When Betty Barr joined the college as an assistant professor 40 years ago, times were a little different. The women’s movement had just opened up new opportunities for women professionally, though the field of engineering would take, and will still take, many years to achieve a better balance of females in the engineering workforce.
Barr came to the Cullen College of Engineering in 1971 when a position for a linear algebra instructor opened up in the Department of Industrial Engineering. A triple graduate in Mathematics from the University of Houston, she decided to take the position because of her desire to remain in Houston, to teach mathematics, and “because the college needed a woman,” she adds in jest.
As one of the first female faculty members hired in the college, Barr not only was challenged to develop a professional pathway for herself, but become a mentor to small batches of women who decided to pursue engineering as a career, charting their own pathways. For Barr, these were the important challenges to overcome, though there were a few other essential ones along the way.
“There was no women’s bathroom in the building,” she remembers about her early years in the college, noting that there were hideaway facilities for administrative staff. “We had to lobby to take one of the men’s restrooms for ourselves.” And she did.
It wasn’t long before she began instructing programming courses, migrating over into the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where she helped build and modify the undergraduate curriculum, and has since instructed multitudes of courses and advised generations of Cougar engineers during her 30-year tenure as the department’s primary undergraduate advisor.
“I enjoy working with students. I am a teacher,” she said. “There’s such joy at graduation, watching the students start as freshmen, struggle through and finally make it.”
This passion for teaching has brought her great recognition over the years and as recently as the last couple of weeks when she received the UH Cullen College of Engineering Career Teaching Award for the second time and one of five Teaching Excellence Awards from the university.
In addition, she has been honored with the inaugural Provost Faculty Advising Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising (2007), the IEEE Region 5 Outstanding Engineering Educator Award (2005), the Abraham E. Dukler Distinguished Engineering Faculty Award from the Engineering Alumni Association (2005), an Outstanding Teaching Award from the college in (2001), the George Magner Academic Advising Award (1993) and an Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award given by engineering student organizations in 1993.
Barr’s long and impactful career teaching and mentoring students can be best summed up by electrical engineering alumna Fiona Ann Bell in a letter of recommendation on her behalf for this year’s university award:
Dr. Barr is not a comedian—she does not tell amusing personal anecdotes that somehow relate the day’s material to a prior event in her life. She is not a songstress or a storyteller – she does not sing little ditties or hand over helpful phrases in cockney rhyming slang to help you remember what formulas to use at which times. Nor is she some sort of high-tech wizard, bedazzling her students with video and audio delights at every turn. In fact, Dr. Betty Barr – unlike many of the professors often nominated for various teaching awards –cannot be qualified as an entertainer at all.
To the contrary, Dr. Barr is unfailingly plain, simple and straight-forward. She is what some Texans might call a “straight shooter” or “shoot from the hip kinda gal.” She does not endeavor to entertain students but educate them, in the most direct manner and method possible. As a result, her classes are not necessarily the ones that people tell stories about, and she may not be at the top of the alumni “top ten stories” list. However, her classes are the ones that prepared those very people – soon after their entry into the engineering program – for a successful engineering education and career.
In addition to teaching and mentoring, Barr has also been involved over the years as the faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers and has infamously designed mathematical problems for her peers to solve in the slide rule competition at the annual Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers Chili Cook Off. She’s been an essential part of the department landscape for many years, the real link between the students and the department, according to Badri Roysam, current electrical and computer engineering department chair.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do without Betty Barr,” he said.
The department held a retirement luncheon in late April to celebrate Barr’s many years of contributions to the college and students, where her peers estimated the number of exams she graded, the number of grades she assigned and the amount of chalk dust she generated over the last four decades. All joking aside, one thing was certain: she has shepherded many engineering students through the Cullen College.
“Forty years couldn’t have possibly gone by,” she said. “I’ve seen generations of students come through here. I’ve taught parents, and I’ve taught their children. That’s the reward.”