Engineering a jump start

By Ed Finkel

With project-oriented courses, small classes and partnerships with four-year institutions, more budding engineers are getting their start at community colleges.

As he approached graduation at Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland, Grant Bunyard didn’t plan to attend Howard Community College (HCC).

He had toured engineering programs at four-year universities in the area and figured he would end up at one of them. But when he looked at Howard’s engineering department, he realized that in addition to lower tuition bills, he would enjoy smaller class sizes and laboratory resources that were as good as those at local universities.

Classes have proved to be very project-oriented, and during Bunyard’s time at HCC, he has had an article published in the school’s Journal of Research in Progress about building and testing wind turbines to help create reusable energy — and presented that research at a nationwide physics conference. He’s also learned to operate everything from research telescopes, to scanning electron microscopes, to 3D printers, and finished twice as a national math competition finalist. All while serving as a track-and-field team captain and winning the decathlon at national championships.

“It’s definitely lived up to what I wanted, and maybe even a little more than I expected,” says Bunyard, who plans to transfer to a four-year school after receiving his associate degree this spring and ultimately pursue a Ph.D. “There’s extracurricular activities, athletic opportunities, research opportunities — there’s pretty much anything you can think of at HCC.”

How it’s done at Howard

For similar reasons, budding engineering students have been matriculating at HCC and other community colleges across the country that offer associate degrees and certificates in engineering. Most of the 400 or so students enrolled in HCC’s program hail from the county and plan to transfer to University of Maryland, says Mark Edelen, chair of engineering and technology at Howard and an associate professor of physics and engineering.

HCC’s department attempts to align with University of Maryland-College Park and University of Maryland-Baltimore County campus curricula, offering tracks within the program for specific disciplines, such as mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering, Edelen says. A small number of students enter the workforce after receiving their associate degrees, typically taking engineering technician positions at Northrop Grumman and other companies that serve the defense industry.

Edelen says his department has the philosophy that engineering is, fundamentally, about doing projects.

“It’s a better way to teach engineering. It motivates the need for the theoretical knowledge and technical skills to be able to solve these problems,” he says. “The types of things most students remember as they look back on engineering are projects, the things they built as a group.”

Effective, small classes

Most classes have between 10 and 20 students, which enables project-based activities, in a way that classes of 50 or 80 students do not.

“Which is why universities don’t do that until later in the curriculum,” Edelen says. “If a student’s taking freshman engineering, it’s going to be 80 or 100 people in that lecture. … Our classroom time can be less traditional lecture time, more interactivity and more project-based learning. Also, at a community college, the faculty are able to focus exclusively on teaching. That’s why we’re here.”

HCC was able to open the new science, engineering, and technology building two years ago, which provided a new lab suite with brand new fabrication equipment of the sort that first wowed Bunyard.

“Our facilities are top-notch, above and beyond what a lot of smaller four-year schools have,” Edelen says. “We’ve been really fortunate here in terms of funding. When students come to visit, they see our lab and they’re just blown away. People in our community are impressed by what students are able to get their hands on, in terms of tools. We think our students are getting good exposure to engineering design and how things are made, which is an important skill. A lot of employers value that.”

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.