This article presents views of Todd Torrence on introduction of online learning programs that can open paths from technical to technological. The University of North Dakota, which offers the only accredited online BSME program in the United States, is in a state where hydraulic fracturing has sharply increased oil production. The university has applied for accreditation of an online program offering a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering. The UND online BSME program covers the same material as its on-campus counterpart. North Carolina State has a 2+2 program where a student can go to a partnering university at the east and west ends of the state for the first two years of their undergraduate work. The University of North Dakota online BSME program covers the same material as its on-campus counterpart. Part of the accreditation process is assuring that the online degree is equivalent to the face-to-face degree. The challenge with undergrad online engineering programs is their sheer size and the time it takes to complete them, as compared with graduate programs.
About 15 years ago, Todd Torrence worked at Pratt & Whitney Space Propulsion in San Jose, Calif., as a technician, performing nondestructive testing on solid rocket motors and related components. He worked on such notable programs as the Minuteman missile, Space Shuttle booster separation motors, and global missile defense.
He caught the engineering bug.
“I worked a lot with the engineers on failure investigations,” Torrence recalls. “I learned what an engineer actually does, and that sounded pretty interesting to me. I liked the technical end, problem solving, and learning how things work.”
Torrence had an associate degree in nondestructive evaluation from Moraine Valley, a community college near his home town of Chicago. He decided to pursue his mechanical engineering degree in 2002. He started taking classes in subjects such as statics at local community colleges, but then the San Jose facility closed, throwing him and many others out of work.
He decided to return to the Chicago area and applied for a job as an engineering technician at a Rockford, Ill., plant of Hamilton Sundstrand, a sister company to Pratt & Whitney, owned by United Technologies. At that point, he was in his 30s and had a couple of years of engineering school. “It was enough to get in on the bottom engineering rung at Hamilton Sundstrand,” Torrence says.
He wanted to continue pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, but the courses were only available through traditional four-year schools, and their classes met during the day, when he needed to work.
“I went online and Googled ‘online engineering bachelor degrees,’ ” Torrence says. “Really, the University of North Dakota was the only option I found that was an accredited school.” He started there in 2006.
Torrence became part of a new trend in distance learning in which engineers increasingly take courses and complete degree programs online.
Leonard Bohman, associate dean of academic affairs in Michigan Tech University's College of Engineering, says, “I think it's growing, especially at the master's level because there is a demand for people to understand more complex engineering activities. Their employers see the need for them to get more education, and not all companies are within a reasonable commuting distance to a university that has an engineering program.”
Indeed, many engineering colleges around the country offer online graduate-level programs, often in specialized areas. Michigan Tech offers M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering, an M.S. in electrical engineering, graduate programs in hybrid electric drive vehicle engineering, and certificates in electric power engineering. At North Carolina State University, the College of Engineering's distance engineering division, known as Engineering Online, offers master's degrees in aerospace, chemical, civil, computer, electrical, environmental, industrial, mechanical, nuclear, and nano engineering, and integrated manufacturing systems, and materials science.
But the University of North Dakota offers the only accredited undergraduate mechanical engineering program in the country.
The UND online BSME program covers the same material as its on-campus counterpart. According to Matt Cavalli, assistant dean for outreach and recruiting in the College of Engineering and Mines, “That's part of the accreditation process, assuring that the online degree is equivalent to the face-to-face degree.”
He adds, “It's been very successful. I think this last year, about 15 percent of our graduates in ME were distance students, and that percentage continues to increase.” UND's Online and Distance Education division also offers bachelor's degrees in civil, chemical, electrical, and petroleum engineering as well as certificates and courses in a host of subjects.
A small number of other undergraduate distance engineering programs exist around the country. Arizona State University offers online Bachelor of Science in engineering degrees in electrical engineering, engineering management, and software engineering through its Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
North Carolina State has a 2+2 program where a student can go to a partnering university at the east and west ends of the state for the first two years of their undergraduate work. They attend classes in brick-and-mortar locations but view lectures delivered from the main campus in Raleigh through technologies such as streaming media and video conferencing. Then after two years, they can transfer to the main campus or continue on the distance format for two more years. In Asheville, the school offers a BSE with a concentration in mechatronics, and Havelock has a similar program in mechanical systems engineering.
So why so few undergraduate online degree programs?
