Project-Based Curriculum Reduces Manufacturers’ Skills Gaps

Posted By: Elizabeth Pluskwik, PhD, Business Professor, Minnesota State University on February 20, 2018

Elizabeth Pluskwik, PhD, leads the Engineering Economics, Entrepreneurial and Lean competencies at Iron Range Engineering, a project-based engineering education program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Lean Certification Was the Priority

In 2009, northern Minnesota was experiencing a “brain drain,” with engineering students learning and leaving. We wanted them to learn and stay! And many community college graduates wanted to stay in their local area to complete their bachelor’s degrees. We did not have a four-year college in the area — the nearest was in Duluth, which is 50 miles away.

Project-Based Curriculum Reduces Manufacturers’ Skills Gaps

So in 2010, Iron Range Engineering (IRE)1 began delivering a new model for engineering education focused on project-based learning. IRE is the first four-year engineering degree program in the northern part of Minnesota.

When local industry requested more education in Lean Certification, we had no curriculum in place. I was introduced to the Bronze Certification Instructor-Led Training (ILT) resources and Bronze Lean Online Review Program (LORP) by Jason Bruns, director of the Minnesota State Engineering Center of Excellence.

The LORP from Tooling U-SME and ILT resources from the Lean Certification Alliance2 helped me prepare for the exam. In August 2016, I received the Lean Bronze Certificate. I have since become certified in Six Sigma and am currently working on my portfolio to earn the final Lean Bronze Certification.

I was able to adapt these materials and create a Lean Principles class so undergraduate student engineers could learn about lean and process improvement in their junior and senior years of college. These classes have generated a great deal of interest from students and manufacturers and have been applied to our unique, forward-thinking, project-based learning program, where students work in teams with an industry client each semester of their last two years of college. In fact, many of our co-op students last semester worked directly in process improvement roles in companies in South Dakota and Wisconsin, as well as in Minnesota.

IRE formed partnerships with mining companies, power companies, and aircraft and paper manufacturers, among others, over the last several years. Each semester, these companies provide ill-structured, complex, open-ended problems that our students work in teams to solve. Students can also work on their own entrepreneurial ideas, with peers, for their design projects. Students generate and filter ideas, based on design objectives and constraints; complete research, testing and validation procedures; run experiments; build prototypes; and improve the solution, all with an eye toward creating value for clients. Each team provides its client with a 100-page technical solution document regarding their project and holds three design reviews with industry guests and faculty during the semester. The program emphasizes professionalism, communication and self-directed learning.

These students solve real problems for real companies while learning the professional, technical, and design skills needed to become effective collaborators in engineering work. They produce cost-beneficial solutions for their clients and often go on to work for these companies in a co-op or full-time engineering position. We are seeing a great demand for lean skills in industry, and SME is a high-quality, wonderful resource for our students.

During their senior year, many students are provided a co-op position with their project company. The placement rate has been 90 percent after completion. These students are in demand — many are hired prior to graduation.

We have placed students at many organizations nationwide, including Amazon, NASA (at the Kennedy Space Center), Cleveland Cliffs, Trane Industries, Winnebago, Cirrus Aircraft, Minnesota Power, U.S. Steel and engineering consulting firms.

As the students move forward, they can use their projects and co-op experience for their portfolios on the way to earning Lean Certification.

Tags: "Reduce skills gap", "project-based learning", "Iron Range Engineering", "lean bronze certification", "bronze lean online review", "Lean Certification Alliance", "Tooling U-SME", SME, "co-op students", partnerships, professionalism, "communication and self-directed learning", "90 percent placement rate".

1. Iron Range Engineering (IRE) is a project-based, four-year-degree, ABET-accredited program of Minnesota State University, Mankato, and located in Virginia, Minn.

2. The Lean Certification Alliance is composed of the Association for Manufacturing Engineers (AME), Tooling U-SME and the Shingo Institute.

Tags: "90 percent placement rate", "bronze lean online review", "communication and self-directed learning", "co-op students", "Iron Range Engineering", "lean bronze certification", "Lean Certification Alliance", partnerships, professionalism, "project-based learning", "Reduce skills gap", SME, "Tooling U-SME"