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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.