Colleges: A different route to the factory

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 

Innovation and entrepreneurship have been buzzwords as the nation seeks to reset its economy. And success may depend on people like Samantha Yang. The 21-year-old is a senior at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., where she is majoring in mechanical engineering.

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Photo Courtesy of Sam Yang

In addition to a Microsoft internship and conducting energy research in China, Sam Yang, 21, also taught herself HTML and CSS to build a website for a family restaurant where she worked at during the summer.

“It’s hard to explain why I love it so much,” said Yang about her experience at Olin. “It’s changed the way I solve and approach problems.”

With the rise of globalization and the means to build things cheaper elsewhere, the manufacturing industry in the United States has seen a long slide for the past 40 years. This trend accelerated in the past decade, with the country losing nearly one-third of its manufacturing jobs. While most of those jobs will not return, a recent report from the Brookings Institution says the United States can harness its ability to thrive in advanced manufacturing with an investment in higher education. The authors propose $25 million annual awards from the National Science Foundation for 20 universities that recalibrate their engineering programs “with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to manufacturing firms” and provide more “real-world work experience,” according to the report.

U.S. colleges and universities award fewer engineering bachelor’s degrees than they did in 1986. Engineering degrees are also awarded at a lower rate than in other advanced manufacturing economies such as Germany and Japan. Olin College seeks to change this.

“We were founded about a decade ago with a specific mission to revitalize engineering education by making it more engaging and appealing to today’s brightest students,” said Joseph Hunter, assistant vice president and director of communication at Olin.

The college graduated its first class in 2006; 90 percent of students complete their degrees compared with a 50 percent average rate in engineering programs nationally. Olin also maintains a focus on entrepreneurial endeavors, partnering with neighboring Babson College. By having a project-based approach to learning, Olin hopes to attract more students to the field who “can see how they can make a difference in the world through law, business or medicine, but who still see engineering as the province of social skills-challenged math and science geeks,” said Hunter.

In addition, Olin’s student body is also nearly half female, a rarity in most engineering programs. Yang wasn’t sure what she was looking for in an academic program but chose Olin because it seemed like a “cooler” way of education.

“You’re bringing together students that are kind of at the top and forcing them to find their way in a very different learning environment than they’ve previously found success in,” said Yang.

She has enriched her education with an internship at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., and participation in a summer research program partnership between Olin and NASA. Yang said the way program managers at Microsoft approached problem-solving aligned with what she was learning at Olin.

“It’s OK to be uncomfortable and not know if it’s going to be solved, but knowing you have to solve it,” said Yang.

In contrast with Olin’s practical focus on engineering education, today’s engineering programs have become more science-based — a detriment to such programs, according to the Brookings report. Manufacturing-focused universities would also focus on producing more Ph.D.-trained engineers who would work in industry.

“It’s really hard to have a plant full of people who have Ph.D.s,” said Mark Richardson, a lecturer at Kettering University in Flint, Mich. “We don’t have the economic model in place to be able to pay for Ph.D. trained people.”

Traditional factories separated those who design from those who do the manufacturing. Employers typically want those with Ph.D.s in research and development where they “can turn some serious money to come up with the next best thing,” said Richardson.

But universities that focus on manufacturing would make practical experience a component of Ph.D. training.

Brookings’ authors argue that academia, as well as the country as a whole, could benefit from balancing its research pursuits with a closer relationship to private-sector manufacturers. Kettering has always had a close relationship with industry. It started as an automobile trade school in 1919. For a time, the school was even called General Motors Institute and received its financial support from the carmaker. It has since evolved into a traditional university featuring Greek life and intramural sports, but Kettering maintains its close relationship with industry through its required co-op program.

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Photo Courtesy of Joe Thielen

Joe Thielen, 20, prefers the full-time co-op experience required at Kettering to a temporary internship. "I have a feeling more of longevity... It enables me to do my job much more effectively," he said.

Joe Thielen, a senior industrial engineering major from Castle Rock, Colo., is on his fourth rotation at Freudenberg-NOK in Cleveland, Ga. He is proud of his recent work to reduce scrap plant-wide by up to 3 percent. The company makes sealant solutions for everything from automobiles and factories to food and chemical products.

“This is exciting. From an educational perspective, this is real-world application I get to go out and do,” said Thielen.

Thielen, the son of an electrical engineer, was fascinated with “how things work” and remembers the television show “How It’s Made” being particularly influential.

“The people who want to be engineers say this is cool stuff, and I want to be a part of how this works and how it comes together,” said Thielen.

Students rotate between classes and full-time work, typically in three-month increments throughout the year. Working with a professional helped Thielen complete statistics courses and the required projects easier. The immediate real-world application serves not only to enrich the student, but the classroom educational experience as well.

“When they talk in class, I can say that’s not exactly what I’m seeing right out in the real world of manufacturing,” said Thielen. “As students, we’re able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no, this is valid.’ ”

While salaries increased overall for the class of 2012, engineering graduates had among the highest starting salaries and highest increases, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. When Thielen graduates, he will have two years of work experience in addition to his degree. Yang, who rejected a post-graduation offer from Microsoft, is talking with a friend about creating a product that would “make a positive impact on the world.” It is just such development of an “innovation-driven, production-oriented engineering culture,” the report suggests, that would make the U.S. more competitive.

“We don’t think of manufacturing as its own industry as being part of another end goal,” said Yang. “It’s not how you make something happen, but the how is a bigger picture of whatever else you’re creating.”

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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

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Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.