Jennifer L. Morey
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Engineering majors graduate from college with the skills to design and build lasers, optical systems and even spacecraft. When it comes to building their own businesses, however, they sometimes find they haven't had the training required for success. A new undergraduate program at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois seeks to overcome this discrepancy by giving engineering and business students a firsthand look at each other's disciplines.
Students enrolled in the Program in Technology and Management learn from each other by participating in team projects and taking joint classes such as "Organizing for Innovation," "Business Process Modeling" and "Product Modeling and Development." Besides these required courses, engineering majors must take electives in financial analysis, operations management and marketing, while business majors take materials science, engineering mechanics and computer engineering courses.
Eight faculty members from the College of Commerce and Business Administration and the College of Engineering teach the classes. According to university representative Mark Reutter, that number will increase as the program expands.
At the culmination of the program, teams of seniors collaborate on an effort known as the Capstone Project. Industrial partners such as General Electric, General Motors and Caterpillar present the teams with real-world problems that they solve by applying the skills and knowledge they have acquired in their classes.
The impetus for developing such a program isn't hard to understand; the gap between business and engineering education has been criticized throughout academia for years. Richard Powell, director of the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said business schools are often too swamped with their own students to take in a few engineers for a course here or there. "It is difficult for a student who is not a business major to take business courses," he said.
Beginning of a trend
The Illinois program could be the first step in a trend toward interdisciplinary education and specifically toward a melding of engineering and business curricula. The University of Arizona has set up a similar program, although it is not as structured at this point.
Reutter said entrance into the Illinois program is very competitive. Students apply at the end of their sophomore year and must show their ability to make the grades.
The program turned out its first set of graduates in May; 70 students are currently enrolled.