,” who “will go out of his way to help you with anything at all”—while to the university, which honored him earlier this year with its 2016 University Alumni Award, he is among the faculty’s most honored professors, with “an unwavering commitment to alumni engagement and student success.”

Certainly he is all of this. But maybe as much as anything else, he is a worldwide ambassador for his school.

It began more than 30 years ago, when he was first named a consulting fellow to the UN Industrial Development Organization and was sent abroad to teach in developing countries—most of which, like India, he says, were “strong emerging industrial countries” still new to modern technology, but “trying hard to capture the opportunities” afforded by plastics. Over the years, as these countries grew more prosperous and technologically advanced, and the university’s reputation grew alongside, more and more of their students began arriving in Lowell. India today contributes more students to UMass Lowell than any other foreign country, a large percentage of them in the plastics engineering program.

But Prof. Driscoll doesn’t meet them all in person. Over at least the last decade or so, as one of the earliest faculty advocates of online education, he has also been teaching web-based courses from his on-campus office—literally hundreds by now— to students from all over the globe.

“You don’t get the same intimacy you do in the classroom,” he says, ‘but you compensate by reaching people from all the continents, from all over the world. You watch people from different backgrounds, different cultures, getting to know each other, expanding their knowledge that way. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Often, he says, he will announce to his students, well in advance of a semester’s final exam, that the exam is to be a “team effort” that will require the use of the class’s online discussion board:

“So they’re forced to interact with each other—all these students from all over the globe, working together to solve problems.”

Once, while teaching in India not long ago, he met a former student who, as it turned out, had been the first online student to earn a plastics engineering certificate from UMass Lowell, more than a decade before: “And he said he remembered that he’d taken two of the courses from me. He thanked me; he was so grateful. I’ll always remember that. It really reaffirmed my belief in the value of online education.”

“How can you expect the students to support the university if the faculty won’t do it themselves? If you’re going to make a career here, you’ve got to have some skin in the game.” -Steve Driscoll ’66, ’72
Meanwhile, the students he teaches in foreign-based classrooms are more than matched by those who arrive in Lowell from all over the U.S. to study at seminars—multi-day workshops featuring state-of-the-art labs and classroom instruction—taught by him and others:

“Companies from all over the country send their people. The department is in big demand [within] the plastics industry. We have a truly great reputation.”

His pride in the university clearly runs deep— it goes back a long way, and doesn’t stop with himself. Decades ago, not long after he’d earned his M.S. degree in early 1972, his wife Ritva undertook her pursuit of what would be the first of three degrees, in business and computer science, at what was then the Lowell Technological Institute.

Her next two would be earned at ULowell, the immediate predecessor to today’s university.

“She was a perpetual student here for awhile,” he says. “And so committed to it. I remember back in about 1975, when she was very, very pregnant—so large that the little desk in the classroom was jabbing her in the stomach—but she was determined to finish before our son was born.

As it turned out, I think she ended up with the highest GPA in the department.”

It didn’t take long before Driscoll started giving back to the university.

“It was years ago,” he says, “and a bunch of us [in the department] just got together and decided that we’d each contribute something every year. We did that for a while. Then I just decided I wanted to do something on my own.”

The fund that resulted, the Stephen Burke Driscoll Scholarship Fund, to benefit UMass Lowell students of plastics engineering, is fully endowed today. But it was only the beginning. Next came the Students of India Fund, underwritten, he says, by the honoraria he had been paid over the years for his teaching trips to that country.

Then, 10 years ago, the Pi Lambda Fraternity Fund was established; that was followed by the Ruth Dubey and Gail Sheehey Fund, honoring the department’s two administrative assistants, because, says Driscoll, “They’re the ones who hold us all together.” All four funds benefit plastics engineering students, and all are fully endowed, with at least $25,000 each.

Finally, last year, he made an opening contribution to a fifth fund, this one named for Chemistry Professor Emeritus William Bannister, who died August 2015 at the age of 86. He plans to put off retirement, he says, at least until this last fund is fully endowed: “Bill was a good man. I need to honor that commitment.”

“Steve Driscoll is more than an asset to this university,” says Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. “He’s a treasure—as a professor, an alumnus, a generous donor, and a representative of our campus worldwide. That’s an extraordinarily rare combination of roles.”

So what motivates him to donate, to continue to look for new people and causes to honor? He answers that question with one of his own:

“How can you expect the students to support the university if the faculty won’t do it themselves? If you’re going to make a career here, you’ve got to have some skin in the game.”

His own investment—his “skin,” if you will—goes far beyond the years he’s invested or the dollars he’s given. Somehow, between all his foreign travels, campus seminars and his UMass Lowell teaching schedule, he has found the time to be a friend and mentor to many of the students he teaches, and some of those he doesn’t. Over the years he has served as a faculty adviser, not only to several student societies within the engineering department, but also to the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity and the university’s Interfraternity and Sorority Council. One of the roles he continues in today is as adviser to the Thai Student Association.

“It’s a social sort of thing,” he says. “We go out to dinner together sometimes, everybody just gets to know each other. We have a lot of fun.”

Asked why it is that he seems to be a favorite of so many student groups, he confesses to being puzzled: “I really don’t know why,” he answers. “Maybe I’m just seen as approachable.”