Drexel and University of Texas at El Paso Get Federal Grant for Green Manufacturing Education
Green manufacturing is a rapidly growing area of interest, particularly to businesses where more environmentally friendly practices have created more opportunities for growth, cost-savings and customer engagement and satisfaction.
But while today’s businesses are becoming more and more invested in green manufacturing, the question remains, as with any still-evolving area of industry: Where will future leaders of green manufacturing come from?
There will no doubt be a next generation of green-conscious professionals, but unless green manufacturing is incorporated into the education system now, the continuance of the work that is currently being done in the relatively new field will be significantly impacted.
Colleges and universities are stepping up to the challenge of creating academic courses and curriculum, and even entire degree programs, for students who are interested in getting a foothold in this emerging subject.
The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP), in El Paso, Texas, and Drexel University, in Philadelphia, two seemingly disparate institutions, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will begin a five-year collaboration as part of a federal program called Fusing Green Energy into Manufacturing Engineering Education. The grant will allow Drexel and UTEP to integrate information and technology-based real-world problem-solving into green energy manufacturing courses.
Through the grant, Drexel will design modular web-based courses (courses that can be accessed remotely) with hands-on course work for students at both Drexel and UTEP. Engineering students at UTEP will tap into those courses in the classroom as well as from the field, at companies in and around Texas that are participating in the initiative. Work is set to begin this October, with the first courses being available in early 2013.
“We want to give our students the tools to transform products and transform an industry,” says Eric Smith, a professor of industrial manufacturing and systems engineering at UTEP. “We’re going to innovate in this program, because there’s a lot to learn and we’ve got students who are really fired up to learn how they can help.”
I spoke with Smith along with fellow UTEP professor Bill Tseng, both of which are overseeing the grant program, and with Richard Chiou at Drexel to find out how the grant will be applied toward getting students ready for the future of green manufacturing. Tseng explained the program’s particular importance to women and Hispanic students, who make up 76 percent of UTEP’s student body. Women account for about 55 percent.
“Per historical data, involvement of women and under-represented groups in engineering and industry is very low,” Tseng says. “Therefore, to provide opportunities and to train them in highly appealing manufacturing sectors is essential.”
While the schools wouldn’t seem to have had a preexisting relationship before the grant program, Tseng says Drexel and UTEP have been working together in robotics and various manufacturing disciplines for the past eight years. Smith says UTEP already had been taking steps toward green manufacturing education in recent years. Thanks to a collaboration with the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, a statewide initiative that pairs manufacturing and health-care businesses with job candidates, UTEP students studying chemical and industrial engineering have worked at local businesses such as AQA International, which helps companies earn ISO and AS (aerospace) certifications.
“It’s our firm belief to follow what President Obama said in 2009 about bringing back manufacturing from overseas to help save the U.S. industry and economy,” Tseng says. “Specifically here at UTEP, we want to get students into green manufacturing jobs in solar energy, wind energy and waste-to-energy.”
Tseng believes that many engineering and manufacturing departments at universities across the country are picking up the call for education in green manufacturing. “A critical component of a national green jobs/green industries effort is to motivate the citizenry to become proficient in green science and technology … ensuring we have a 21st century workforce,” he says. “Fusing U.S. clean energy innovation is an environmental necessity.”
Smith says the grant program will infuse motivation into UTEP students. “We have a large Hispanic population where most students are first-time college-goers, and I also think that our students have a high degree of idealism, but they become cynical because they don’t see immediate progress,” he says. “This is an opportunity to do focused work in this area and see progress.”
Tseng adds that businesses like AQA International and Saudi Aramco, a Saudi Arabia-based oil company with an office in nearby Houston, have already agreed to help place students in green manufacturing jobs during their course work.
Chiou at Drexel says he and two colleagues, Michael Mauk, a solar energy expert, and Rodian Belu, a wind energy expert, began developing modular web-based courses in 2009. After the development and testing of the courses by Drexel professors and both undergraduate and graduate students, the courses will be integrated into the UTEP curriculum.
“We’re developing a remote-controlled energy system. A student can take the course while they’re actually doing work out in the field,” Chiou says. The courses won’t only be held at UTEP, he notes. Students at Philadelphia-area schools will be going to Drexel to take part in summer workshops in manufacturing studies.
The $2.5 million Department of Education grant will be allocated at $750,000 per year, Chiou says, with UTEP getting 70 percent of the funding and Drexel receiving 30 percent. The grant is expected to go a long way toward helping both schools teach the skills and practices that are necessary in green manufacturing. It’s an exciting chance for engineering students to learn about the range of green industrial sectors.
According to all three educators I spoke with, one cannot cultivate green manufacturing skills unless one actually does real green manufacturing work. With this grant and hopefully many more like it, perhaps businesses can reshore many manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas for so long, giving them to qualified graduates.
“Innovation usually comes from young people who are given the tools they need to be creative,” UTEP’s Smith says. “That’s what we’re trying to do here, give them the tools for success.”