Growing a greater engineering program

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

Fourteen years ago, 263 students were taking classes at UAA's School of Engineering. Now, more than four times that many students are enrolled in UAA's newly renamed College of Engineering, intent on earning a degree or certificate and delving into hundreds of postings for high-demand Alaska engineering jobs.

An explosion of growth in the department's enrollment, faculty, credit hours and course options prompted the name change, said UAA's recently hired dean of engineering, Tien-Chien Jen.

UAA College of Engineering Dean Dr. Tien-Chien Jen stands in front of the Engineering and Industry Building, scheduled to open in fall 2015. Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

Dr. Tien-Chien Jen, dean of UAA's College of Engineering, stands in front of the Engineering and Industry Building, scheduled to open in fall 2015.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

"A school has very narrow disciplines," said Jen, who moved to UAA eight months ago from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "In the past eight years, we have grown to six departments-mechanical; electrical; computer science and engineering; engineering, science and project management; geomatics; and civil engineering. Enrollment this spring is up 9.4 percent, credit hours are up 7.4 percent, compared to last spring. Our student population's grown to 1,200. In 2007, we had 15 faculty; now we have 43. We have a new facility underway. These are the factors that helped change the designation from a school to a college."

Big growth occurred in computer science, which had 200 lower-level students last spring and 430 this spring, and electrical engineering, which grew from having 182 upper-level students last spring to 268 this spring.

Providing industry-relevant education

The creation in 2005 of a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering to supplement the long-standing Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering helped spur the growth, by making it possible for more Anchorage-based students to stay here to prepare for a career. Jen hopes the Engineering Dean's Excellence Award-a four-year, $12,000 scholarship opportunity available this year-will keep more of Alaska's best and brightest students pursuing their engineering degrees and careers in Alaska and attract highly qualified students from outside Alaska.

That's critical for the industries in Alaska that are encouraging the acceleration of UAA's engineering programs. Engineers who happen to be Alaskans or have significant experience working in Alaska provide more value for a company since they are accustomed to this state's weather and culture and so are less likely to leave the state and take a company's training investment with them.

UAA is reaching out to industry to learn what skills it needs and what equipment companies use, providing an incentive for industry to donate or otherwise provide students access to needed equipment. Graduates who get that experience while still in school can then reduce expensive training learning curves when they start their new jobs.

"If they don't have that equipment at UAA, companies will need to retrain them, and it can take six to 12 months to become familiar with their equipment," Jen said.

Lab-based facilities are key to the College of Engineering's goal of providing relevant education and growing its research capabilities.

Beth Rose, UAA College of Engineering's senior development officer and Engineering Dean Tien-Chien Jen stand atop UAA's under-construction Engineering and Industry Building.

Beth Rose, UAA College of Engineering's senior development officer and Engineering Dean Tien-Chien Jen stand atop UAA's Engineering and Industry Building, now under construction.
Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage

Beth Rose, senior development officer for the College of Engineering, says BP's gift of $1 million for equipment in the BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab at UAA provides opportunities for faculty and student research, as well as lab testing for local companies. The goal for the lab is to become self-sustaining through conducting research and testing that would have previously been sent out of state.

Another important source of research funding will be the $11 million ConocoPhillips Arctic Science and Engineering Endowment. This endowment will be used to help increase understanding of engineering and the natural sciences in northern climates and communities. ConocoPhillips made this significant donation with the hope of encouraging students to stay and work in Alaska, and to foster innovative thought in our state

Making more room for students

Construction of UAA's new Engineering and Industry Building, a lab in itself, is underway along Providence Drive. The four-story, 80,000-square-foot structure was needed to maintain academic accreditation for the engineering programs; it will open in August 2015.

That $78.3-million building is one of three components in the first phase of the project, said Kimberly Riggs, the College of Engineering's facilities manager. The other two components include a new $28.4-million parking structure and a $16.5-million renovation of the existing Engineering Building.

The second phase of the project, Riggs said, consists of an additional wing for the EIB. The wing is included in the campus master plan as a future project, but details on size, cost and a projected year are not yet available, Riggs said.

A sky bridge across Providence Drive from EIB to the Health Sciences Building has been approved and is currently in design.

"The goal is to construct it in conjunction with the EIB, but the plan has not been finalized," Riggs said. "It is being funded with money outside of this project."

Physically connecting buildings housing UAA's most dynamic entities-the College of Health and the College of Engineering-could stimulate even more growth and more research opportunities in the future.

Smoothing the path

Growth can't continue if Alaska's students aren't cultivated and inspired years before they start thinking about college.

The College of Engineering has a relationship with high school engineering academies at Dimond, South, Eagle River and other locations. In addition, UAA's College of Engineering's alumni chapter conducts outreach and mentoring activities designed to tap the imagination of elementary, middle school and high school students and ignite and support their interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Faculty are also actively involved in reaching future engineers through a summer camp, and academies such as video-game programming and robotics.

And once they are here on campus, students can become active in a number of the 11 student clubs and societies within the College, including UAA chapters of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Engineers Without Borders and Society of Women Engineers. These student organizations involve the students in a variety of community-service activities, learning about the professional aspects of their profession, and getting involved in regional and national events such as student conferences and competitions. 

The College of Engineering also works closely with the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, ANSEP, a successful program whose goal is to recruit and retain Alaska Native students in engineering and science degree programs, and help them attain leadership roles in the profession.

"The College of Engineering is experiencing great momentum," Jen said. "Students who come here to study, either as an undergraduate or graduate, will find great opportunities to get involved and explore the profession through internships, industry-based research projects and capstone design projects. It is my vision that this college will be the country's most accessible college for industry to work with."

The College of Engineering is now undertaking a strategic-planning effort involving students, faculty, staff and industry leaders, to look at how the college should be best positioned moving forward. The goal is to have a draft strategic plan completed by May. Updates will be posted at

Creative Commons License "Growing a greater engineering program" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.