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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
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WAVE OF INFLUENCE - By Jeffrey Selingo - Three foundations have had a major impact on engineering education, particularly in the areas of biomedical, entrepreneurship and distance education.

By Jeffrey Selingo
Illustration by Curtis Parker

In June, the State University of New York (SUNY) revealed plans to develop what it called the “world’s first online bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.” With a launch date of 2007, the program is forecasting an initial enrollment of 200 students in 20 upper-division courses, all taught by professors on three SUNY campuses.

But the press release announcing the degree did not start off by touting the program. Rather, it announced the inspiration behind the plan: a $300,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “We could not have done it without Sloan,” says Charles R. Westgate, dean of the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science at Binghamton University, one of the three SUNY institutions putting together the new program. “Given the condition of the state budget, there just aren’t funds available for efforts like this.”

As part of the Sloan grant, SUNY is charged with figuring out if other engineering disciplines can offer online undergraduate degrees and how universities can serve larger numbers of students through Web-based instruction. “An important outcome of this Sloan grant will be learning how to make better use of technology in engineering education,” Westgate says. “In many ways, this one grant could eventually change the way students are educated.”

That’s exactly what Sloan officials had in mind when they made the gift. For more than a decade, the foundation has used its grant program for online education to encourage universities to establish fully Web-based degree programs in a variety of disciplines. “For all the growth in online education, undergraduate engineering is still an area confined to the physical classroom,” says A. Frank Mayadas, director of the foundation’s grant program for online education. “It will be a better society all around if people are able to learn what they want online as well as in classrooms.”

Sloan is among a handful of foundations—a group that includes the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Whitaker Foundation—that are increasingly playing a larger role in engineering education. In a few cases, these organizations are driving the agenda, encouraging changes to the curriculum and the bureaucratic structure of institutions and departments in exchange for their support. Most of the time, though, the groups are simply providing the financial wherewithal for cash-strapped institutions to pursue ideas that may have otherwise remained buried in a strategic plan collecting dust on a bookshelf.

Anthony Mendes calls the new connections being made between foundations and engineering programs a “convergence of opportunity.” Mendes, the former director of college initiatives at the Kauffman Foundation, is now executive director of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which was established through a Kauffman Foundation grant. “On one hand, universities have this tremendous intellectual capacity,” Mendes says. “And on the other, foundations have missions to bring about change. Together, it’s a pretty powerful combination.”


The End of a Generous Foundation

The increased foundation support for engineering education comes at a time when its biggest backer is leaving the game. Next year, the Virginia-based Whitaker Foundation, which has given more than $900 million to engineering programs since 1976, is shutting down after completing a 15-year plan to spend all its assets.

The decision to go out of business allowed the organization to accelerate spending in recent years in one area in particular: the establishment of departments and formal degree programs in biomedical engineering. Whitaker has been a longtime proponent of the field, which is often overlooked by universities because its interdisciplinary nature requires the cooperation of two disparate schools on campus: engineering and medicine.
Whitaker officials believed that if they pressed for the establishment of biomedical engineering departments and degree programs, institutions would be forced to pay more attention to the discipline. “Departments are really the ones who hire faculty, recruit students and determine the destiny of an institution’s commitment to the field,” says Whitaker President Peter G. Katona.

But some universities were not interested in the Whitaker approach, Katona says. “They said that biomedical engineering was really an interdisciplinary area,” he says. “One university, we were told, said that rather than establishing departments, the Whitaker Foundation is trying to abolish
departments.”

Whitaker did find plenty of takers for its vision, however—institutions that were also willing to commit their own dollars. Since 1989, a total of 75 institutions have received awards ranging from $750,000 to $18 million to develop the educational infrastructure for biomedical engineering. The result has been a significant increase in the number of biomedical engineering programs, which has nearly doubled from about 25 in 1995 to nearly 50 just five years later.

One of the largest grants from the Whitaker Foundation went to Boston University in 2001. It was a $14-million, five-year award that has enabled the biomedical engineering department there to add 12 faculty members, some of whom have joint appointments in other departments. The grant has also paid for graduate fellowships, renovations and new teaching and research space on both the main campus and the medical center and the development of new courses.

