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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY: BANGALORE-JOLT - INDIA’S RAPID HIGH-TECH GROWTH HAS FUELED A HUGE DEMAND FOR WELL-TRAINED ENGINEERS. STARTUPS, INDUSTRY, RETURNING EXPATRIATES AND EVEN A SPIRITUAL LEADER—THE ‘HUGGING SAINT’—OFFER INNOVATIVE WAYS TO FILL THE VOID. BUT ARE THEIR EFFORTS ENOUGH? BY LUCILLE CRAFT
FEATURE: 2 FOR 1 - IN PUTTING ITS BUSINESS AND ENGINEERING SCHOOLS UNDER ONE ROOF, PENN STATE BEHREND AIMS TO FOSTER CREATIVE TEAMWORK WHILE MAKING ITS STUDENTS ATTRACTIVE TO INDUSTRY.  BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EDUCATOR FOR THE REAL WORLD - JIM MELSA WANTED TO CHANGE HOW ENGINEERING IS TAUGHT, EVEN IF IT MADE HIM ‘A PAIN IN THE NECK.’ BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: LAUNCHING A CAREER - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Saving the Marriage - BY PAUL PEERCY

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Walking the Line - Ethics courses give students an understanding of the dilemmas they will face in the workplace—and the confidence to make wise choices. BY ALICE DANIEL
JEE SELECTS: The Case for Inductive Teaching - BY RICHARD FELDER AND MICHAEL PRINCE
ON THE SHELF: Stunning Growth, Stubborn Problems - BY ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
FEATURE: 2 FOR 1 - IN PUTTING ITS BUSINESS AND ENGINEERING SCHOOLS UNDER ONE ROOF, PENN STATE BEHREND AIMS TO FOSTER CREATIVE TEAMWORK WHILE MAKING ITS STUDENTS ATTRACTIVE TO INDUSTRY.  BY MARY LORD - Illustration by Greg MorganFEATURE: 2 FOR 1 - IN PUTTING ITS BUSINESS AND ENGINEERING SCHOOLS UNDER ONE ROOF, PENN STATE BEHREND AIMS TO FOSTER CREATIVE TEAMWORK WHILE MAKING ITS STUDENTS ATTRACTIVE TO INDUSTRY.  BY MARY LORD - Illustration by Greg Morgan  


From a windowed corridor in a vast new complex at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Center looks like any electronics-studded engineering lab. Step inside, however, and it soon becomes clear that this facility is something more: a cutting-edge blend of engineering and business. Not only do corporate visitors stream through, seeking ways to improve their operations using “smart tags” and other inventory-control innovations, but the students huddled over these real-world projects include both business and engineering majors.

“They keep us in check, we keep them in check,” grins M.B.A. candidate Ethan Rice, describing how the two groups cooperate.

In most industries, business and engineering occupy separate worlds. Marketing managers rarely consider plastic tolerances, physics or other key concepts when running their numbers, nor do engineers typically plug profitability into their equations. At Penn State Behrend, both “cultures” learn to talk shop—with powerful results.

On Rice’s team, for example, his collaborators looked to him as the “MIS guy” because of his undergraduate training in management information systems and electrical engineering. Among their joint efforts: determining the optimum placement of RFID tags on Twizzlers cartons so they can be scanned while zipping from loading dock to truck, then linking those data with a global positioning system (GPS) to track each shipment.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is just one of many benefits Penn State Behrend has reaped since becoming one of the nation’s first institutions to put its engineering and business schools under one roof. Many colleges offer a hybrid course or two in, say, product design. And joint-degree programs have proliferated. Yet few colleges have embraced the old real-estate maxim “location, location, location” as a vehicle for integrating two fields that most industries struggle to mesh. In this regard, Penn State Behrend is paving the way. The goal: to get engineering and business students “to appreciate what the other brings to the table,” says Robert Weissbach, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology.

Two decades in the making, Penn State Behrend’s $30 million Research and Economic Development Center (REDC, pronounced “Red Sea”) opened last fall, deliberately designed to foster “collision and collusion” between business and engineering, according to School of Engineering Director Ralph Ford. Classrooms and faculty offices for both schools lie on separate legs of the A-shaped, 160,000-square-foot building, encouraging hallway conversations and instructional collaboration. Both share computer labs and other resources, such as the RFID center, a business-school initiative on engineering-school turf. And all paths—including an internal brick sidewalk connecting REDC to the rest of Penn State Behrend’s bucolic 725-acre campus—steer students through the airy atrium café, strategically placed near the building’s entrance.

REDC exterior, top, and atrium cafe.

In REDC’s first year, joint teams of engineering and business students won $5,000 in an Erie business-plan competition, braved etiquette classes and retreats (“I never met one before,” mused one engineering major of his business peers), and manufactured whimsical race cars designed by sixth graders in the country’s largest plastics teaching lab. Engineering undergraduates were able to sharpen their business acumen through the new technical-sales minor. A second minor in operations and supply-chain management debuts this fall, and an integrated business and engineering degree is in the works. Another sign of how things have changed: Business students now play on the engineering school’s basketball team.

While putting cohabitation into practice posed some tough and even stressful challenges, it did not spawn turf battles among instructors. It has in fact been “one of the easiest sells” with faculty, says engineering school director Ford.

Perhaps that’s because so many engineering faculty members boast industry experience and their business counterparts often have a background in engineering or science. Ford worked at IBM while management professor Diane Parente, another key architect of integration, has a degree in physics. Joint research is flourishing. So is faculty collaboration on everything from a team-taught mechanical engineering course to co-organizing a recent conference on plastics injection molding. Increased interaction also has begun to alter practice: Pointers from peers down the corridor at the Sam and Irene Black School of Business have influenced how the engineering faculty now structures and evaluates teams.

