Q and A with Richard Schoephoerster Dean, UTEP College of Engineering
November 01, 2010 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Dr. Richard Schoephoerster
A word that pops up often is growth – growth in the number of students enrolled in UTEP's engineering programs, growth in the number of engineering programs and growth in the square footage of the College of Engineering.
He calls them "renaissance engineers." They are engineers who are more like doctors than technicians. They are people savvy, good communicators and creative.
To do that, the college is wiping the slate clean and working to revamp its undergraduate engineering programs to better reflect the medical school model.
As one of the largest exporters of engineers in the country, the college is also seeking ways to give its graduates opportunities to work here in El Paso. Schoephoerster says he would like to see a Silicon Valley of sorts develop in El Paso.
Schoephoerster, 47, grew up in Iowa. He earned a bachelor's degree in Biomedical Engineering, and master's and doctoral degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Iowa.
This is his fourth year as UTEP's engineering dean. Before that, he worked as a professor at Florida International University for 17 years and established its biomedical engineering programs.
The College of Engineering was recently named one of the top five graduate schools for Hispanics in the country by Hispanic Business magazine. It's the sixth consecutive year the college has been listed in the top five.
Schoephoerster sat down with El Paso Inc. in his office, amidst the sound of construction, and talked about how engineers can drive economic development, why they should be educated more like doctors, and how they can work better with people.
Q: How is the College of Engineering growing?
We've had tremendous growth. During the three years I've been here, we've increased enrollment from about 2,500 students to 3,000 students. Of those extra 500 students, 100 are at the graduate level – both masters and Ph.D.
The university has about $350 million worth of construction going on and more than $100 million of that is primarily just for engineering.
We have also had growth in our research programs. In the three years I've been here, our research expenditures have increased from about $7 million or $8 million a year to about $13 million.
We've added a new program in Construction Management. We started a new program in Systems Engineering and are working on two new programs at the doctoral level in Manufacturing Engineering and Biomedical Engineering.
The Biomedical Engineering programs are going to be offered in very close collaboration with the Texas Tech Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.
We're also adding new space for our biomedical and manufacturing programs that are going to come online soon, as well as another new center, the Center for Space Exploration Technology Research, that was funded at the level of $5 million from NASA.
A lot of the research is to look at energy sources, so it is also our main research center that is focusing on alternative and renewable energy sources.
Q: What is the fastest growing program?
Mechanical engineering, and that is pretty much reflected nationwide. The second-fastest growth right now is in civil engineering. All this construction and all the infrastructure development here with Fort Bliss is driving that need and the interest of students.
Q: Why mechanical engineering?
One thing that is driving that locally is a strong interest from students in aerospace and other aeronautical engineering fields. There is a lot of interest among students to work for companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing and so forth. But even nationwide, there is a large growth in this population of students because of the need and demand for engineers working in the defense and aerospace industry.
Those industries are approaching a situation where up to half of their workforce is ready to retire in the next five years. So they are frantically looking for a whole generation of replacements. It is really about the fact that they didn't hire for a long time in the 90s and early 2000s.
Q: Do you collaborate with the MBA programs?
Not yet, but we are looking to do that. We are trying to develop students who are entrepreneurial in nature.
Q: What would that look like?
We would have graduate-level engineering students who are developing technologies team up with MBA students to actually build a business plan around the technology. The idea is to make entrepreneurial engineers who can take their technology and build a business with it.
My goal from the first day I got here has been to really drive economic development in El Paso. When I interviewed for this position, one of the first questions I got from a student was: "I want to be able to stay in El Paso. Can you help me do that?" We are the biggest exporter of engineering talent anywhere in the country. We export talent like crazy.
What we want to be able to do is work with local industry, attract new industry in and develop new companies ourselves so our graduates have the option to stay here or go somewhere else and get a job.
Q: There is a group working to develop a technology incubator in El Paso. How might that impact the College of Engineering?
We are working very closely with the Medical Center of the Americas and the Paso del Norte Group to build an incubator on the MCA campus. That is part of our biomedical engineering program with the Texas Tech medical school. We want to develop a program that is not just educating and graduating students but really developing technology.
Q: Does El Paso need a sort of Silicon Valley of its own?
That is certainly what we are looking at doing. It is funny you mention Silicon Valley, because we recently received funding from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to develop what I have been calling the new Silicon Valley here for El Paso.
It would not be based on silicon wafers but a new way of electronics manufacturing called printed electronics. Engineers here are developing technology that can actually print electronics on a polymer substrate. Then it can be flexible. Imagine a flexible cell phone that can just be printed out. It's the same kind of concept as an inkjet printer.
Q: What other things are being developed in the College of Engineering?
We are also working in the energy area. This is fairly new for the college. When I got here, there was absolutely nothing going on in the energy area.
Q: Is that mainly research into renewable energy?
