CU Engineering’s Bobby Braun began his role as dean at the beginning of 2017.

Braun’s first brush with the excitement of engineering came at age 11, when he accompanied a neighbor to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and witnessed the success of the Viking 1, the first U.S. mission to land a fully operational spacecraft on Mars.

A “collegial leader” who enjoys working at the intersections of engineering and other disciplines, Braun says he’s committed to building stronger ties with Colorado industries and national labs in the area.

“That’s how we get more relevant,” Braun says. “Working on today’s problems. We have a lot of intellectual capital in the college. Pointing some of that toward society’s most pressing challenges through partnerships is one item I’m likely to focus on.”

Braun’s family includes his wife, Karen, and three children: Zack, a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, Allie Grace, a graduate of Furman University, and Jessica, a junior at UNC-Asheville.

Read on to learn more about Dean Bobby Braun. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You joined us from Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s largest engineering schools. Does your approach change for our college, which is roughly half the size?

While I did learn a number of education and research strategies at Georgia Tech that might apply at CU Boulder, our vision shouldn’t be just to try to replicate Georgia Tech. I’m not interested in that in any way. On the other hand, the idea of fostering a more diverse college while raising academic standards is a good idea whether you’re graduating 1,000 or 100 engineers annually. We must focus on graduating the best-educated and well-rounded engineers we can -- engineers that can develop new theories and apply them in the creation of solutions to significant societal challenges.

As NASA’s former chief technologist you focused on “high-risk, high-reward” research. Are you a natural risk-taker, and how does this influence the way you lead as dean?

I believe in placing bold bets. I think one of the ways to move the college forward is to overlay the strengths of the college on a handful of big challenges where CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science can really have an impact. I guess I would say I’m more interested in significant advances in a smaller number of areas … as opposed to more incremental advances in a larger number of areas. That is a little more of a risk-taking approach.

Given that you already had some firsthand knowledge of our college due to your work on the Grand Challenge, was there anything you were surprised to learn when you started?

I was somewhat familiar with CU, but when you visit or when you work collaboratively with people on campus, it’s a little bit different than actually living here.

One of the things I wasn’t surprised about was the outspoken nature of the faculty and the staff. I was counting on that, and it was there. The energy of the place is really high, and I really love that. I’m kind of a high-energy guy myself, so I’m looking forward to a lot of the brainstorming, collaboration and chance encounters that happen on a campus as exciting as CU Boulder.

What will success look like for you one or two years after becoming dean?

Female representation: By the end of my first full academic year as dean, I would like to have significantly improved the percentage of female freshmen that are coming into our college, as one example. That’s something that I think the college can accomplish if we put our minds to it.

Faculty hiring process: We need to accelerate faculty hiring. The number of students in the college has grown dramatically over the last few years. The college has done a good job of hiring faculty but not at the pace required to keep the student-faculty ratio at what I would consider a reasonable level. When I talk to faculty, it’s pretty clear that many faculty are stressed by the number of students in the classroom, the number of students who want research opportunities, and the college is in some ways busting at the seams. Faculty are the lifeblood of the college, so this is something we must address.

Freshman curriculum: On the academic side, I’m interested in talking to faculty about the idea of more of a common freshman year for engineering. Very few high school students come into the college knowing what engineering is, much less which discipline they want to choose. Having them choose early I think is good because it gives them a ‘home’ so to speak, but it would be nice if there was some flexibility in the curriculum to allow them to experiment or to change their major without too many constraints in the first year. A number of other universities have had success at increasing flexibility for our students without decreasing rigor. I’d like to have this conversation at CU Boulder.

Four-year graduation rate: Another thing I’m very committed to and I want to work on is the four-year graduation rate in the college. We have to have truth in advertising. When we tell the parents of our students that we are offering a four-year degree, then a large percentage of students ought to be completing that degree in four years. If that’s not the case, if a high percentage of our students require five years, maybe we should tell the parents that it’s a five–year degree, or maybe we should modify the curriculum so that we have a four-year degree.

Facility improvements: By May of 2018, I would like to be well along the way for the new (aerospace) building on East Campus. I’d expect the new wing in the Caruthers Building to be complete. I would hope that we’d be talking about improving and growing our presence in SEEC on East Campus, and we should have revitalized some of the Engineering Center facilities as well.

Not all of this is going to happen in 18 months, I know that, but there’s nothing wrong in my view with having large goals.

At NASA, you advocated for increased technology while the federal budget was contracting. What have you learned about being an effective fundraiser?

I learned a number of things in Washington. One is to know your audience; know what your audience cares about. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest technological invention if the person you’re talking to doesn’t see how it’s going to benefit their life.

As engineers we’re trained to focus on the mathematical and scientific elegance of a technical problem. That can be beautiful and is critical to success, but it’s just as important to understand the economic, societal, or health and wellness value of our engineering achievements. It’s very important for engineers to be able to critically assess and express those benefits of a technological solution.