Fusion “was sort of a natural course for us,” says Chancellor Jack Burke, citing the college’s historic ties to local industry. He notes, for example, how Penn State Behrend students helped create an online auction system that saved General Electric’s transportation division millions—and spurred a $176,000 GE Fund seed grant to jump-start similar synergies in academia. Burke envisions co-location and hybrid faculties becoming the norm, not just at Penn State but everywhere, as schools work more closely with industry to remain competitive. Indeed, Virginia Commonwealth University also plans to co-locate its business and engineering schools on its new campus this fall.

Culture Clash

Getting future engineers and executives to rub elbows is one thing, but getting the most out of those interactions required the faculty to look anew at everything from course content and office configurations to the way they think. Things haven’t changed much since a 1977 Harvard Business Review article, “Can Manufacturing and Marketing Coexist?” revealed that engineers and managers differ deeply—from the cars they drive to their leisure pursuits.

Each group seemed to come with half the skills needed for business success and spoke a language the other found hard to understand.

“Business students are used to hearing ‘it depends,’” explains management professor Parente, “but in engineering, if you don’t put a box around something, it isn’t an answer.”

The task of bridging this cultural divide without diluting academic rigor fell to five faculty members, two from the business school, three from engineering. They held focus groups and surveyed both employers and alumni to identify key professional skills needed for entry-level engineers. Surprisingly, basic knowledge of economics and finance paled as a requirement compared with such essentials as being able to communicate, meet deadlines, plan projects and cooperate with colleagues.

From those results, published last fall in the Journal of Engineering Technology, the faculty pieced together a new course in project management to replace required courses in engineering economics and basic management. A multidisciplinary elective in product realization was developed to give students hands-on experience working in mixed teams. Other key workplace skills were distilled into the two new business minors.

The effort met with initial skepticism. Colleagues told Kenneth Fisher, a veteran professor of mechanical engineering technology and co-author of the business-skills study, that such an approach had little value for the engineering community; the core was too crowded. “There was a definite mind-set,” he recalls.

Undergraduates—who form the bulk of Penn State Behrend’s enrollment--had their own doubts. “Students clearly were thinking we didn’t know what we were doing,” recalls Jana Goodrich, a management and marketing instructor. Engineering majors couldn’t see the point of touchy-feely team-building exercises or factoring profitability into physics, while business majors struggled with technical details. Students played professors off against each other, sabotaged teammates and wrote angry E-mails threatening to quit the course. One struggling business student stunned Weissbach by bursting into tears, which the instructor remembers vividly as oversized, comma-shaped droplets. “Engineers don’t cry,” a perplexed Weissbach remarked to faculty colleagues, coining what became a jocular motto.

“It’s an extraordinary new learning style for both,” Weissbach says sympathetically of his students. “You are expected to come up with ideas, solve problems and pursue solutions. You can’t go back to the textbook and look up the answer.”

Professors also struggled to adjust. “I was never taught to team,” says William Lasher, chair of the mechanical engineering program, who is incorporating new teamwork methods into the freshman design course. Now, instead of letting students pick their collaborators and “go forth and team,” he assigns members according to skills and has teams create contracts outlining the consequences for shoddy work or shirkers. “If you get the process right,” concludes Lasher, “the product will follow.”

Classes in the business school (top), and the engineering school.

Prize-winning Idea

EZ Tap, a sensor that determines when a beer keg nears empty and automatically opens a new line to the bar, is one such product. The idea bubbled forth from a product-design seminar that required students to develop sales plans. Accounting major and part-time bartender Deanna Sieberkrob told teammates about heading to the cellar to haul a new keg into place whenever suds ran dry. Intrigued, mechanical engineering senior John Chromchak investigated valves and fluid dynamics while marketing major Justin Munson researched demand for their proposed product.

“We spent a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other,” recalls Sieberkrob. Munson had “never heard one thing about design” in business school, while Chromchak could get the engineering questions answered but thought “cost was just an add-on.” When business students said something needed to be small, engineers demanded to know how small. After talking to 24 bar owners and studying myriad kegs, the team developed a universal tap. But at $700, it was seven times what bars would pay. Ultimately, a re-engineered $100 EZ Tap went on to win second place in a local business-plan competition. The real prize, however, was what teammates learned from the collaboration. “I used to see things in black and white. Now I see shades of gray,” says engineer Chromchak, who also now knows “the same lingo and can talk to people in accounting and management.”

Management professor Parente believes that being allowed to explore hitherto foreign concepts gives Penn State Behrend’s students a strong advantage in the workplace. So EZ Tap’s creators discovered: Team member Sieberkrob’s ease with engineers earned her an entry-level accounting perch with leadership-track potential.

Many hurdles remain for the Penn State Behrend program, including how integration may affect accreditation. Mechanical engineer Fisher seeks greater balance. “We do a lot about getting engineering students on the business ramp,” he says. “But I still want to educate business students about engineers better.” Faculty members also question how these joint efforts will benefit their own careers. Does research published in an engineering journal count toward business-school tenure?

“It’s a work in progress,” admits Chancellor Burke, who believes the real test will come in a year or two with the integrated major. Meanwhile, fraternization already is bearing fruit. Internships have surged along with industry partnerships. And employers are snapping up business-savvy engineering graduates at hefty starting salaries faster than the college can mint them.

Mary Lord is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

 

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American Society for Engineering Education