Industrial Engineering (IE) Professor Michael J. Smith advises his students to "be passionate about what you do and match your heart with whatever you decide to work on," says former graduate student Maria Brunette. Brunette is of one of the several students who organized a ceremony for Smith last December. Smith was honored with the one-time award, "Excellence in Holistic Education," for his dedication to students
Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Smith attended UW-Madison and received
his BS in Psychology (1968), MS in Industrial Psychology (1970), and finally
his PhD in Industrial Psychology (1973). Following his studies, he worked at
the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for ten years.
At NIOSH Smith developed organizational safety programs that were incorporated
into federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines
and are still used today. During his time at NIOSH, Smith still found time for
one of his other interests: working with students, which he did through teaching
at least one class per week in his free time.
Smith says he has always enjoyed being around students, which was one of the main reasons he left NIOSH and came back to Madison to teach. According to Smith, he was called by UW-Madison and asked if he wanted to return to the school to fill a vacant spot in the IE program. Being a professor at UW-Madison has allowed Smith to get to know students better and reacquaint himself with the university.
"There is no other school like Madison," Smith asserts, emphasizing the fact that while UW-Madison is a research giant, it also invests a huge amount of time and money into liberal studies in order to create "better citizens." Smith feels the faculty, staff and students have the unique opportunity to contribute to a college administration that does not simply dictate school policies.
"Madison is a world class university," Smith declares, one that is probably more famous internationally than it is nationally. UW-Madison's importance in bleeding-edge research and education led Smith to state that any cuts to funding due to the current Wisconsin financial crisis would be a "great disservice to the student body."
In his role as a teacher and researcher, Smith says his job gives him the opportunity
to study what he enjoys and "interact with interesting and smart people,
especially students." He feels that as a professor his commitment is to
be a good teacher, providing relevant information but also respecting his students
as human beings.
Smith feels that mutual respect is very important, one of the reasons he makes himself available to students even when he doesn't have office hours. He enjoys talking to students about non-academic subjects, feeling that college is a time for students to "learn about life, organize themselves and learn what their values are." Technical skills are not as important, in his opinion, as the self-knowledge gained through the college experience.
Smith is particularly proud of the IE Department on campus. Historically, UW-Madison was one of the pioneers of IE as it emerged from World War II. Smith's advisor during his studies here was Karl U. Smith (no relation), whom he credits with some of his work ethic. Smith also attributes his commitment to working hard to his blue-collar upbringing. Karl U. Smith was a leading force in the development of Human Factors (HF) research. At that time, HF was part of the Psychology department, which explains Smith's PhD in Industrial Psychology. It wasn't until Gordon Robinson came to Wisconsin in the 1970's that HF was incorporated into the College of Engineering. IE has grown tremendously over the years, and UW-Madison has an incredible faculty, says Smith.
Smith says that IE is currently moving away from the biomechanical aspects of technology and towards the cognitive characteristics. The importance of how people feel about technology is one area that Smith says will become more significant in the future. Technology today is often "cold," he feels, having no relation to the people using it, and needs to be humanized. Smith sees a future where we integrate people with technology at a societal level. People must "relate emotionally" to technology in order for all people to be able to use it effectively. The perfect technology, Smith declares, is one that doesn't "dictate to [the user] the method of operation."
Smith's extracurricular hours are often spent with his family. He enjoys UW-Madison sports, and describes himself as a "dyed-in-the-wool" Badger football fan. Often Smith does outside consulting work, as his experience and knowledge are highly sought after.
What Smith likes most about Madison is the people and their attitudes. They are "open and friendly," he says, and "civil in how they disagree and agree" with others. The city also satisfies one of Smith's favorite hobbies: eating. Smith feels that Madison has "one of the best diversities of restaurants" in the country.
A pillar of the IE department, Smith teaches several courses each semester. One of his most popular is IE 349: Introduction to Human Factors, which in recent years has been attended by many engineers of all disciplines, not just IE's. Brunette feels students are attracted to Smith because "[his] work ethics, discipline, and integrity have inspired us…towards becoming better human beings."