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An Underutilized Option

- By Ted Okiishi

Pairing up an on-campus adviser with an off-campus research mentor is a winning combination for graduate students.

It can be an extraordinarily good experience for engineering graduate students to complete a significant portion of their research in off-campus government or industrial laboratories. Yet, few schools take advantage of the opportunity. This kind of arrangement, which allows students to get hands-on training in the real world, can provide an excellent learning experience for both students and their professors. This is especially true when senior researchers at these laboratories are engaged by the faculty as co-mentors.

The resources of most government and industry laboratories are unparalleled in terms of quality, especially when experiments involving expensive and well-maintained equipment and instruments are part of the project. Government and private industry have much more money than universities to spend on test facilities. Further, these laboratories consider it their business to concentrate on answering research questions related to their areas of specialty, which is a plus for faculty and students who want this kind of focus and depth. Finally, there is usually a more relentless and critical scrutiny of research conducted at government and industry labs, and the results are of the highest quality.

A number of strong engineering education programs are in close proximity to government and industry laboratories and have already experienced the benefits of partnering with these labs in selected specialty areas. In some cases, the university actually runs these labs for the government or for industry. Although there are some effective partnerships already in existence, we could benefit from many more.

A number of the graduate students I have worked with completed their degree program research with considerable success in government and industry
laboratories. While my students and I partnered with some of the research laboratories of the NASA Glenn Research Center, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and GE Aircraft Engines, which are among the best of their kind worldwide, similar resources are available for a wider range of projects nationally.

The concept of having a faculty adviser share the supervision of students with a researcher from an off-campus lab is a concept not yet widely accepted in academe. But if a student is going to spend an appreciable time in an off-campus lab, having a mentor there is essential for several important reasons. This collaborative effort confirms that a partnership exists, the joint ownership of the research project is solidified, and the off-campus adviser is the grad student's lab champion. Additionally, the program of study for the student is strengthened by the outside relationship.

Bringing an off-campus mentor on board can be handled through a variety of temporary, adjunct, or other collaborative graduate faculty appointments. Each university has its way of handling such matters. Unfortunately, sometimes a tenure-track faculty member is hesitant to connect with an off-campus adviser, believing it will “dilute” his or her chances for tenure or promotion. If this is the case, it is the fault of the school's tenure process, and I urge those in higher education who are in influential positions to encourage these outside connections.

Another related concern is that more than a few academics, even in engineering, consider industry-sponsored research to be less important and less worthy of recognition than research sponsored by government agencies. I do not understand this attitude, especially in connection with tenure decisions. Please help faculty members overcome this line of thinking.

The Engineering Research Council of ASEE is intent on achieving high quality and useful research as a vital component of engineering education, and we need your help to get this done.

 

Ted Okiishi is associate dean of the College of Engineering
at Iowa State University and vice chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council.
He can be reached via e-mail at tokiishi@asee.org.


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