Lane One-on-One: UofL Speed School of Engineering Aiming for a National Reputation

Dean Emmanuel Collins says an increased emphasis on STEM education has engineering degree programs growing across the nation

By Mark Green

Emmanuel G. Collins
Emmanuel G. Collins became the ninth dean of the University of Louisville J.B. Speed School of Engineering in 2018.

Mark Green: J.B. Speed School of Engineering has eight degree tracks plus online programs and certificates. What types of engineering education are students seeking most, and does this match what the private sector needs?

Emmanuel Collins: Our largest programs are mechanical engineering and computer science and engineering. The largest demand is in computer science and computer engineering, and that’s largely because of the revolution in artificial intelligence and data science, which are related. Our growth is taking place in the area that has the biggest demand, which is computer science and engineering. Mechanical engineering is also pretty highly in demand; they’re the generalists in engineering. In recent years demand for them has really grown, and you’ve seen mechanical engineering programs grow everywhere.

MG: U.S. engineering school enrollment grew 40% just in the first half of the past decade, and that growth has been continuing. What is Speed School’s experience?

EC: We definitely experienced growth similar to that experienced nationally. We experienced –  in about an eight-year period – over 40% growth. We followed national trends. Now, do the students who start in engineering graduate in engineering? More than half do, and among the ones who don’t make it, a very significant percent move to another major outside of engineering. I think that we can do better at graduating the students who start with us, so we’re putting together programs that will help ensure success in engineering for more of our students. 

MG: What are some of the supports you’re putting in to help students be successful as they go to engineering school?

EC: What we have now is a very good core of student advisors. Almost all of them have master’s degrees in counseling or something related to that, and they do an excellent job of advising our students, helping them through hardships. What I think we can do much better is place them in the correct math when they come in. Some students on paper are calculus-ready, but in practice are not. They could use a little pre-calculus. Some could even use some high-level college algebra before they start on the mathematics track within engineering. If we properly place the students coming in, I believe we’re going to see a significantly greater number finish engineering.

MG: What is driving this growth in engineering programs?

EC: I believe it’s largely the fact that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) has been emphasized in our society and people know you can get good jobs in engineering. You’re pretty much guaranteed to get a good job eventually if you have an engineering degree. Now, is that growth continuing? For (Speed School) it stagnated briefly, but we see that this year we’re starting to get more. You have to aggressively recruit these students, and there’s a lot of competition now. New engineering programs are being formed, and there’s a limited pool of students. We have to be more aggressive in recruiting students to come here because the national trend is the number of high school students is going down; so it stagnated here, but we definitely are experiencing an uptick in this recruitment cycle. That’s partly because of our more aggressive recruitment.

MG: What is the student body size of Speed School?

EC: We have roughly 2,700 and about 2,100 are undergrad.

MG: Do we know how growth in engineering education in Kentucky compares with that in other states? A few years ago Purdue, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Ohio State each were graduating more engineering students than all Kentucky schools combined. Is everybody else growing also, or is Kentucky catching up?

EC: I don’t know the figures elsewhere. I have a lot of contact with Purdue, being a Purdue grad myself. They are very large – larger than the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, the two dominant Kentucky engineering programs, put together – and they also are experiencing a large amount of growth. Kentucky has begun putting a lot of emphasis on engineering education, but it’s relatively recent. We are starting to experience that growth, but I don’t think we’re up with a state like Indiana.

MG: What attracted you to come to UofL? Was there something special that drew you here?

EC: I like this city. Though I had never been here, when we looked at the demographics and size of the city, it seemed like such a good fit, and I knew that the school had high potential. It was about the same size – I’m talking about School of Engineering (at Florida A&M) – that I came from, and it felt like it was a really good fit. My skill set and the needs of the school seemed to really match, so my wife and I put this at the top of the list of the possibilities of our movement.

MG: What are the key skills or emphases that matched?

EC: I have a strong research background, and I know how to put research programs together. I ran a research center, but I also had a department that had a lot of center leaders as faculty within the department. We have a good research base here, but we could use more of that type of center organization at a higher level than where we’ve had it. So, that was a very good match. Also, I have a knack for marketing, and this is a program that needs to be marketed. It is one of the best-kept secrets, not so much in Kentucky – we could be better known outside of the Louisville area – but nationally. We need to have a national reputation, and I love to take things that are unknown and make them known.

