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Professor Aubrey Gibson, P.E.


Professor Aubrey Gibson

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Aubrey Gibson
Audio Interview

Professor Aubrey Gibson, 1972

Professor Aubrey Gibson, 2007

John Calder, Aubrey Gibson and Dan Rivard



Aubrey talking to ME-EM's space propulsion professor Brad King


Shown here in 2004, Aubrey is in the center with MTU president Glenn Mroz, Mr and Mrs. Dan Rivard and MEEM Chair Bill Predebon inaugerating the new Rivard Product Realization Center







A Legacy of Action:
Professor Aubrey Gibson, P.E.

Associate Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering


Employers from around the nation comment that graduates from Michigan Tech’s ME-EM Department often share a key characteristic: the energy and vigor with which they pursue practical engineering solutions.

One businessman who has worked extensively with MTU engineers recently commented, “If I wanted an equation I could call an engineer from any school. If I needed the problem figured out and solved by the next day, I would call one of our MTU grads.”

This can-do educational culture has developed over the years with the influence of professors like Aubrey Gibson. Serving MTU from 1954 to 1977, Gibson and other ME-EM Emeriti Faculty embody the optimism, determination and work ethic that flourished in post-WWII culture. His no-nonsense style is described by his former student John Calder ’67 now the CEO of Cincinnati Controls, “He used to crack a bull whip in class.”

But Gibson’s discipline was not about keeping social courtesy – he understood the need for focus to make progress in the classroom. His own intense focus was sharpened in the 1940’s when he taught metal shop at the University of Kansas – where unbroken attention kept him safe. Gibson explains, “I got involved with the war effort, teaching benchwork to machinists through the Navy program on campus. They needed someone to teach machinists and they paid me $0.75 an hour when most student workers made $0.35 hour.”

After finishing his Bachelor’s Degree, Gibson worked at Allis-Chalmers, where he was loaned to the Navy as a controls engineer. He later worked on powerline systems until returning to the University of Kansas for a Master’s Degree, where he studied gas turbines. It was at the close of his Master’s that he first heard of Michigan Tech. He states, “Michigan Tech advertised a flyer to University of Kansas. I’d never heard of it and had a hard time finding Houghton on the map because I was looking at Houghton Lake in lower Michigan. I came for an interview and I’m still here. That was in ’54.”

When he arrived at Michigan Tech, he moved into the newly constructed Douglas Houghton Hall, where his experience with turbine controls took the “steam” out of noisy celebrations from nearby athlete’s housing. “I started out as a Resident Faculty Advisor,” Gibson explains. “I was in charge of keeping a lid on the student discipline situation. The hockey players and football players were out in barracks behind DHH, army surplus barracks. They got to making too much noise. The hockey players used to regulate temp with the windows and doors, leaving the steam radiator wide open. The noise was extensive. I decided to close the doors by turning off the steam. There happened to be a pipe in the basement of DHH where there was a valve. I just turned it off and waited and it took them about a week before anyone complained about it being cold over there. ‘Could I do something about the heat?’ I told them, ‘You’re bloody right I can do something about the heat if you guys would shut the noise down.’ The coach, MacInnes, was so mad he wouldn’t speak with me.”

Beyond creative approaches to discipline, Gibson’s former students and colleagues often comment about how much thought and care he put into his teaching. He was intent on creating a serious environment conducive to learning and careful to craft demonstrations that exhibite6d engineering ideas. It was Gibson’s carefulness that made him a man highly respected and his labs highly anticipated. He knew how to tell a story – to use narrative effectively in the classroom. Often, Gibson took narrative one step further: He would show the students a great story and provide them with an unforgettable lesson, creating a sort of narrative-in-action to illustrate the ideas of energy and momentum.

Former student and colleague Bernie Finn ’55 BSME remembers, “Gibson shot a firearm in the classroom once, demonstrating a principle of engineering. As the story goes, he had set up a log hanging from some wires. During class one day he walked across the room and pulled out his 45 and shot a bullet squarely into the log. They say all of the chalk dust shook down from the rafters. It made quite an impression on the students.” The experiment was designed to illustrate conservation of momentum and energy using a ballistic pendulum. Gibson explains, “We tried it in the lab. I allowed students to come in with their deer rifles and we would shoot into a 70-inch birch log that weighed about 75 pounds. I did that for a number of years; it got student’s attention and they knew how to work the problem after that.”

Despite the appearance of danger, Gibson used every precaution to make the experiment not only a memorable lesson but a safe, controlled experiment. Finn remembers, “He was coach of the MTU pistol team for awhile and was an excellent shot.” With these demonstrations Gibson securely cemented the ideas of energy and momentum in his students’ minds. Calder describes, “I was intimidated by Aubrey’s reputation for being a demanding professor, but I found him to be an excellent teacher and a very good influence.”

Gibson demanded his students be motivated, hard working and committed. In return, he gave his students the same commitment and dedication. Gibson also left a legacy of influence on the ME-EM Department, inspiring future faculty to follow in his spirited, hands-on teaching style. Finn recalls, “Gibson had a strong influence on me. He is a no-nonsense person, very hands on and a practical teacher. He is very good at explaining things. The students all liked him. He demanded discipline and the students listened to instructions and what was being taught in class. They respected him for that.”

Although Gibson retired in 1977, his influence can still be found in the ME-EM Department where challenging hands-on labs are a cornerstone of undergraduate education. For example, Assistant Professor Brad King leads students through a four week experiment recording measurements on a rocket engine in the lab to predict the rocket’s trajectory. They also incorporate thermal chemistry into the experiment and learn to calculate heats of reaction to study fuel efficiency. “It ties together multiple concepts and really is a lot of fun,” says King. During the final week of the experiment, the class launches their rockets in the softball fields behind the Student Development Complex. “Then they have an actual experimental verification of what the trajectory was, allowing them to compare it with prediction by measuring drag and thrust force of engine,” King says. “Students like to get out in the woods and launch rockets instead of sit in the classroom and listen to us talk.”

The hands-on nature of instruction at Michigan Tech is a key factor to the success of ME-EM grads in research and industry. Students are challenged to apply theoretical concepts to practical situations, perpetuating the tradition of aggressive problem solving. Whether it is rifles or rockets, instructors like Aubrey Gibson and Brad King have inspired students to look beyond textbooks, take controlled risks and develop innovative solutions.

Since retiring, Gibson has remained a member of the Houghton area community. As a lover of natural history, he has enjoyed gardening, many fishing trips to Isle Royale with Bernie Finn and continuing to learn through avid reading. He is a member of the Audubon Society and enjoys bird watching, with seed feeders stationed throughout his yard. Under each feeder hangs a small cylinder suspended by two wires, looking curiously like a ballistic pendulum. However, these cylinders are steel and energized not by bullets, but rather by voltage from an electric fence transformer. The intended lesson on energy is not for students, but for “that damn bear” that visits Gibson’s backyard for an occasional “hands-on” review of Ohm’s law.

Gibson thus continues to teach both man and beast. For us humans, his lessons are tendered mostly by example now – living well, speaking well, considering his words carefully, for he knows the power of a concise statement. When meeting him in person, one cannot help but stand up straight and listen carefully. On parting, one leaves him with a sense of having learned something. When asked if his time at MTU was a good experience, he pondered his response carefully but answered with characteristic certainty, in a single word: "Absolutely." For most of the students who studied during his tenure, the answer to this question is the same.

Hear the voice of Aubrey Gibson. You can listen to an interview with Gibson

This article and audio profile were written and developed by Monte Consulting Company.