Front Matter


For over 35 years, the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program has led the NSF in developing innovative new modes of support for research and education, led U.S. academic institutions to form intellectual and financial partnerships with industry, produced thousands of engineering graduates who are highly productive leaders and innovators in industry and academe, and enabled thousands of innovative new technologies and companies that have added billions of dollars in value to the U.S. economy. The Program has been an unqualified success and continues to be so today.

NSF agreed with the authors that the time was right to tell the story of this landmark program. The authors of the History are well qualified to do so. Lynn Preston was one of the founding directors of the ERC Program in 1984 and she led the Program continuously from 1988 through 2013—an unusually long time for one individual to direct a major federal program. She retired from NSF in 2014. Courtland Lewis, a communications consultant, was present at the genesis of the Program in meetings between the White House Science Advisor and the National Academy of Engineering in 1983 and has served as communications contractor for the ERC Program since 1990. Together their direct experience spans most of the history of the Program.

The resulting book, Agents of Change: NSF’s Engineering Research Centers, has a number of aims. It explores and documents how the Program’s successes were achieved. It elucidates lessons learned and provides management guidance to a range of interested audiences. And it captures the historical details of that history for posterity, with links to hundreds of ancillary documents. The book traces the antecedents of the ERC Program in NSF’s history prior to 1983, positions the start of the Program in a disciplinary culture at NSF where engineering was not highly respected, and traces its development and significant impacts on NSF and the academic engineering culture and relationships with industry. It explores a number of important shifts in academic engineering research culture brought about by ERCs at their host institutions:

  • From isolated individualism to a community of teamwork and collaboration;
  • From blue-sky fundamental research to systems-driven strategic technology research;
  • From publications merely as an outcome of research to publications feeding technology;
  • From no reporting to NSF on outcomes to full post-award reporting, including data and financial management;
  • From no accountability for research funding to accountability to deliver results in research, technology, and education; and
  • From pre-award peer review to both pre- and post-award peer review.

The History also describes key achievements of the ERCs in terms of discoveries, technologies, and advances in education—and how enlightened program management, the ERC Program’s strategic planning engineered-systems methodology, individual ERC participants and their reviewers from NSF and industry, and the ERC construct itself combined to produce an “ERC culture” that led to these innovations. As an e-book, it can be navigated and searched in any way the reader wishes. In other words, it is a thoroughgoing and, we hope, highly readable account of how the Program has evolved continuously across decades to address the challenges and meet the needs of a changing world. We hope you find it useful and perhaps even enlightening.

Lynn Preston

Courtland Lewis

July 23, 2020


Writing this book was no small undertaking. The authors wish to acknowledge, first, the financial support of the National Science Foundation. In particular, the project would not have been launched without the support and encouragement of Dr. Don Millard, Deputy Division Director of NSF’s Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) Division, who “greenlighted” the project and provided guidance. We wish to acknowledge also Dr. Sandra Cruz-Pol, EEC Program Director, who served as Program Officer for the project. Their patience in supporting the book project as it grew in size and duration is greatly appreciated. 

We also appreciate the support of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and our project director there, Dr. Rocio Chavela Guerra, for her logistical and organizational support, as well as ASEE’s Executive Director, Dr. Norman Fortenberry, who provided excellent advice and assistance in setting up the contract with NSF. Without the ASEE as our prime contractor, it would have been difficult to get this project off the ground. 

We are greatly indebted to the members of our Editorial Review Board and other reviewers and contributors, who provided guidance on the book’s structure and style, reviewed very lengthy book chapters, and contributed vital elements such as personal essays, case studies, anecdotes, and interviews that helped to bring the narrative to life. They are too numerous to name here, but some of the key contributors were Dr. Marc Rothenberg, retired former NSF Historian; Dr. Randolph Hatch, President of Cerex, Inc. and a former NSF Program Director and ERC reviewer; and Dr. Steven Director, a prolific participant in several ERCs as faculty member, leader, and administrator at four different universities over the course of his career. Dr. Michael Nolan, of Cerium Software LLC, provided valuable support in building the WordPress “shell” that houses the online e-book. And Lillian Stiles, an engineering student at the University of Virginia, served ably as our intern in uploading the book and all its many ancillary files to the website. 

But perhaps most of all, Lynn Preston wishes to express her undying gratitude to two large groups: First, to the dozens of NSF Program Directors, Division leaders, and support staff who made leading and managing the ERC Program possible and even enjoyable over the years. And second, to the hundreds of ERC center directors, faculty, staff, and students of the more than 60 ERCs she helped to establish during her tenure as ERC Program Leader. Collectively, together with their industry partners, they did what the founders of the Program set out to do 35 years ago, which was to change the culture of academic engineering so that it could serve the Nation’s needs more effectively. That was an undertaking so ambitious that many doubted it could succeed. But succeed it did. And in the process, together they created the “ERC Family,” a cooperative, collective team undertaking of a kind that has seldom been seen in the history of government funding programs. For that, she wishes to express to them all her admiration and most sincere thanks. 


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the ASEE Board of Directors, ASEE’s membership, or the National Science Foundation.