Western’s first Engineering graduates will be among the 2,000-plus students earning their degrees Saturday.
The 31 seniors – nine each in Electrical Engineering and Plastics and Composites Engineering and another 13 in Manufacturing Engineering – mark a milestone in the transformation of Western’s well-regarded Engineering Technology programs into a full-fledged Engineering degree.
“The graduation of our first cohort of engineers represents a pivotal transformative moment in the history of the college, and one we are very excited about as we move forward offering our students increased opportunities in hands-on learning in new areas,” said Catherine Clark, dean of Western's College of Science and Engineering.
Washington’s economy has an urgent need for more engineers, particularly in the aerospace and manufacturing industries. The state’s total number of engineering jobs is expected to reach 78,000 by 2018, and many companies are seeking to expand while large numbers of workers are preparing to retire.
In 2013, the state Legislature gave Western nearly $3 million to transform the Engineering Technology program (as well as expand Computer Science). Funding for one Engineering faculty position also came from the Institute for Energy Studies. The Engineering Technology Department became Engineering and Design and the college’s name changed to the College of Science and Engineering.
Meanwhile, thanks to the new funding as well as faculty vacancies, Engineering and Design has hired nine new faculty members as well as some new support staff in the last four years. All three programs, Electrical Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Plastics and Composites Engineering, have five faculty members each, up from two or three, said Professor Jeff Newcomer, chair of the Engineering and Design Department, adding depth and breadth to each program.
More students are on the way, too. Eventually, the department hopes to produce 78 Engineering graduates each year: 30 in Electrical Engineering and 24 each in Plastics and Composites Engineering, and Manufacturing Engineering.
Meanwhile, the department is in the middle of the accreditation process with ABET, the accrediting body for engineering programs, with a site visit planned this fall and results expected in August 2017.
Western’s Engineering degree is already distinctive as:
- The only Electrical Engineering program in the state with a focus on embedded systems.
- One of two Manufacturing Engineering programs in the Pacific Northwest.
- One of four Plastics and Composites Engineering programs in the nation.
The new Engineering program comes with more foundational math and science courses, Newcomer said. In addition, upper-division classes have been modified and others added, such as a more in-depth senior project and a class in hardware design and development in Electrical Engineering.
Even with these changes, however, most Engineering classes still have a laboratory component that has students using industrial-grade equipment in Western’s Engineering and Design labs.
For years, Western’s Engineering Technology programs produced graduates that went right to work alongside Engineering grads at companies such as The Boeing Co., Hexcel, PACCAR, CH2M Hill, Fluke and more. But many companies, unfamiliar with the high quality of Western’s ET programs, shied away from hiring any ET graduates at all.
Earlier this week, seniors who were showing off their senior projects said they were thankful Western’s Engineering program has maintained its emphasis on hands-on learning.
“I definitely don’t think we’re lacking in the theoretical area,” said Andrew Colebrook, who is heading to SpaceX for an internship this summer, “but there’s no way you can learn how to use an injection molder on your own time. Engineers that graduate from Western have a very practical perspective on things.”
Colebrook and the other seniors tackled projects proposed by industry partners who offered up real-world problems. Paccar, Inc., for example, had Colebrook work on the problem of helping the company predict when a particular plastic side panel on a semi-truck needed to be replaced. Nicolas Howard and Ben Bisset worked on a three-axis robot for the Engineering and Design Department to help future students learn more about robotics and kinematic motion. And three students, Robyn Blankinship, Kyle White and Carson Reid worked with Hexcel Burlington to refurbish a machine that makes components for honeycomb core panels used in aircraft construction.
Blankinship knows that this weekend’s graduation is just the beginning.
“I think there are more jobs open to you (with an Engineering degree) because it’s more recognized,” she said. “There’s still a lot to learn, but now we know how to learn.”