Cadet critical thinking is crucial for department professor

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.– Every fall, Lt. Col. Neil Rogers searches for two distinct types of U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering cadets.

First, the department’s senior military faculty member and assistant professor looks for cadets who show a penchant for solving the most difficult problems with plans to challenge them further.

Second, Rogers focuses on cadets who might need encouragement. Almost every year, he encounters at least one student who feels overwhelmed and incapable of making the program. Rogers goes above and beyond to convince them that they are more than capable.

Developing cadet critical thinking

Cadets are primarily focused on building their fundamental engineering skills in their first two years, but Rogers begins to evaluate their critical-thinking potential as soon as they arrive in the department.

“Everything we do is designed to prepare cadets to become the best engineers and problem-solvers in their first active duty organization,” Rogers said.

“Whether it is research, teaching, mentoring cadets for graduate school applications, everything is geared toward getting our cadets to be critical thinkers,” Rogers said. “Being an engineer requires you to think independently and develop your own solutions to problems you’ve never seen before.”

The process of developing a research pipeline

As early as possible, the faculty try to identify cadets who are ready to step into a research project. Once cadets reach the fall semester of their junior year – perhaps the most demanding of their time at the Academy – faculty members begin matching them with their Cadet Summer Research Projects.

“We are developing a pipeline for research that starts from the moment they set foot at the Academy and extends through their entire tenure, culminates with a realistic senior design project and sees them succeed at a world-class graduate school. At this point, when they show up at their first duty station, they are ready to go.”

The entire pipeline is geared toward building the Air Force’s best STEM leaders.

“It is a long and time-consuming process, but as senior military faculty member, it is my job to think long term,” Rogers said. “It really makes graduation a beautiful day for me.”

Among the nation’s best colleges

Electrical and computer engineers are critical for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. Engineering majors at the Academy can follow one of three tracks: Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering or combined Electrical and Computer Engineering. U.S. News and World Report’s 2024 rankings of national liberal arts colleges placed the department in the nation's top 10 undergraduate programs.

‘You absolutely can do this’

The department has produced Marshall Scholars, Stamps Scholars, and others, but Rogers wants to see every cadet succeed. Although most engineering cadets are at the top of their class and can handle a difficult major with few problems, some struggle in unexpected ways, he said.

“A large part of my job is helping those cadets realize their potential and, ultimately, inspiring them to do the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” he said. “My message to them is, ‘You absolutely can do this. Can you hang in there with me? We are going to get you to the finish line!’ And when they invariably do, you can compare the confidence level from the beginning of the year to the final class and see the night-and-day difference.”

Cadet-focused faculty member

“As the senior military instructor, Rogers plays an influential role in the department’s success,” said department head Col. Joshua Egan. “He directs capstone studies and identifies Department of Defense-relevant and cadet-focused projects. But Rogers excels at educating cadets and preparing them to become technical experts and leaders of character.”

“Lt. Col. Rogers’ biggest contribution is how well he relates to cadets,” Egan said. “It is rare that I walk by his office when cadets are not inside getting extra instruction on a concept from class they did not understand, discussing research they are working on together or just asking questions about life as a developmental engineer.

“On top of that, he’s exactly the type of officer the Academy needs teaching the next generation of leaders.”

Job satisfaction

Six years into his tenure as a faculty member, the part of the job Rogers still enjoys most is watching cadets progress in their Academy journey.

“While it’s awesome to see the cadets who are top-notch, they’re the easy ones,” Rogers said. “The cadets who did not think they could do it in the beginning bring me the most joy because they are building confidence that they will have for the rest of their lives. They will never forget that.”