The Whitaker grant “enhanced our image and capabilities,” says Kenneth Lutchen, professor and chairman of the university’s biomedical engineering department. “Our rankings have improved a lot, and we are now attracting an extremely high-quality graduate student.” The graduate applicant pool quadrupled to 400 in a few years, he says, and the graduate program now enrolls 120 students, a 60-percent jump from 2001.

At the University of California, San Diego, a $17.2-million grant from the Whitaker Foundation was the lead gift in the construction of a $37-million bioengineering building that opened on the campus in 2002. Each of the building’s four floors is dedicated to one of the department’s major technical focus areas: genomic bioengineering/bioinformatics, molecular biomechanics, cellular and tissue engineering and systems bioengineering. Whitaker “really has made a tremendous impact by making universities aware of the importance of this field,” says Shu Chien, chairman of the bioengineering department at UC-San Diego. “They made sure universities will match the support.”

As a result of that institutional support, Chien and other bioengineering deans say that the loss of Whitaker is manageable. What’s more, other foundations, like the Alfred Mann Foundation and the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, plan to continue Whitaker’s grant programs for biomedical engineering, although on a much smaller and narrower scale. Even Katona, Whitaker’s president, agrees that the field will thrive without the foundation. “Our work is much more finished than I ever thought 15 years ago,” he says. “Things turned out much better than I ever expected.”

But one area where Katona and engineering deans worry a void may be left by Whitaker’s departure is in financial support to young faculty members. Since 1976, Whitaker has given grants to professors early in their careers to help them get started in the field; many had difficulty obtaining funds from either the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), the two largest sources of federal research grants to academe. The problem was that NIH officials viewed the grant applications as too closely tied to engineering, a subject funded by the NSF; the NSF, meanwhile, saw the proposals as related to medicine, a field funded by the NIH.

Whitaker has given more than 1,300 grants to beginning researchers over the years, which in turn has helped it gain support from other grant-making organizations, including the NIH and NSF. Katona says it was much better being a young faculty member 10 years ago because now it’s going to be harder to get a grant without Whitaker.

In March, the National Research Council discovered the same problem. In a report, the council urged the NIH to provide more research-grant money and independence to postdoctoral scientific researchers. The report noted that a growing number of Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences spend years working in postdoctoral positions before they establish independent research careers. The average age at which scientists land their first NIH grant is now 42. The authors of the report worry that that pattern hinders the development of the most promising young researchers and the novel ideas they could contribute to science.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni responded to the report by saying that improving career prospects for younger scientists was his top priority. Still, San Diego’s Chien says that until the NIH is able to change its practices, the young research grants from Whitaker “are going to be sorely missed. No one else is doing exactly what Whitaker did,” he says.


Engineering Entrepreneurship

Whitaker is not alone among foundations in trying to break new ground in engineering education. The Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation is sponsoring a $25-million grant program, along with other initiatives, aimed at encouraging colleges to offer entrepreneurship education across their campuses. The foundation’s goal: to enable students in any discipline, including engineering, to benefit from a curriculum that historically has been the domain of business schools. “Most entrepreneurship education occurs in the business school,” says Bob Strom, Kauffman’s director of entrepreneurship research. “Yet most people who start businesses don’t have business degrees.”

Even if nonbusiness majors are inclined to take entrepreneurship courses, it’s often difficult for them to fit the classes into their schedules, if they are available at all. That’s especially true in engineering departments where schedules are typically packed with required courses, leaving little room for anything else. The Kauffman strategy of infusing an entrepreneurship curriculum within existing departments is a perfect match for a major like engineering, Strom says. After all, he says, those students have the technical skills and drive to start their own businesses. “Engineers are the ones who come up with innovative ideas that change how we do things and make society grow,” Strom says.

At the University of Illinois, the Kauffman grants partly help faculty members develop new courses in entrepreneurship, says Mendes, the executive director of the university’s Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Since it’s only the second year of the grant, no entrepreneurship courses have been fully developed in engineering yet, but Mendes expects that to change by the end of this year. “We have entrepreneurial faculty in engineering,” he says. In addition, compared with nearly every other major at the university, a higher percentage of engineering students tell him in surveys that they have an interest in an entrepreneurial career. “Faculty in their respective fields know best how to create curriculum that is appropriate to their students,” Mendes says.

