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Engineer and Educator: Celebrating Dr. Magleby's Time at BYU

"I'm nothing special, but I've been around awesome people," says awesome person Spencer Magleby

Image of Dr. Magleby with Cosmo
Photo by Matthew Norton/BYU

Dr. Spencer Magleby, a core part of our Mechanical Engineering department for the past 35 years, is retiring. Dr. Magleby considers himself destined to be a 'geeky engineer:’ he grew up designing and creating with a special interest in architecture. While earning his bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering at BYU, a student club convinced him to start thinking about grad school. "From there," he says, "It was that simple." After a short time in industry at General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin) to support his mechanical engineering PHD studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he and his wife Stephanie made their awaited return to BYU where Magleby helped found BYU’s nationally recognized Capstone Design Program.

Magleby, a self-proclaimed 'social engineer,’ spent many years helping to develop other programs and initiatives while in various BYU administration positions, including Associate Dean of the College of Engineering (2005-2016), Associate Dean of BYU Undergraduate Education (2016-2022), and most recently, Director of the BYU Honors Program (2016-2022). To Magleby, administration involved a lot of engineering-- "You want to build a system that keeps going once you're gone," Magleby explains. “Educational systems need to be created and designed too.”

The most important takeaway for Magleby from his time in administration was developing communities—fostering climates where diverse groups of students can come together for a common vision.

Collaboration has also been a key point throughout Magleby’s career in research. Magleby has well over 100 publications and 31 patents with students as co-authors and inventors. "Research is about the students who get to do cool things,” says Magleby. “I’m nothing special, but I’ve been around a lot of awesome people.”

The BYU Compliant Mechanisms Research Lab, which Magleby co-[runs] with Dr. Larry Howell, has recently gained recognition for notable collaborations, including NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and YouTubers Mark Rober and Veritasium, in addition to a variety of other industries. Magleby's favorite projects have been their work with origami-inspired mechanisms, especially designs for deployable space telescopes and arrays.

Despite his upcoming retirement, Magleby has no intention of giving up engineering or teaching. "I can't imagine another job," he explains. "It's not really a job, it's a calling. It's more who I am than what I do." When asked for his plans for the future, he detailed his vision for improving engineering education for the underprivileged. “I want to bring the work I've begun at BYU to new audiences.” He also has plans for home DIY projects and private consulting work.

Magleby’s biggest advice for BYU students is to be serious about being part of making the world a better place. "Engineers have a big influence on the world," Dr. Magleby says. "We should have a cross section of engineers who understand the world and the people in it."

"Come up for air and look around— don’t stay too deep in your engineering, be a part of the world. BYU can be just about passing your classes, but it can also be about finding the special combination of things that make you influential. That’s how you’ll become great.”