“The difficulty is providing labs,” Bohman says. “For our graduate degree programs, most people are working, and they get the experience at their companies. We haven’t found a way to give the hands-on experience online.”Actually, Michigan Tech once offered an undergrad BSE program through General Motors. It had more of a manufacturing flavor than a pure mechanical engineering degree, and it was geared toward GM people. Located in the Upper Peninsula about 500 miles away from the center of GM activity in Detroit, the school could handle the lab conundrum because it was dealing with students concentrated in a geographic area. The school conducted labs using facilities in the area and running programs on weekends or over a weeklong period. It used GM facilities and contracted with other universities.
The University of North Dakota online BSME program covers the same material as its on-campus counterpart. Part of the accreditation process is assuring that the online degree is equivalent to the face-to-face degree.
Another challenge with undergrad online engineering programs is their sheer size and the time it takes to complete them, as compared with graduate programs. UND's BSME degree consists of 129 credits. Cavalli explains, “The time to graduation for a distance student is typically much longer than for an on-campus student because they’re taking maybe two classes a semester on average as opposed to five to six classes for an on-campus student. And some of them will take a semester off because of job and family commitments.”
For UND's online classes that have labs, the students typically come to campus for a week in the summer for each lab. Cavalli notes, “We think we’ve found a good balance between the time and expense for students to come to campus and making sure they get an equivalent hands-on experience compared to the on-campus students.” Torrence made the trip to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks three times and labels the experience as intense and stressful. “You’re essentially doing everything students on campus did over the whole semester in a week,” he says.
As for the classes, Torrence says he watched the same lectures as the students on campus. A camera in the classroom records the entire session. Students attending online can hear the questions that students ask, hear the teacher, and see what the instructor is presenting.
“I like that because if I didn’t understand something, I could always go back and listen to the lecture online again,” Torrence says. “We would do the same homework as required on campus. We took the same tests at essentially the same time. It was almost like being there. The only thing I think you miss is the interaction with the instructor during the class.”
Although taking the undergrad online BSME route had its challenges, Torrence now reflects favorably on it. “It was great because I was able to work full time during the day, and I would get home and do all the classwork and homework and take tests,” he says. It took until 2012 to get his BSME. “It was six years, but I probably could’ve done it in four.”
Torrence typifies the breed of online engineering student that has evolved. They are older, more motivated, and well versed in time management.
Linda Krute, director of distance education programs for the College of Engineering at North Carolina State, says, “For working professionals that can’t come to a college campus because of work, family responsibilities, or geographic constraints, the online programs are very valuable. For a young person coming out of high school, I still believe they need the on-campus experience of bonding with other students.”
As another factor in the equation, it costs more to get an online engineering degree than it does the on-campus variety. According to Cavalli at UND, “There's an additional fee associated with the online courses for things like the technology and the additional support staff needed. Many students have support from their employers for the cost of the education. Particularly for students paying out of pocket, costs can be a significant issue.”
However, on the plus side, some people argue that students learn unique skills through online programs that they might not get otherwise. Blake Haggerty, director of the technical support center and assistant director for instructional design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says, “It gives the students hands-on experience using the types of tools they’re going to use in the workplace.”
His colleague Gale Spak, associate vice president of continuing and distance education at NJIT, explains, “We’re in an emerging, evolving global economy. Every engineering firm has global projects, and companies have offices around the world. If you’re going to succeed in the company as an engineer, you work in teams and in different time zones. These are key attributes of online learning.” She adds that employers look for these skills, and students have begun to request that it be noted on their transcript that they did their degree work online.
Beyond students, engineering schools benefit in several ways from offering online programs as well. Cavalli says, “It allows us to educate a larger number of students than would fit in our classes or we have in our immediate geographic area. The majority of our on-campus students are from North Dakota and Minnesota. Our distance students are from all over the country and around the world, so we get different perspectives, and our on-campus students are exposed to those as well through career presentations and team collaborations. So it gives us some additional diversity, and it also gives us access to different employers and industries that might not have a presence in Grand Forks. In general, it expands our presence significantly beyond our geographic location.”
Meanwhile, Todd Torrence reports, “Since I’ve gotten my degree, the company has pushed me into more design and development of new programs and products.” At Hamilton Sundstrand, he works in the space systems enterprise focusing on turbomachinery, actuation, and thrust vector control for missile and space applications.
As an engineering technician, he mostly worked on existing products that had already been proven in the field and qualified. Currently, he's designing a fuel manifold for a torpedo engine and developing an electromechanical actuator for control of a rocket or missile, essentially starting from scratch.
Torrence says of his experience getting a BSME degree online: “I would definitely recommend it, especially for someone in my situation, where there's no other way to work full time and also get a four-year degree. Distance is the only way to do it. You just have to keep up on the lectures, watch the classes, do the homework, and put the work into it.”