Universities and businesses working together to better prepare students for real-world challenges.
by Heidi Prescott Wieneke
Gary Bertoline wonders how many times college engineering students have been challenged to redesign the flashlight. They study the circuitry, power source and look for ways to improve its durability, but there are limitations to their assigned task.
“A flashlight is a flashlight. It was designed 100 years ago, and there's only so much you can do with it,” says Bertoline, dean of Purdue Polytechnic Institute in West Lafayette. The challenge isn't one that encourages the same amount of creativeness, innovation and ingenuity that another type of question could.
Now, he said, consider this challenge.
“There is a certain type of waterborne illness spreading among the people in Kenya, Africa. It's a poor nation, where disease is easily transmitted. How would you go about solving this problem?” Bertoline asks. In this assignment, students apply technology to a broader social issue and work in teams to find possible solutions.
Students research and learn about water contamination, with assistance from biology and science instructors. They visit a filtration plant to better understand the process and technologies used to remove organisms and toxins from water supplies. When it's time to write and present a report, English and communications professors visit their classrooms to provide assistance.
“When you learn in context, you have technically prepared students who can write much better, work in teams much better, and who are more creative and innovative. These challenges will make them more motivated individuals,” Bertoline says.
Industry leaders and educators generally agree that a the big disconnect exists today because colleges are not graduating students with the abilities and experiences businesses are looking for to compete in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. The relationship between business and higher education has to be strengthened by more conversations between them and a change in mindset. Education must be accompanied with experience in the field.
“We're not preparing graduates for 21st century jobs because the economy has changed,” Bertoline says. “Higher education has not caught up with the needs of the workforce. But the wheels on the bus of higher education aren't falling off yet. We do a lot of things right. At the same time, we're trying to focus on the fundamental flaws in higher education. We're addressing the issues.”
At Purdue Polytechnic, Bertoline said a learn-by-doing atmosphere integrates humanities and technology application with student majors. The pilot program that involved 30 students in 2014 will be expanded to all first-year students this fall.
“The first giant step is about to happen and we're slowly integrating this into the four-year degree,” he says. “This is what business and industry needs. We still have a lot of work to do.”
In addition to requiring internships before graduation, Purdue Polytechnic also stands out from other schools with its required year-long industry-sponsored, senior capstone project that matches students with industry mentors in the competency-based program.
Bertoline cites an example of students working with an aerospace company that designs fan blades for jet engines. Students studied the painstaking weeklong process engineers took to convert data into a three-dimensional model used to cut the metal into the appropriate size and scale. Working as a team, the Purdue Polytechnic students found a way to trim the amount of time taken for that process to about four hours.
“Needless to say, the rest of the story is that this company now uses our process and they're so happy they keep coming back with more projects,” Bertoline says. “They were so impressed with one group of students that they flew them to Europe to present their solution to company leaders. Think of that experience for those kids.”
And by integrating liberal arts and learning across the curriculum, the university is producing technically prepared students who can write better, work in teams better, create and innovate.
“Industry leaders say college graduates don't know the right questions to ask. And when they do, they don't know how to ask them. Higher education has divorced itself, to some extent, from the real needs of business and industry. I'm not sure it was done on purpose,” he said. “It's just where we're at right now.”
Purdue Polytechnic is not alone. Last spring, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education launched an initiative aimed at improving Indiana's talent pipeline by serving as a link between businesses, schools and students. The goal of the “Career Ready” campaign announced by Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's Commissioner for Higher Education, is to give more students internship experience.
“We have certain fields like teaching and nursing, where you have an opportunity to do work in that field as part of your preparation,” Lubbers says. “But the challenge is transitioning this into a rule for everyone, as opposed to the exception. We want to align education with employment in the workforce.”
Already, Lubbers said the commission is seeing educators and business leaders talking to each other more than she has seen in decades, and discussing how to create more work-based learning experiences.
“There's a desire on the part of education and employers to prepare more students for the jobs that this economy needs. I don't think it's a stretch to say we're determining the place Indiana will be in the next decade. How successful we are in strengthening our economy depends on both human talent and a more educated workforce.”
