The Engineering College Serves as an Engine for Jobs

Biomedical engineering students Herrick Fernandes and Meghan Fajarillo collect ECG data
Biomedical engineering students Herrick Fernandes and Meghan Fajarillo collect ECG data using a circuit that they built in class at Perry Hall.

By Geoffrey Douglas

Take a quick scan of the Francis College of Engineering’s course catalog, and it’s clear that the college is in step with what’s going on in the world. Whether it’s the environment, aerospace, biomedicine or business, the college has launched a number of innovative new programs for both under- graduates and graduate students to address the need for skilled engineers in a broad range of industries.

One of these is the new undergraduate Biomedical Engineering (BME) program, now in its third year, the first such program to be offered by a public university in Massachusetts—and at just the right time, judging by demand.

“There’s a lot of interest out there,” says program chair Prof. Bryan Buchholz, who believes that the program, which incorporates engineering principles with coursework usually associated with the medical field (biology or anatomy, for example) as well as courses in economics and entrepreneurship, is an excellent fit for what’s happening in industry.

There is a growing demand today among companies in the medical device and biopharmaceutical fields, such as Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Boston Scientific, for employees with such across-pollination of skills, Buchholz says. And today’s students know it. As a result, the program has enrolled an exponentially greater number every year; there are currently 35 juniors, 50 sophomores and 75 freshmen. At two recent weekend receptions for early-action high school students, biomedical engineering attracted more interest than every other program but the far-more-established mechanical engineering option.

Not only is biomedical engineering attracting more students, but fully half of them are now women – a marked departure from the engineering field in general, in which women have long been under- represented. “It’s a really positive sign that we could start to reverse that,” Buchholz says.

But for all the growth and innovation and whatever adjustments today’s marketplace may require, in the end, the fundamentals still apply: “We’re still engineers. We still do what we do. We’re just taking a little more rounded approach,” says Buchholz.

Engineering the Environment

From a few offices away on the second floor of Kitson Hall, Prof. Clifford Bruell is facing his own challenge of growth and adjustment. In his case, the program is newer: The first students in the college’s Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering program, of which Bruell is director, enrolled only last September. So far, there are 20 students enrolled, and Bruell is bullish about future prospects. The program, like the one in biomedical engineering, is the only one in the state offered by a public university. And job opportunities in the environmental field are on the rise; a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that engineering jobs in the field will grow 8 percent by 2026.

The program, which applies engineering principles and biology, chemistry and soil science to safeguard water, soil and air (with less emphasis on alter- native energy sources like wind and solar), is a natural fit for jobs in a number of industries: utilities, environmental consulting or wastewater treatment, as well as public-sector employers such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers, Bruell says.

Like the biomedical undergraduate program, the environmental engineering program is also a popular choice for women. According to a recent study, Bruell says, less than 20 percent of today’s engineering graduates are females; when the field is environmental engineering, the percentage is almost half.

“I’m pretty optimistic [the program] will grow. There’s a growing interest in the environment,” he says.

Space for Growth

For Mechanical Engineering Prof. David Willis, there were at least four strong incentives for creating the college’s new minor in aerospace studies.

First, he says, there was no comparable undergraduate program being offered by a public university anywhere else in the state – or for that matter, he believes, anywhere closer than Rutgers in New Jersey. Second, there are job opportunities aplenty in aerospace, and several are nearby – at GE, Raytheon and BAE Systems, to name just the largest employers. Third, several UML professors are already at work on aerospace-related research, which could only benefit students as well as the professors themselves. “So it was kind of a two-way street,” Willis says.

Finally, he says, there were students already requesting it – which may have been the biggest incentive of all.

So it was that last September, 22 students, most of them sophomores majoring in either physics or mechanical engineering, were on hand for Introduction to Aerospace, the opening, required class of the new minor. The 18-credit minor is taught by a team of four professors from both the Physics and Mechanical Engineering departments who hold classes on such topics as space weather, radar systems, aerodynamics and space science mission design. Each professor brings “different experience and a different approach to things,” Willis says.

This cross-section of coursework that the new minor offers, coupled with whatever major students select – mechanical engineering or physics – will afford them “a broad base as well as a specialty,” Willis adds.

Career Management

Not all the innovation is happening at the undergraduate level. Mechanical Engineering Prof. Sammy Shina directs a program that fills a gap that has plagued many an engineering professional: What do you do when your engineering skills, perhaps as a result of a shared project or promotion, take you to a place that calls for managing a team?

In such cases, says Shina, “you need a grounding in people skills, technical skills, often financial skills, as well as your skills as an engineer.”

The college’s Master of Science in Engineering Management program (MESM) is designed specifically to prepare students for such roles. The program, 31 credits in length and taught by a mix of faculty from the Engineering College and the Manning School of Business, is available in three separate concentrations – Design and Manufacturing, Infrastructure Management, and Operations and Supply – with classes both on campus and online. Areas covered, in addition to engineering, include business, management, manufacturing and work environment.

Now in its third year, the program is already paying off for alumni. For example, 2017 graduate Elvin Moquete has advanced from a production manager at a food-processing company, then to an engineering planner at L3 Warrior Sensor Systems, and finally to his most recent position as an aerospace project manager at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. He credits the program with helping him build the skills to move ahead in his career.

If there is a single company in the region that best reflects the role of Francis College as both a groundbreaker and an engine for jobs, it may be BAE Systems based in Nashua, N.H. And in this case at least, the educating cuts both ways.

A series of courses taught by UML faculty on BAE’s campus offers the company’s employees advanced training in radio-frequency and microwave development – which comes with credit toward a graduate degree. And when BAE Vice President Ray Brousseau is looking for a new employee with a particular set of skills, the first call he makes is to UML Engineering Dean Joseph Hartman.

“He knows the sort of people we need here; he understands just what I’m looking for. We’re talking about well-prepared, high-caliber people – the sort who go on to be outstanding engineers,” says Brousseau, himself a 1986 UML electrical engineering graduate.