Building a STEM Workforce Program
We interview Dr. Peter Rim, Professor of Engineering and Technology at the University of North Alabama (UNA). Dr. Rim played a key role in developing an innovative bioengineering program that focuses on STEM workforce development to meet biomanufacturing industry demand. In this interview, we discuss the scope and opportunities of the bioengineering program, which applies engineering principles in developing biological processes (including microbial technologies) to solve the challenges faced by industry and society.
Can you tell us about the program you created?
The bachelors-level program is a bioengineering option in the Department of Engineering and Technology. The curriculum is a balance of theory and application focused on the manufacturing of products and the implementation of processes involving biological systems.
How was the idea created and what steps did you take to implement the program?
One of the important parts of the mission of UNA and the Engineering and Technology Department is to support workforce development and the technology industries in the region and state. So the first question we ask is, what type of program would best benefit the students, university and region? There is a strong emphasis in Alabama on biotechnology research, and this program ensures that the manufacturing segment will be served.
For faculty who want to create a new program at their university, what are some factors to consider?
The approach we used was to identify criteria for the program based on the university’s mission, employment opportunities for students, opportunities for faculty research in an emerging field, etc. Then, these criteria served as a filter for ideas that were generated from brainstorming exercises.
What kinds of support should faculty look for to implement a new program?
This varies a great deal depending on the type of program. For our department, we find that a needs-based approach is best. If a strong plan has been developed and the program is of high value to the university, then meeting faculty needs is manageable.
In your opinion, how important is it for faculty to help students develop a multidisciplinary skill set before entering the workforce?
This is an interesting question because it is the most common request from employers. Communication skills, both oral and written, problem solving, project management and team acumen are all strongly desired. Because our program was built from the ground up, it was relatively straightforward to incorporate them into the curriculum. It is important to know that these initiatives can be very time intensive for faculty, so resources should be adjusted appropriately to ensure successful implementation.
Can you share some of the challenges students face when they transition from academia to industry?
In addition to sometimes having to develop multidisciplinary skills in their first few years of employment, graduates are faced with work assignments that are often less defined, but for which they are more accountable, than during their academic experience. So providing the students with these experiences before they graduate is important. Capstone classes, project work, research and co-op experiences are all key.
For students who don’t have access to programs that prepare them for industry, what materials and resources are available to help them transition from academia to industry?
For this situation, students can research co-op and internship opportunities in their field, volunteer to do research at neighboring universities, join or initiate regional professional societies and inquire about programs through regional economic development associations and industry groups. Students are often not aware of these opportunities, so finding mentors who can advise them appropriately is key. University alumni associations are often a good source of mentors who want to give back to their institution.