UMSL, Washington U. have engineered success for 20 years | St. Louis Public Radio

UMSL, Washington U. have engineered success for 20 years

Oct 17, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Collaboration and cooperation are common buzzwords on campus these days, but Washington University and the University of Missouri at St. Louis engineered their own special partnership back in 1993.

That’s when they began a program in which aspiring engineers could take their basic science and math courses at UMSL, then get their upper-level engineering training at Washington U.

Courses were taught after 4 p.m., to fit into the schedule of students who needed to work during the day, and tuition was at the relatively reasonable level of a public university. Graduates come out with an UMSL degree.

Now, as the two schools prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the joint program with festivities at UMSL Thursday night, Joseph O’Sullivan, the current dean of the program, can look back on serving more than 600 graduates and, just as important, the region where they live.

While Washington U. recruits engineering students from a worldwide population, O’Sullivan said, the joint program was always aimed at a more limited niche – would-be engineers who wanted to stay in the St. Louis area and get their degree while fulfilling other work and family obligations.

“Students come to Washington University from all over the country and all over the world,” he told the Beacon, “and when they graduate, they go back to all over the country and all over the world to get jobs.

“Students in the joint program stay in St. Louis, so for St. Louis, it is an opportunity to improve the talent pool. When a company is looking to start up or move to St. Louis or expand in St. Louis, one of the questions they have to ask is are there people in St. Louis trained to fill the jobs they need to fill. If it’s an engineering company, they need engineers, and there has to be a talent pool to provide those companies with the talent they need.”

One more plus – the program has drawn from the student population that has been UMSL’s strength, including a large percentage of African-American and women, two groups that have lagged in their representation in the ranks of civil, mechanical or electrical engineers.

For African-American students, O’Sullivan said, the chance to take pre-engineering courses at UMSL before moving to Washington U. lets them become strong in skills they may never even have had the chance to develop in high school. He points to problems in unaccredited school districts as evidence of a lack of rigorous training in the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math.

“How can students ever hope to enter a profession having been educated in a program that’s unaccredited?” he asked. “My answer is that after graduating high school, if they go to a community college and prove themselves there, they can come to our program and have an avenue to a field that they didn’t have before.”

As far as gender bias goes, Shirley Jenkins, a 2004 graduate of the joint program program, says that when she was in school, she often picked up on subtle hints that “women can’t be engineers.”

She went on to earn her degree in electrical engineering, then went to work at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before returning home to a job at Boeing. She said she couldn’t let the naysayers slow her down.

“I just think that society in general doesn’t promote or talk as much as they should about women getting engineering degrees or even degrees in science or math,” she said.

“There are things you kind of pick up on, but you can’t let that bother you.”

Persistence pays off

The route to establishment of the joint program was not always a smooth one, says former UMSL Chancellor Blanche Touhill, who was present at the creation.

She recalled that those who helped found the campus in 1963 always had an engineering program on their agenda, in response to what they heard the community wanted in its new public university.

But, she said, because the University of Missouri system already had engineering programs at its campuses in Rolla and Columbia, starting them in the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City wasn’t easy.

At one point, Touhill said, a plan was developed for Kansas City to work with Columbia on an engineering program and St. Louis to work with Rolla, but the St. Louis partnership never materialized. A series of chancellors at UMSL kept trying to resurrect the deal, but little happened until Marguerite Ross Barnett came in to lead the campus in 1986.

She asked Touhill to help find a partner for the campus. Discussions with schools from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville to Washington U. to Rolla and Columbia resulted in a plan to partner with Washington U. That was stopped by the Board of Curators, she said, who wanted Rolla to be part of the cooperative venture.

Again, the plan ran aground, but when Touhill became chancellor she tried again and worked out an agreement with Rolla. But it didn’t last long, she said, recalling a conversation she had shortly thereafter with George Russell, the new president of the UM system.

“We had that program for about six months,” she said, “and one day George Russell came to see me and said it won’t work with Rolla -- can you get back to Washington U.?”

Touhill said she met with Chancellor William Danforth at Washington U., and he quickly got together with his engineering dean, Chris Byrnes, to make the program work and work smoothly.

“If anybody would ever say there was a problem here or there,” she said, “I would just call Chris, and there was no more problem.”

Partnership and public service

Touhill said she thinks the joint engineering program was the first of its kind in the U.S. between a private and a public university, and it grew out of the goals for UMSL of two her predecessors. Barnett pushed the idea of partnerships with the community, while Arnold Grobman, who came before Barnett, championed the idea of an urban university.

The joint engineering effort, she said, helped serve both of those aims.

“What the partnerships did,” Touhill said, “was provide the bridge where the campus could provide service to the university and the university could support the campus.”

Symbolizing that support, Touhill and Danforth, along with their successors, Thomas George at UMSL and Mark Wrighton at Washington U., will help celebrate the 20th anniversary Thursday night. O’Sullivan, who will host the program, says the milestone is important for several reasons.

First, the program provides a path to an engineering degree for students who often are the first of their family to attend college, much less enter a profession like engineering. Second, the cost of the program -- $9,000 a year compared with more than $40,000 for Washington University tuition – makes that path a lot easier to travel.

And for the students that the program is aimed at – those living in St. Louis who often already have work or family obligations – its structure fits well with their lives.

“A lot of them will work most of the day, come take classes, then stay here on the Washington University campus to do homework, then go home, get up and start over again,” O’Sullivan said. “They are very hard-working students.”

And once they are done, he added, the way the program is structured makes finding a job a little easier because classes are often taught by working engineers.

“They know what it takes to succeed in engineering in St. Louis,” O’Sullivan said. “They communicate that to the students, and sometimes they may even hire students, if they get a good student in their classes.”

That description could fit Cedric Cook. After graduating from Hazelwood Central High School – the first of his family to do so – Cook thought about going to Purdue after community college. But because he was working full-time to support himself, he realized that staying home made more sense, particularly after he found out about the joint UMSL-Washington U. program.

He graduated from the program magna cum laude in 2001, then went on to earn his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Washington University in 2004. Now working at Boeing, Cook says that the encouragement and training he got at both universities helped him along and add to the ranks of African-American engineers.

“I can’t say enough about the great resources between both schools,” he said, “and the fact that everybody is willing to help. That’s the key. Everyone at both schools is willing to help.”

He says he is trying to pay that kind of support forward by talking to high school students about the importance of math and science. Jenkins, the 2004 graduate, says she has done the same, to help students overcome some of the barriers she faced in trying to join the engineering field.

The joint program allowed her to stay in town and keep a part-time job and still get a degree that is respected by her colleagues, she said.

“It allows us not to settle,” she said. “You always want to get the best degree from a good school.”

For O’Sullivan, those kinds of testimonials may be the best indicators of what the program has meant to the St. Louis area and the engineering graduates for the past 20 years.

“That is the most gratifying part of the program,” he said, “when you hear from students who say they wouldn’t have gotten an engineering degree without this program. You get the sense we’re doing the right thing.”