NSF Grant Expands The Experimental Engineering Model At Kansas State

November 04, 1998

MANHATTAN -- Successful engineers in the 21st century will need skills beyond their technical ones.

In studies for more than a decade, industry leaders have consistently listed the traits for working in a global economy : communication and persuasion, teamwork, leadership, understanding non-technical forces that influence engineering decisions, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

University-level engineering programs are in the process of shifting away from traditional, lecture-based instruction and developing new training models.

Recently, the National Science Foundation funded eight university-based experimental engineering programs, in round one of the competition, "systemic initiative for engineering education reform."

As part of this initiative, the Advanced Manufacturing Institute at Kansas State University received $800,000 from the National Science Foundation to expand its Manufacturing Learning Center into an engineering learning center. Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation, the state's technology-based economic development agency contributed an additional $450,000 to the expansion. The program began in 1995 to give K-State engineering students real-world experience before they graduate.

The Manufacturing Learning Center is a modern manufacturing plant equipped with the latest hardware and software. K-State engineering student interns, supervised by professional engineers, work in teams to solve engineering problems sent to the center by Kansas manufacturing companies. The students take a project from its concept stage to the point where a new product or process has been developed, tested and implemented to a client's satisfaction.

Farhad Azadivar directs the Advanced Manufacturing Center that operates the Manufacturing Learning Center, and he is principal investigator on the grants. The center gives college-level engineering students "the exact experience" of the engineering environment they will likely encounter when they start working after graduation, he commented.

"Traditionally, newly-hired engineers take six months to a year to become fully productive," Azadivar said. "The major advantage of supplementing K-State's strong engineering training with the center internship is that our graduates are productive from day one of their employment.

"As a result, they are of significantly higher value to their employers," he said. "And since professors also work with the students on the projects, engineering education as a whole is benefiting."

K-State's model responds to almost all the expressed needs of students and employers as set forth in the National Science Foundation's Engineering Education Reform document, he explained. "We hope our expanded model will become one that other institutions will elect to follow as they reform their engineering education systems."

Jeff Tucker, Manufacturing Learning Center operations manager, calls the center a "teaching factory," a model borrowed from the many successful teaching hospitals across the nation where students work alongside the professional staff.

"Our goal is to immerse college engineering students in a realistic manufacturing environment, one from which they'll get a clear idea of the business constraints companies operate under, a setting in which they acquire a versatile set of skills.

"It's not enough to come up with the perfectly engineered product or process if a manufacturer cannot afford to implement it. Manufacturing Learning Center interns will work with a checkbook concept," he said. "That is, they'll test their engineering designs with questions like what's it going to cost: Is it feasible to do it this way?"

The expansion to an engineering learning center will enable students from chemical engineering, computer science and business programs to join the teams of interns from industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. The number of interns will be increased from 60 interns to 100 a year. With more teams, the Manufacturing Learning Center can double the number of research and development projects it carries out for manufacturers. The Manufacturing Learning Center completes about 80 projects a year for small to midsize manufacturing companies, many based in Kansas.

A unique feature of K-State's engineering learning center will be the inclusion of high school student interns who work and learn along with the college-level interns. The first five high school students enrolled this fall. The number of interns will increase to as many as 20 high school students a year within the next three years.
Prepared by Kay Garrett.
Farhad Azadivar at (785) 532-6329 or by e-mail: fazad@ksu.edu
Jeff Tucker at (785) 532-3421 or by e-mail: jwtuck@ksu.edu

Kansas State University
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