John A. Orr, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Worcester, Mass., and former WPI provost, will receive the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2011 Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Distinguished Educator Award. The award will be presented on June 27 during the ECE Division Annual Meeting, part of the ASEE Annual Conference in the Vancouver.
The ECE Distinguished Educator Award, presented annually in recognition of significant contributions to ASEE and to the field of electrical and computer engineering education, honors excellence in classroom education and the supervision of independent study projects, as well as significant contributions to ECE education that go beyond one's own institution.
Orr, who holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an M.S. in electrical engineering from Stanford University, joined the WPI faculty in 1977, just six years after the launch of the WPI Plan, the institute's innovative project-based undergraduate curriculum. He was named the Joseph Samuel Satin Fellow in Electrical Engineering in 1983.
In 1988 he was selected to head the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, a post he held for 15 years. During that time he was also appointed the George I. Alden Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. As department head, Orr oversaw a number of curricular innovations, including a new introductory undergraduate curriculum and Master's programs oriented to professional practice in such growing areas as computer and communications networks.
From 2006 to 2008, Orr served as dean of undergraduate studies at WPI, a period that saw the launch of an enhanced first-year undergraduate experience that included the Great Problems Seminars, a program designed to introduce students to the type of open-ended project work that will form the core of their academic experience at WPI. Orr served as WPI's provost from 2008 to 2010, a period that saw the university move to establish its first academic deanships — the dean of arts and sciences, dean of engineering, and dean of the School of Business.
Orr has long been active in engineering education and engineering accreditation at the national level. A member of the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), he is also past chair of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Committee on Engineering Accreditation Activities, a past member of the IEEE's Educational Activities Board, and past president of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association. In 2002 he served as general chair of the Frontiers in Education Conference, an annual meeting sponsored by ASEE and the IEEE Education and Computer societies to promote the exchange of innovations in engineering and computer science education.
His accomplishments as an educator and innovator have won Orr a number of distinguished honors. He is a fellow of the IEEE, awarded for his contributions to engineering education, and of ASEE, which recognized his sustained leadership in engineering education, including the development of project-based education and the renowned global projects programs at WPI.
In 2004, he received the Leadership and Service Award from the ECE Department Heads Association, and in 2010, he won the Distinguished ECE Alumni Award from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. He is a member of Eta Kappa Nu, the ECE honor society, and of the society's Board of Governors. He received the IEEE-WPI Community Service Award in 2003.
The co-author of a textbook on information engineering, Orr's research interests span several aspects of digital signal processing. In the aftermath of a deadly 1999 warehouse fire in Worcester, he inaugurated a major research program at WPI that has led to the development of a groundbreaking system that can track the movements of first responders in three-dimensions inside buildings and monitor their physiological health. The research program has garnered more than $5 million in federal support and spawned the only national workshop on indoor personal location and physiological monitoring, which WPI has hosted for the past six summers.