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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Carl Sorensen

Dr. Carl Sorensen is concluding his 36 year career as a professor at Brigham Young University this summer. During his time here he has changed the face of engineering at BYU and made contributions that will last for generations.

Despite a lifelong career in engineering, Sorensen actually started in physics because of a good high school teacher and the opportunity for real world applications. He graduated from BYU with a bachelors degree in physics in 1981. He made the switch to engineering in graduate school and received a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"I wanted to apply physics to make a difference,” Sorensen said. “Later on in my physics career, we stopped talking about real world things and started talking about more general things, so I switched to engineering, which allows me to work with real things as well as the conceptual and theoretical.”

Teaching was always the plan for Sorensen, but he intended to get experience and expertise working for a company in the field first. He did postdoctoral work with General Electric and Chrysler on spot welding controllers for components for jet engines and electrode designs.

However, when the opportunity came to work at BYU after his Ph.D., he jumped on the opportunity and hasn’t looked back. He shared that his most notable experiences and important memories have involved students. He loves to watch the lightbulb go off in their heads in both the classroom and the lab, and help them see how God is involved in that learning process.

“I love getting inspiration for research and for teaching, and being able to see that Heavenly Father knows best. If I listen to the inspiration I get, and if my students listen to inspiration, things work out better,” Sorensen said. “I've had students that were struggling with some concepts in classes, and we talk about it and it still doesn't make any sense until we figure out the right examples to use and the right words to say, and then it clicks.”

Since graduate school, Sorensen had been interested in finding a way to make college students and companies more competitive. From that interest and research, the Capstone program was born. He helped found it in 1989 with Professor Spencer Magleby and Professor Emeritus Robert Todd, who each contributed ideas that have helped the program become what it is today.

“College design experiences tended to focus on competitions where if you could figure out the way to game the rules, you could win,” Sorensen explained. “There were just rules; you didn't actually have to understand customers and you just had to get one prototype to work. I was really trying to make it so that we could do a good job of teaching students design processes that weren't about academic competition, but were aimed at developing engineers who do a better job and help the industry in the real world.”

They developed the Capstone program with its most fundamental characteristics—students working on industrially sponsored projects with a customer in industry. They had coaches for small teams that could help provide mentoring and would be intimately familiar with what was going on in the project as opposed to just teaching in class.

What started with four projects, around 20 students, and a semester class has become an nationally renowned and irreplaceable program in the BYU College of Engineering. This year it boasts 56 projects and 350 students, something that Sorensen is immensely proud of, though he misses the small size that allowed him to be more involved with individual teams.

Sorensen has spent most of his life in Utah, with brief time in Oregon and Massachusetts for his PhD. He currently resides in Provo, a fitting environment to pursue his passions for skiing, camping, boating, and water skiing, among other things.

The professor and father of seven is an engineer both on and off campus. Instead of cars in his garage, he has a shop complete with a lathe, a milling machine, a table saw, a band saw, a belt sander, etc. that provide the space for him to make and refurbish projects. For many years he worked on creating an open source music engraving software for printing scores, with the goal of creating a campfire guitar book for dummies.

“The biggest lesson I have learned is that God has plans for us in our lives, and he will help us achieve our purposes if we live how He asks us to. And I've had that happen [both personally and professionally]. I've seen Him put people in the right position to help me, and put me in the right position to help others,” Sorensen said.

Since starting at BYU, he has been consistently reminded how much engineering and the gospel are intertwined.

“It's easy to separate engineering from the gospel because they are different subjects, but engineering has a role to play in furthering the work in the kingdom, and God cares about what happens at BYU and God cares about what happens in your life,” Sorensen said.

His advice for students is to take counsel from your faith, not your fears.

“Being a student can be challenging and daunting and overwhelming, and it's easy to have imposter syndrome—to believe you don’t belong here, to believe you aren't good enough or smart enough or right enough or capable enough, but that's not true. Work hard and have faith and trust in the Lord, and things will work out.”

Dr. Sorensen with his family