During the last school year, Purdue University Calumet collaborated with the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center on a pilot project that also connects students with small businesses.
Kasia Firlej, a continuing lecturer in marketing, approached the NISBDC with the idea of finding business clients who could use the skills of her ad management students. In the spring, students collaborated as teams to develop Google Ads campaigns for six area small businesses as part of the Google Online Marketing Challenge.
“Students are initially a bit put off about having to contact a business and explain to the business the premise of the project. Some students feel like the business owners will not take them seriously and some feel inexperienced in being assertive and working with the client on setting marketing goals and navigating the project specifics,” Firlej says. “However, most students find the experience most valuable upon its completion.”
Lorri Feldt, regional director of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, helped line up the businesses for the class project. The businesses ranged from a furniture manufacturer with four employees to a Hammond-based manufacturer with 90 employees.
“Students win by getting real world experience, and the business wins by getting something to help their business. I don't know how much better you can get than that,” Feldt says. “Results were stellar.”
Crowley Engineering, based in Schererville, learned the value of search engine optimization to project the correct image to prospective clients, and the company was so impressed by the project results, it hired the student team leader right out of college.
Wilson and Stronks also hired student leader Meredith Neis to work part-time during her senior year on marketing and human resource projects. Neis obtained valuable and diverse experience that led to a full-time job in human resources with local industrial distributor Jupiter Aluminum, Firlej says.
For participating in its program, Google provided each student team $250 in SEED money toward their campaign. When students participate in the competition again this fall, participating business owners will have the opportunity to add their own money to that student budget.
“In the past, we've seen students develop a general marketing campaign that the client may or may not have tried, because it may or may not have added value,” Feldt says. “But this project offered the students' technical knowhow to get more clicks to their websites. It's something a lot of businesses don't take the time to learn.”
CLR Auto Transport in Merrillville participated in the ad management class project. CLR is an employee-owned and operated vehicle relocation company that operates nationally, relocating vehicles for corporate and commercial fleets, government agencies and private individuals. Students were asked to develop a marketing plan that CLR could use to expand its customer base.
Patricia Shaw, CLR vice president and National Fleet Coordinator, said the students worked long and hard and developed a plan that offered a unique spin on old ideas.
“When our company was looking at our website, we saw things that needed to be changed, but we were unsure how to develop those changes and make them market-savvy to attract new customers,” Shaw says. “The students showed us some new ideas about color palettes and changing pictures to grab the customer and make our website more appealing.”
CLR is still in the early stages of implementing the new marketing plan, but Shaw believes it was a win-win. “The partnership with Purdue has been a successful one, and with the growth of our business, we would welcome a renewed partnership with the school,” she says.
Students today are looking for experiences like this one, Shaw says. “That's what these school projects can offer individuals who have hopes to enter their field of choice with the confidence and know how that potential employers need. When a student can enter a job with confidence that they have knowledge, that's something that can't be taken away, and it develops a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
It's also a tool that Shaw says many unemployed people lack. “Education, accompanied with experience, is a boost to a resume that lacks job experience in the field to which the student wants to enter.”
As a result of working with the students, and hiring intern Loriann Reed, a Purdue Calumet graduate with marketing experience, Shaw says CLR has created a new PowerPoint presentation for clients, new letterhead and new proposals to expand and compete for customers.
Reed says she decided go back to school in her 50s and change careers. But she didn't anticipate the difficulty she experienced in landing employment upon graduation. “I was either over-qualified or too old to take a risk on. I was experiencing some difficulty in landing employment,” the Gary resident says.
“CLR embraced me with open arms and gave me the opportunity to show that I do have something to offer the work world and I'm not too old to make a difference,” Reed says.
“It has shown me that there is work for me and my skills can be transferred to a job skill set. Businesses should invest in students that have the potential to expand their minds and learn what is really out there. Confidence is the key, and that confidence comes with experience,” Reed says. “That's what a great collaboration between a university and business can achieve.”