Employees turn student

Posted: April 19, 2013 - 1:05pm

At every stage of its development — from the initial floating of ideas to the realization of those ideas — the University of Tennessee’s new Engineering Management graduate program seems a perfect example of the possibilities created by Y‑12 and UT’s formal partnership.

“Through the leadership of Dr. Rupy Sawhney, we started out with an initiative in Industrial Engineering where we wanted to be relevant to our community and make a difference,” said Carla Arbogast, UT program coordinator. “We requested a meeting with Y‑12 leadership, asking how we could help them.”

Under the partnership, questions like that are directed to Debbie Reed, Y‑12’s UT liaison. “Before an idea or suggestion is implemented, Y‑12 follows a process to make certain it is beneficial to the site,” Reed said. “We want to make sure there is a good business case to start any initiative.”

The resulting discussions identified a need — and a good business case — for an undergraduate or graduate program in engineering. “We decided on a Master’s in Industrial Engineering with a concentration in management,” Arbogast said.

The UT Space Institute was already offering a similar degree program, though it was only available online. Dr. Sawhney, Industrial Engineering department head, and Arbogast worked with Reed, Ben Stephens of Y‑12’s Commercialization and Partnerships organization, and Integration and Partnerships Director Tom Berg to create a classroom version of that program, customized to Y‑12’s needs.

With the benefit of an already accredited and approved curriculum, the group was able to get the program ready for the Fall 2011 semester, with 19 Y‑12 employees initially enrolled and 13 more joining in the spring.

One of those employees-turned-student is Carlos Houston. Aware of the career advancement benefits, Houston knew he wanted a graduate degree. But he didn’t know where he could get one while working full time. “I was looking at Vanderbilt’s program,” Houston said, “but this one makes perfect sense.”

With classes held in Oak Ridge on Friday, Y‑12’s standard day off, Houston decided to enroll. “I couldn’t ask for more,” Houston said of the program. “It’s been very good. The professors are considerate of the fact that we’re all working 40 hours per week, and they’ve geared the curriculum toward the general work we do at Y‑12.”

Of course, without the proper security clearances, professors like Dr. Lee Martin are limited in their ability to relate coursework to the students’ Monday–Thursday work. “There is definitely a challenge of reaching in to Y‑12,” Dr. Martin noted. “But we’ve already had two student projects that arose from our fall semester submitted for patent application at Y‑12, a revealing example of the value creation a program like this offers to the Y‑12 community at large.”

Indeed, everyone seems to benefit from this program. “This partnership between the University of Tennessee, the Industrial and Information Engineering Department and Y‑12 is critical to the mission of the IIE department,” Dr. Sawhney said. “Y‑12 has been a great partner and has provided us with the opportunity and resources to increase the visibility of the department.”

In the end, though, it is the students, like Analytical Chemistry’s Daniel Weller, who gain the most. “This program gives me an opportunity to get a master’s degree without rearranging my work schedule,” Weller said. “I can still work full time, and I’ll have greater career advancement opportunities with this.”

But Weller also sees the program benefitting Y‑12’s future. “The professors are giving us a wealth of information, especially practical info for what we do at Y‑12,” Weller said. “This program will give Y‑12 people they can put into management positions who have both technical and managerial aspects. That’s really valuable.”