Before he came to Illinois, Mendes was part of a team at Kauffman that interviewed officials at universities where the foundation was considering making a grant. During those visits, two problems emerged with the current way colleges were teaching entrepreneurship, he says. For one, the business school courses were over-enrolled and mostly focused on economic entrepreneurship. No college viewed entrepreneurship the way Kauffman did—as “value creation.” What we’re trying to do is teach students how to create social value, Mendes says. “It’s not all about the bottom line and making money.”

At Stanford, grants from the Kauffman Foundation have helped fund the engineering school’s Technology Ventures Program, which teaches about and studies entrepreneurship in technology-based firms. The program focuses on three areas, says its executive director, Tina L. Seelig: teaching, research and outreach.

The program has developed 25 courses on topics such as capacity and innovation, business-plan writing and negotiation, and it reaches 1,500 undergraduate and graduate science and engineering students a year. It also supports 15 Ph.D. students on their way to becoming entrepreneurship educators, hosts Web sites with materials on entrepreneurship education and sponsors four annual conferences in California, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The highlight of the Technology Ventures Program is the Mayfield Fellows. It helps match a dozen Stanford engineering students with paid summer work at start-up companies that agree to spend a significant time supervising and training them. Before the summer, the students take a course that includes discussions of management theory and studies of start-ups. Students also write case studies of their companies and have a blog.

Unlike the Whitaker Foundation’s contributions to engineering education, which take the physical form of departments and buildings, measuring the results of Kauffman’s assistance is more difficult, admits Strom, the Kauffman executive. “Some of this we can measure in a qualitative way,” he says. “If students coming out of universities say they’ve been educated in entrepreneurship, then we’ve succeeded. If faculty research is turning into articles for scholarly journals, then we’ve succeeded. To the extent all that happens, we’ll be satisfied.”


Online Education

At the Sloan Foundation, results may be even further off when it comes to evaluating the success of online engineering courses. But in many ways, Mayadas, the director of Sloan’s grant program for online education, is just happy that such courses are moving to the Web at all. For years, he was frustrated with the limited distribution of online classes in engineering schools, particularly among the offerings for undergraduates. The primary barriers? Undergraduate courses are separately accredited by ABET and require laboratory sessions.

As part of the Sloan grant to SUNY, officials were able to work around both obstacles. Accreditors were satisfied with the Web-based program as long as “the online labs had the look, feel and smell of a regular lab,” says Westgate, Binghamton’s dean. To accomplish that, the universities will ship lab kits to the online students to use at home and return when the course is over for a grade.

Westgate expects the online degree will mostly attract part-time students who have already finished their associate’s degrees but could not continue on for a bachelor’s degree or are in the military or live overseas. “Electrical engineers are in demand in the workforce, so it’s important that we educate more of them in a way that’s convenient to them,” Westgate says.
Students will apply to one of the three SUNY campuses offering the program—Binghamton, Buffalo or Stony Brook—from which they will also get advising and eventually their degrees. The online students will pay the same tuition as on-campus students, which will go toward hiring 12 new faculty members at each of the three schools to help teach the Web-based courses (the online students, however, will pay extra fees).

While SUNY is the first to offer an online undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, Mark Karwan, dean of Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says the university’s goal is not to corner the market. “The Sloan grant will allow us to learn from our experience and pass that on to the field through conferences,” Karwan says.

Indeed, Karwan and Westgate are already thinking about other engineering fields that could move to Web-based instruction in the future. Computer engineering is likely the next logical one, Karwan says. But like entrepreneurship education and biomedical engineering, without future support from foundations, it will be difficult to make such giant strides, Westgate says.

“Because of limited resources, so much of what we do is sustain the educational model we have,” Westgate says. “We don’t have a significant source of dollars to invest in seed funding for new educational programs. That’s why what these foundations are doing is so important. They give us the push, the inspiration and, of course, the initial funds, and then we’re able to take it from there. They’re the spark.”

Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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