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Building a better engineer

JMU's first engineering class includes 45 graduates and many have secured spots in graduate schools and jobs with companies ranging from banks to government agencies and engineering firms
By Martha Bell Graham and Eric Gorton ('86, '09M)

Brandon Journell worked as part of a team to develop technology to help other engineers streamline research on the conversion of hydrogen to clean energy

Brandon Journell worked as part of a team to develop technology to help other engineers streamline research on the conversion of hydrogen to clean energy.

A biology minor, a designer, a math major and an environmentalist all walk into the same JMU classroom. With varied skill sets and interests, their initial conversations center on hopeful careers after JMU. Soon, all four find that they can’t wait to dive in as JMU’s first engineering students – and they can’t wait to learn from each other.

At a university known for innovation, it’s not surprising that when JMU began exploring the development of a new engineering program in 2005, faculty and administrators consulted not only engineers in academia but also liberal arts educators, professional literature, standards for ABET (the international engineering accreditation organization) and FE (the qualifying exam for undergraduate engineers), industry representatives, scientists and business professionals. They looked at traditional engineering and considered what the future would require of engineers.

The result was a new School of Engineering at JMU, which enrolled its first class in the fall of 2008. The university’s first 45 student engineers will receive their degrees on May 5.

While most engineering schools separate students into specific fields, JMU’s school takes a different approach. On top of a full complement of liberal arts courses, JMU engineering students study across all engineering disciplines – an approach that parallels industry changes driven by increasingly complex and interrelated systems. From this holistic perspective, students examine how projects might impact people, the environment, the economy and technology.

“We don’t want engineers to leave our new School of Engineering only focused on issues of math and science and critical analysis,” says JMU President Linwood H. Rose. “We want people who understand the value of what they might engineer for society. We want them to understand the economic impact of those innovations. We want them to know what the political and social implications are.”

Rose’s leadership, his dedication to science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies, and his commitment to promote sustainability across the curriculum, were critical to the successful development and adoption of the new school.

JMU’s approach to engineering, unique in Virginia, is built around traditional core engineering subject matter such as thermodynamics, fluids, statics and dynamics, physics, and chemistry. But JMU students go further by taking courses in business management, engineering economics and communication.

They also take two years of design courses, another significant departure from traditional engineering. When students move from paper to actual design and construction, the holistic approach comes into focus, culminating in a two–year capstone project that requires students to bring together research, innovation and learned engineering skills.

Following JMU’s official application for ABET accreditation that will be submitted this summer, the School of Engineering anticipates receiving accreditation sometime in 2013.

First approved by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia in 2007, JMU’s school fills an important niche in the engineering field. Douglas Brown, former JMU vice president for academic affairs, says, “It’s the most innovative program in the state because it focuses on sustainability. There’s no other program framed this way. It’s a truly cross–disciplinary program. Most engineering programs are highly specialized, and the addition of a business component will make the students highly marketable.”