We're creating a very balanced energy research portfolio because clearly fossil fuels are still here for the next few decades. But we need to make them as clean as possible, so we are working to make them clean through things like carbon sequestration and clean coal and so forth.
But, for the long-term future, we are also developing renewables. So we are doing a lot of work in the solar area. This needs to be the solar capital of the world, and we are going to be leading the effort to develop those technologies.
Q: Fort Bliss is working to produce as much energy as it uses from renewable energy by 2015. Is that an opportunity for the college?
We are working to partner with Fort Bliss on the energy initiatives there, and working very hard to help them meet their goal. We will be there right beside them.
I really credit Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commanding general of Fort Bliss, for taking that leap of faith. It is a win win for both of us. They can use our expertise in this area, and it provides an opportunity for our students and faculty to apply what they are studying. The first step is to develop a base line of where Fort Bliss is now.
Q: Is there a transformation underway in how engineering is taught?
There really is. There has been a lot of discussion about transforming engineering education for about 40 years, but very little action until recently. We still teach engineering the same way we did 40 years ago, even though the world has drastically changed and even the role of engineers has changed.
Engineers used to be the people that worked back in labs, and the last thing you wanted to do was bring them out and have them actually talk to customers, so to speak.
But that is not the case anymore. Now, engineers have to be professionally oriented, they have to be able to communicate and be able to sell their ideas and be able to work very closely with customers.
Here at UTEP, we are looking at ways to produce that new, what I call renaissance, engineer. It's an engineer that understands the business world and understands how to work with people to determine what their needs are and how to fulfill those needs.
Q: Is the focus more on problem solving?
It is. And those problems are becoming more and more complex. Because of that, engineers need to be interdisciplinary and have a broad-based education. Today's complex problems always involve a lot of different disciplines coming together and the interaction of people. If you focus too much on the technical side, you almost wipe out the creativity and to some extent that is what our programs do. That is why we want to open up the curriculum again.
Q: What is UTEP doing to produce that renaissance engineer?
We are really kind of wiping the slate clean at the undergraduate level, and we are producing a new undergraduate program that has a very broad-based curriculum. It still brings in the technical aspects but also focuses on the key characteristics of an engineer. Engineering isn't just the application of science and math; it is creativity, it is innovation, and design.
The idea is to move toward more of a medical school model for engineering. Medical schools like very broad-minded undergraduate students coming into the graduate training, and that is where they get their hardcore physiology, anatomy and all that kind of training.
That is what we are looking to do – move our discipline-based, very scientific and technically oriented-training to the graduate level.
The other part of the medical school model is to make it very hands on. Half the education is lecture and classroom, but the other half of the education is working as a student intern. Well, we are going to be doing that same thing at the graduate level. That is part of the need for the tech incubator or tech research park you mentioned, so that students can get that hands-on experience while they are still in school.
Our goal is to get 80 percent of our undergraduate students through an internship before they graduate. Right now, about 30 to 35 percent of our students get that.
Q: Is it more of a liberal arts approach?
It's making the engineering program into much more of a liberal arts kind of a program that prepares students for the graduate-level engineering education. It is about elevating the profession above its technician orientation. I like calling it the medical school model, because the idea is to drive engineering up to the same sort of standard as physicians.
Q: How can the U.S. compete globally?
India and China are producing twice and three times as many engineers as we are. There is no way we can keep up with them in terms of numbers. If we are going to compete globally, we have to produce a higher level of engineer, quite frankly. That is what this program is all about.
Q: How is the College of Engineering working with El Paso Community College?
Just last week we signed an articulation agreement with EPCC. We are working very closely with them to make the transition of students from EPCC to our engineering programs totally seamless. The goal is for the classes and curriculum to be totally identical for the first two years.
But it goes even beyond that. The advising office will essentially be a dual office between the two programs so that the students get the same advice. Essentially, whether the students start here at UTEP or at EPCC, they won't know the difference.
We are working hard to get funding to insure the quality is where it needs to be between the two programs.
Q: Do you have programs designed to get more young people excited about engineering?
We are very proud of the close work we do with the K-12 schools here. We have an ambassador program where students who are in our programs now go back to their high school and work with students to try to encourage them to get involved, educating them on what engineering is and getting them excited about it.
We also have a summer program that teaches high school teachers how to teach engineering. In fact, one of the goals we have for this broad-based undergraduate engineering program I talked about is to produce high school and middle school teachers.
Q: How do we increase diversity in the field of engineering?
Diversity is really important for the innovation engine of this country. UTEP is one of the largest producers of Hispanic engineers right now, but what we are working on now is getting it more diverse in terms of gender.
Nationwide, still only about 20 percent of the enrollment at engineering schools is female and we are about the same. So we are going to be working very hard over the next few years to get more females into engineering.
Part of it is developing that more broad-minded undergraduate program. To some extent, we lose females when we focus too much on the technology. If it is a program with a broader curriculum that is more human oriented, we are going to get more females in the field of engineering.
Originally posted on El Paso Inc..