Our Sustainable Future: Engineering

Sweet Briar’s ABET-accredited Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program is unique. It provides immersive, project-based, hands-on learning that gives students a solid foundation in engineering fundamentals. At the same time, it provides students with an interdisciplinary skill set that empowers them to succeed in any engineering specialty. Sweet Briar’s engineering graduates are admitted into prestigious graduate programs and have an exceptional job placement record, having been hired by leading companies such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, IBM and the U.S. Navy.

Over the next five years, we hope to grow the size and depth of this unusual program by doing the following:

(a) Curricular Revision to Address Disparate Preparations

In our women-centered engineering program, we strive to educate and empower women to become engineers. We are reaffirming our commitment to having an engineering degree accessible to as many women as possible. We will address inequities in how women are educated in the scientific and mathematical fields. For too long, young women have been tracked out of higher math and science courses and discouraged from pursuing engineering and other STEM fields.

Over the next five years, we will develop programs that address the disparity of preparations to pursue engineering science at Sweet Briar. To do so, we need additional faculty, course offerings and expanded programs to broaden our current scope and vision.

We will offer pre-calculus and/or college algebra to Sweet Briar students who have had insufficient, biased or discouraging experiences in mathematics prior to arriving at the College. We will investigate tutoring models with positive results such as the Supplemental Instructor program (https://info.umkc.edu/si/) in which student tutors are paired with courses and then lead peer review sessions.

The engineering science degree requirements are extensive, with 82-85 credits of required courses that leave little room for taking preparatory courses or having to reduce the course load per semester. We will develop a degree path that includes a fifth year for those students who require a preparatory curriculum to progress satisfactorily through engineering’s rigorous curriculum. This fifth year will be application based and have financial aid attached to it to make it affordable for students.

(b) Sweet Briar Engineering Institute (SBEI)

Our engineering program is distinct in the level of hands-on experience that students get from their very first course, ENGR 110: Introduction to Engineering, where students work in teams to design objects such as a pinball machine and LED clock and learn to use tools. Central to that experience is having real-world, relevant projects for students and faculty to engage in. Toward that end, we will establish a Sweet Briar Engineering Institute (SBEI) to work with students and faculty to provide services to outside clients—mostly small businesses and community and other non-profit organizations. Examples of the types of services offered by the SBEI could include materials testing; engineering design and analysis advice; engineering assistance; special products testing; creation of prototype product parts; custom machining; 3-D printing; special analysis in fields in which faculty members have expertise, such as nano-materials, thermo-fluids, etc.

Sweet Briar faculty could be hired as consultants, giving them additional scope and opportunities to do high-level work in their fields of specialization, thereby increasing their job satisfaction. Projects could also be run through courses and involve student participation. SBEI would generate small revenues, although some projects for non-profits and community organizations could be done at no cost or for reduced fees.

(c) A Master of Science Degree in Integrated Engineering

In the next five years, we hope to pursue the creation of an M.S. degree in Integrated Engineering. As currently conceived, this master’s program is predicated on the recognition that there are no single-discipline engineering problems—21st century challenges require integrated, interdisciplinary solutions. Such a degree would be unique and the first of its kind—there is no such graduate program in the country. Engineering graduates can currently go on to earn a discipline-specific master’s or an MBA, but they do not have this kind of opportunity. Industry demand for the program’s versatile graduates likely would be high but needs to be discerned.

This M.S. degree would build upon our engineering science undergraduate curriculum, which is essentially an integrated engineering degree, integrating engineering with the liberal arts, with other STEM programs and with business. To determine the degree’s feasibility, we would canvas opinions from leading engineering graduate programs, seek feedback from industry and the business community to understand demand and hire a research firm to do a market analysis. If we launch the program, we would hire additional faculty to create the discipline-specific courses needed to round out the program and fill in students’ backgrounds. We would expand current collaboration with the business program, reach out to other campus programs to ensure interdisciplinarity and include an industry experience as part of the degree requirements.

We would pursue ABET accreditation of this degree. The program would be flexible, serving both residential full time and part-time students by offering some courses at night, or online. It would be co-educational, but we would market it heavily to women engineering students (at Sweet Briar and engineering programs across the country) and to women working in the field. It would raise Sweet Briar’s visibility, create new sources of revenue, help strengthen existing corporate partnerships and build new ones.

To accomplish these goals, we will hire a director of the engineering program. This individual will lead the charge to develop and nurture relationships with local, regional, national and international business and industry leaders. The director will work with faculty in the engineering program and other programs in our STEM fields to evolve curricula to meet the needs of all students who want to pursue engineering or any STEM field. In addition, this person will be responsible for leading the study into the feasibility of the M.S. program.

(d) Renovating the Guion Science Center

As the engineering program grows, it will require additional, dedicated space within the Guion Science Center, which houses all of the College’s STEM programs. Guion, a stately brick modernist structure with limestone trim, was built in 1964 with an addition in the early 1970s. Its interior requires updating to meet the instructional needs of today’s STEM courses. It needs flexible classroom spaces with easily moveable classroom furniture to facilitate project-based, collaborative, experiential learning, as well as teaching and research labs that can meet the evolving pedagogy of the STEM faculty. Necessary infrastructure work includes electrical updates, lighting, plumbing, new windows, a new roof, new HVAC, upgraded fume hoods, upgraded and increased numbers of safety stations, a new elevator and ADA accessibility.

Preliminary estimates for the costs of Guion’s infrastructure needs, not including interior renovations for programmatic improvements, range from $9 million to $11 million. A complication of committing to the rehabilitation of Guion versus constructing a new science facility is that we will be working on the building while it is use, necessitating careful consideration of how the project will need to proceed in stages.