Applied knowledge

February 5th, 2019

By Tammy Davis | BusinessPeople

The last year has brought about a season of exciting change in academia. With its assumption of sole proprietorship of the Fort Wayne campus, Purdue University Fort Wayne continues to refine its academic offerings in an effort to align with contemporary and regional needs. Accordingly, Purdue Fort Wayne introduced three new schools within existing colleges in July 2018, adding even more practical impact to the programs they provide and the degrees they confer. In particular, the School of Polytechnic offers students a curriculum that blends theory and application in technology-focused disciplines. 

“What we’re about is the implementation, the using of technologies that push industries forward,” explains School of Polytechnic Director and Associate Professor Gary Steffen. “From day one, we’re putting students into classrooms where they’re doing something.”

Housed within Purdue Fort Wayne’s College of Engineering, Technology and Computer Science (ETCS), the School of Polytechnic was born of the combination of two departments: Computer, Electrical and Information Technology and Manufacturing and Construction Engineering Technology. The result is comprehensive programs that put technical knowledge to practical use – in ways designed specifically to complement industry trends. 

“We really take a strong look at what industry is doing and what it needs. We consult with them when we prepare to launch new programs and courses,” says Steffen. “The result for students is that what they come here to study is ultimately what they’re employed to do.”

The Purdue Fort Wayne School of Polytechnic’s majors include computer engineering technology, construction management, electrical engineering technology, industrial engineering technology, information technology and mechanical engineering technology. University officials are also following an industry shift toward disciplines such as engineered materials and mechatronics (mechanics and electronics) and beginning to incorporate those into their program.

Although these majors have been part of the university’s curriculum for some time, they were often overshadowed by their better-known, more theory-focused counterparts in the college. According to Steffen, the School of Polytechnic degrees are a perfect fit for students who are less interested in theoretical concepts and more on how they are put into practical use. 

“School of Polytechnic students are more concerned with using the technologies,” explains Steffen. “They still have to take a certain level of math and science, though not to the same advanced level as a traditional engineering degree. Our students are typically those who like to tinker with things.”

Appropriately, School of Polytechnic faculty all have industry-based experience to complement their academic credentials. Because they have worked in the areas for which they are preparing their students, they are particularly adept at incorporating entrepreneurial thinking into classroom scenarios. In fact, Steffen himself not only brings years of experience in private industry, but he is also a graduate of the Purdue Fort Wayne program.

“I live our product,” he declares with pride.

School officials have intentionally cultivated and nurtured relationships with area businesses in order to stay close to the ever-evolving needs of industry. In addition to meeting with them individually and through its Industrial Advisory Committee, the Purdue Fort Wayne School of Polytechnic actively brings business leaders to campus to connect with students. The College of Engineering, Technology and Computer Science often sponsors lunch-and-learn sessions where companies provide an overview of their business to students, encouraging them to pursue internships or even careers in their area. With each session typically filled to capacity, the concept benefits both students and employers.

In addition, Steffen recalls a recent event organized by ETCS Dean Manoochehr Zhogi when a local company asked the school to address a real-life problem it was experiencing. The company conducted a brainstorming session with students, faculty, and staff at Purdue Fort Wayne to identify potential solutions. 

“Local industry is recognizing the value that we produce here as far as our students are concerned,” says Steffen. “In fact, we’re starting to see more and more business leaders coming to Purdue Fort Wayne seeking local talent, and students see that they can stay closer to home when they enter the workforce.”

As the School of Polytechnic continues to grow, officials have their sights set on a new building, specifically designed to accommodate the school’s programming. The future Advanced Manufacturing and Industrial Technology Building, currently in planning stages, will provide much-needed space for expansion in the areas of advanced manufacturing, materials, and technology innovation. Its projected 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art new space will also offer collaborative spaces for working with industry partners, a critical element in shaping the school’s programs.

Though the new building may be a few years from groundbreaking, the School of Polytechnic is operating at full speed. Under the direction and work of Dean Zoghi, the School of Polytechnic and other units across the university work closely with local industrial leaders to evolve and refine programming. Some faculty members are taking part in an entrepreneurial fellows program, where they will be taught new ways to incorporate innovation and entrepreneurial thinking into the classroom. They also take advantage of a unique area on campus called the IDEASpace, which provides spatial flexibility to explore creative thinking and innovation. 

It’s an exciting time for the School of Polytechnic, which is now home to nearly 500 active students, with 100 to 120 applicants being accepted into it each year. Although set up as a complete four-year degree program, the School of Polytechnic also offers a two-plus-two alternative for students who have begun their educational journey at neighboring Ivy Tech Community College. Students have the option of obtaining specific two-year degrees from Ivy Tech and then completing a polytechnic degree in an additional two years at Purdue Fort Wayne. 

Regardless of how students enter the School of Polytechnic, its overall goal is the same: to cultivate graduates who can begin their careers and make a difference in their field right away. The program’s hands-on experiences and dynamic learning environment provide Polytechnic students with a powerful combination of technical knowledge, the ability to solve problems and entrepreneurial critical thinking. And it’s working.

“We’re here producing graduates who can go make an immediate impact on the state’s industry and economy,” says Steffen. “Eighty-eight percent of our graduates stay in Indiana, and 97 percent are employed within six months of graduation – in their field of study. What they come here to study is what they’re being employed to do.”