Mulhall column: The Mechatronics Master

Mitch Mulhall

“Do you remember Doug Laven?” I asked Carmine, a lifelong friend who went to RE-1 schools until the early 70s.

“Was he tall and skinny?” Carmine asked.

“Yea,” I said as it occurred to me that one or both of those adjectives applied, to one degree or another, to almost every kid we knew then, “yea he was.”

Carmine’s recollection was at best, lukewarm. But as it turns out, Doug is still tall and skinny, and no doubt numerous locals remember him.

Doug and Candy Laven are now our neighbors. After decades in Minnesota, where both worked at South Central College in Mankato, they are re-sinking roots in western Colorado.

From the vantage of our dining room, we have watched Doug and Candy completely remodel their 1960s vintage West Glenwood home. There’s a new addition in the back, a re-landscaped yard, and a media room with cut glass floors back-lit by multi-colored LED bulbs, all controlled through a panel of Doug’s own making.

As remarkable as that seems to me, Doug’s far more industrious than his home remodeling skills suggest. He recently won the 2022 innovation award from the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers for developing a programmable logic controller he calls iMec and effectively deploying it as a STEM learning tool at colleges and high schools.

Doug’s work involves a discipline called “Mechatronics,” which as the name suggests is a crossover between mechanical and electric engineering. This crossover arose in Japan, where an engineer discovered that by educating mechanical engineers about electronics and vice versa, he could avoid serious design incongruities.

About that, he was correct.

What Doug has done is to take this crossover into high school and middle school curricula to foster interest in STEM subjects among students who have difficulty learning through conventional classroom instruction. He calls this program iMec, or independent mechatronics educational curriculum.

The results have been astonishing.

The success of iMec is particularly pronounced among students who learn by doing — and that’s almost all of them.

Rather than reading text books, taking lecture notes, and doing homework involving physics, mathematics, and other STEM disciplines, students learn by developing their own working mechatronic applications that depend on STEM concepts — concepts that might otherwise drift right by them through conventional instruction.

If this sounds to you a lot like the position of Mike Rowe — you know, the Dirty Jobs guy who encourages high school students to consider trades instead of college — you’re not alone. That’s what I thought. I can’t put words in anyone’s mouth, but this sounds like it’s straight out of the Mike Rowe wheelhouse.

But don’t think for a second Doug sees this program as a substitute for a college education. He’s been working with colleges to develop accreditation for these programs, and he sees this much the way he sees his own education — a practical stair step to a well-paid career, a debt-free degree, or both.

Doug explains that during high school at GSHS, he attended the VoTech program. Now, he holds an MBA. He encourages students to pursue a college degree, if that path appeals, and the iMec program has opened academia’s doors for many high schoolers who never dreamt secondary education possible.

Perhaps what’s most astonishing to me is the prevalent disinterest in iMec among local school districts and community colleges. High schools and colleges in Minnesota and Nebraska gush about the iMec program, but in Glenwood Springs and surrounding communities, Doug’s been met with relative indifference if not silence.

Doug overlooks any disappointment, focusing instead on the program’s successes. He’s sure the best is yet to come. The iMec program has gained notice by the National Science Foundation and numerous corporations. The result has been an abundance of grants to continue developing the iMec curriculum and support for teachers.

My years teaching college English hardly make me an education expert. As I look back on my C-student high school performance, however, perhaps a program like iMec would have averted Leo William’s advice to consider a post-high school path that didn’t involve college.

Undoubtedly there are still local students whose STEM grades and future job prospects would benefit from Doug’s iMec program.

Educators interested in innovating student STEM education through iMec may email me at

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