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Partnership needed on engineering: UAF, UAA must educate a new generation

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 12:01 am | Updated: 1:53 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Community perspective

One of the greatest successes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in recent years has been in the increase in enrollment within the College of Engineering and Mines. We now have more than 700 undergraduate engineering students, a record for the college. Just as exciting are our numbers for retention and graduation. Last year we retained 83 percent of our freshmen in the college and, at our 2011 commencement ceremony, graduated 87 engineers who were well-trained and well-educated to meet the needs of the state and Alaska’s engineering industry. From 2000 to 2010, of the 1,351 University of Alaska engineering graduates, close to 70 percent remained in Alaska and more than 50 percent are working specifically in engineering-related occupations.

Truly exciting news, but this growth brings the challenge of having enough laboratory and classroom space to support it. The Duckering Building, which houses the engineering program, was built in 1964. Though there have been renovations since then, it is now dramatically out of date. It does not provide the proper space needed for modern engineering curricula.

We’re not alone in this problem. Our colleagues to the south, the University of Alaska Anchorage, are facing similar challenges with their expanding engineering program. That’s why the UA Board of Regents has called the UA Engineering Expansion Initiative the number one new construction priority for academic programs systemwide.

There’s more at stake here than just providing proper instructional and laboratory space. Alaska faces a shortage of qualified engineers, and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s current projections indicate an average of 78 new engineering jobs will be available each year, plus another 189 replacement openings resulting from workers retiring, leaving the Alaska labor force or changing occupations. And employers prefer to hire UA graduates because of their education, understanding of arctic engineering principles, and likelihood of remaining in the state.

The university is well aware of our role, and we are responding. In 2007, the regents approved an engineering initiative that targets the graduation of a minimum of 200 engineering students by the year 2014. Between UAF and UAA, and based upon the trends of previous years, we have the potential to meet that goal, but the out-dated engineering classroom and laboratory spaces on both campuses are not adequate.

The aforementioned initiative requests $119.2 million in general funds for UAA and $94.6 million for UAF. The funding for UAF would provide for a new facility adjacent to Duckering, as well as money for necessary renovation to that building.

We’ve seen tremendous support already. Last year, the Legislature appropriated $8 million for planning and design, and, around the state, industry leaders and alumni have voiced their support of this combined project. During the past few years, private gifts from nearly 770 individuals and corporations totaling more than $26 million have gone to UAF and UAA engineering programs, providing student scholarships, equipment, and program support. The need is there, the support is there, and we are ready to make this happen.

UAA Chancellor Tom Case and I both agree that it is critical we work together on this project, so that we can meet the demands of the state and of the engineering industry. We need to collaborate and to garner support of legislators and industry leaders statewide so we can make this happen without rivalry between the two campuses. Let’s join forces and address this state need for engineers and save our competition with UAA for the hockey rink.

Brian Rogers is chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was appointed in May 2009 after serving a year as interim chancellor. He has served as the UA system’s finance vice president, as a UA regent and as a state legislator representing Fairbanks.

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