Challenge Accepted - Solving Problems with SU's Engineering Program

Engineers are natural problem solvers. Sometimes, those problems are pretty hefty. Dr. Carol Wellington teaches her students to celebrate each small victory on the way to their end goal by encouraging them to shout “WOOHOO!”

“The harder it is to get something to work, the bigger the rush,” she said. “Our students get that. We teach them that there’s this big complicated thing, but there are a thousand victories along the way. You have to celebrate those.”

Thanks to Wellington and the Computer Science and Engineering Department, Ship can shout a collective “WOOHOO” for its thriving engineering program. Under Wellington’s direction as the first chair of the department, Ship tackled the “big complicated thing” of launching the first engineering program in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

In May, the university received approval for civil engineering, the first in the State System and the fifth engineering program at Ship (see page 11 for more details). The university currently offers ABET-accredited computer and software engineering programs as well as electrical and mechanical engineering.

From developing water sensors that help NASA to measure and analyze sea level rise to working alongside engineers at Volvo, students and faculty have accomplished amazing victories in the relatively young engineering program.

Being the problem solvers they are, about a decade ago faculty in the department recognized a need for a more affordable and accessible engineering program in Pennsylvania. A population of students in the state aspired to be engineers, but cost prohibited them from pursuing the profession, Wellington said. “There’s a mission to this, as a department.”

Drawing on the strengths of a nationally-accredited computer science program and the university’s rigorous math and physics programs, Ship launched its computer engineering program in 2010. At the time, no other higher education institution in Pennsylvania offered computer engineering at tuition rates as low as Ship. In addition to developing an affordable engineering program, Wellington said they increased accessibility by focusing on student preparedness. Students who want to pursue engineering but do not meet the program’s math requirements can enter the Future Engineers Program. This way, they are able to declare the major while they work to improve their math placement.

“We did a study in 2014 looking at math placement and how well students did in class,” Wellington said. “Math placement predicted if you would succeed in the program.”

Wellington said they discovered it was a preparedness issue, not a math issue. To address it, the department reaches out to incoming students who need to improve in math. “We’re being honest with them. If you can fix the math issue before you get here, you can graduate in four years,” she said. “If not, we provide them with the path they need.”

Students get admitted to the Future Engineers Program as engineering majors. “Our department is very clear—we want them to be part of our department and be one of us,” she said. “I’m proud of the commitment of our faculty.”

These students take one additional course to fix their math placement, then enter the engineering program of their choice, proceeding at the same rate through the program as their peers.

The program’s focus on practical education coupled with dedicated faculty also help prepare students for an in-demand field. “You’re going to engineer while you’re here. You don’t have to wait until you graduate,” Wellington said.

That method works, as Ship’s engineering students are sought out regularly by employers. “When our students go to job interviews, the conversations they can hold with a recruiter are at another level because of the things they’ve done.”

Students troubleshoot alongside engineers at Volvo, applying what they learn in the classroom to the field. “Ship does a very good job of staying at the forefront. We get to pull from that knowledge,” said Michael Foreman, senior electrical engineering major.

Mike MacDonald, principal engineer at Volvo, said he only wishes he knew to come to Ship sooner. “It turns out Shippensburg University students were an ideal match. They were troubleshooting the problems; they were fixing the problems.” Wellington also is proud of the program’s interdisciplinary focus. The students and faculty frequently collaborate with other departments on research and university projects. “It attracts a different set of students, but more important than that, it also adds new skills,” she said. “When we do things, we add another focus to other disciplines.”

Their work with water sensors at NASA’s Wallops Island in Virginia is in partnership with the Geography/Earth Science Department. Engineering students lent their skills to the Biology Department two years ago to construct an actograph to measure the sleep patterns of mosquitos, which can help to determine if the mosquitos are carrying the Zika virus. This past April, Wellington worked with students to engineer a custom cookie mold on the 3-D printer ahead of President Laurie Carter’s inauguration for the first ChocolateShip Cookie.

“We do this for the good of the institution,” she said. “As a culture, we are, ‘OK, let’s do this,’ sort of people.”

It’s this attitude and example that allows Ship to continue to churn out sought after engineers. “When we do a job, we don’t just do what is asked of us.”