Grant from General Electric Helps UMass Amherst Engineers to Participate in Business Decisions

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts will soon open a state-of-the-art computer classroom in which engineering students will learn how the business world affects engineering projects. The classroom is funded with an $850,000 grant from General Electric Co. - one of the largest individual grants ever made by the company’s foundation - and was supplemented with approximately $100,000 in University resources. The classroom project is part of Campaign UMass, a drive to raise $125 million for the University, enlist 3,000 advocates, and enhance the University’s public image.

"Students shouldn’t just analyze the information," says chemical engineering professor Michael Malone. "They need to know how to participate in the big decisions that arise in the business world. You can have a perfectly fine technology that goes nowhere because of a regulation you didn’t know about, or a price increase in raw materials. There are a million factors that can come into play."

"What if a client suddenly appears and announces that costs have to be cut by a million or two?" says Malone. "Or suppose new environmental regulations are passed, and you must comply with them? There are practical constraints all the time in the world of engineering, and engineering professionals have to deal with them."

"Our mission is to educate engineers not for their first job," adds Michael Doherty, department chair, "but for their last job."

The bright, newly renovated classroom will make its debut at the start of the spring semester on Jan. 28. It will be used primarily by students in the chemical engineering and electrical and computer engineering departments, as well as by chemistry classes. Twenty-six high-powered computers run on specialized computer-assisted engineering software that was developed at the University by Malone, Doherty, and chemical engineering professor Jim Douglas. The software features decision trees, allowing several branches or routes to a possible engineering solution. Students will learn to factor in issues such as safety, the environment, and investment return.

The General Electric grant has a dual focus: it has provided faculty members with the time and resources to design the curriculum and software, and it has funded state-of-the-art computer equipment. This enables the faculty to bring business and research issues to the undergraduate level.

Computer-assisted engineering enables students to picture chemical and electrical processes. For instance, students can create diagrams of how a chemical manufacturing facility would work, or how a particular chemical reaction occurs. If a student makes a tenuous decision, the computer will state, "Too Costly." Or, more ominously, "Will Explode." The student can then press a few keys to backtrack and take a new route.

"They develop intuition by exploring concepts on the screen," says Doherty.

An audiovisual system allows students to view information displayed on the instructor’s monitor, as well as on classmates’ screens. The tiered room accommodates 52 students, who sit two to a computer, each with his or her own computer mouse. This is intentional, says Malone: "It gets the students talking to each other and working together, rather than having a ‘driver’ and a ‘passenger.’" The system will foster active participation in the classroom, rather than the passive listening that can occur in traditional lecture halls, say the professors. Students will eventually be able to access experiments in an adjacent laboratory through the computers.

The emphasis isn’t so much the impressive technology, Malone and Doherty say, but the implications regarding teaching. Under the new curriculum, dubbed "Decision-Making by Design," students are still required to do intensive work in conventional subjects such as heat transfer and fluid mechanics. This new curriculum will allow them to use those fundamentals to analyze complete systems.

"Students will learn not just scientific concepts, but they’ll also gain experience that engineers don’t generally have until they’ve spent several years in the workforce," said Doherty. "Our engineers will learn at 20 what many don’t learn until they’re 40."