MG: What are Speed School’s areas of focus and expertise that have the potential to be better known?

EC: It includes additive manufacturing; biomedical applications and devices; data science and artificial intelligence; energy and sustainability; engineering education; micro- and nanotechnology; robotics and automation; and also smart infrastructure.

MG: Does smart infrastructure mean ‘internet of things’ and its connected devices?

EC: Internet of things would be probably within the data science and AI area, because the internet of things takes a lot of data, processes it, and uses that to determine how to better control or regulate an engineering process.

MG: Let’s talk about Speed School students. Where do they tend to come from, and does the school track where they go after graduation?

EC: A lot of them come from Kentucky, and we get quite a few from Indiana and a few from Ohio, but we actually get students from all 50 states. We do have, obviously, more who come from Kentucky. We are a state school, we recruit heavily within the state, but we actually get students to come from all states in the United States.

MG: How do they know about UofL?

EC: It sometimes is word of mouth. Maybe a guidance counselor points them in that direction, a family member had their origins in Kentucky, or they’re doing an internet search and our name pops up.

MG: Some university research is considered outside investment that comes into the state and UofL is a research institution. What is Speed School’s role in research at UofL?

EC: Research is essential to our identity as a college of engineering. We are tasked with being one of the research drivers at the University of Louisville. We started as a teaching-oriented program in our roots, but now teaching and research have grown to have more equal importance here. Over the past several years we’ve gone from about $7 million in research expenditures (annually) to $13 million in this past year. Our goal is to quickly – this is not a long-term goal but a relatively short-term goal – reach $20 million in research expenditures. That should be our minimum base, so it’s something we’re putting emphasis on.

MG: There’s been emphasis on STEM education for more than a decade now, and the impact at engineering schools is more students. Do students coming in the door nowadays have a better education, background and more expertise?

EC: More students in high schools are aware of engineering as a career than in the past. When I was a student – that was a long time ago – I had not thought of engineering as a career. I loved math, I was going to major in math, until I got in a minority Introduction to Engineering program that taught me about engineering. I instantly decided I wanted to be an engineer. But it wasn’t something you talked about in my high school. My guidance counselors and teachers did not tell me engineering was a viable career. Now, most students know engineering is a viable career.

MG: Does engineering education require additional special resources or equipment compared to other programs?

EC: Yes, we have to have both teaching labs and research labs. That’s the main difference. You have to have labs associated with some of your courses, and labs are relatively expensive and can only hold so many students at once. That differentiates us from, say, English or even business. We also do a lot of research, and many of our research thrusts require fairly expensive labs; sometimes very expensive labs. That’s what differentiates us from some other programs.

Here, we have generous donors who will sometimes help to provide the lab equipment. Research-wise, we get some of our equipment from writing grants. Sometimes we get some resources from the university, or the college will use its budget to help build a research laboratory.

MG: Does the Speed School have enough resources?

EC: We absolutely could use more resources. If we’re going to grow engineering in the state, we have to invest in engineering in the state.

As we grow the student population, we’re going to need more faculty, and with engineering faculty you need start-up packages so that they can build labs and do research that is of relevance to the commonwealth and the nation. Those are the resources we need. Here at Speed School, some of our more historic buildings need to be refurbished, so we could definitely use significant money to renovate our older buildings.

MG: Are there any economic impact studies of the value of engineering programs?

EC: I’ve not seen one, but when I first got here I did a survey of the number of start-ups that are affiliated with Speed School’s current faculty and staff – not going way back, just the people, faculty and staff who are here now. I don’t remember the exact number, but I was pleasantly surprised at the fairly large number of start-ups that have come out of Speed School in recent years.

MG: What are some of the key private-sector problems that engineering schools are being asked to help solve today?

EC: Automation is a very big thing. Companies are automating their processes and using more and more robotics, so they come to us to help with this. Processing of large amounts of data, called big data, is something we address and industry needs. Sustainable energy is very, very big. How do you make solar more efficient? How do you store energy more efficiently? Many issues related to sustainable energy. And here within Louisville and within the university itself, we have a lot of emphasis on medical applications. At Speed School, we do a lot of work with biodevices, so you’ll see a lot of start-ups work with us to develop devices that can be used in the health care industry.

MG: Tell us about the role of engineering certificate credentials. Is this sought by somebody who doesn’t have the time or capability to get a full degree? Is it a degree enhancement? Is it a step towards a degree?

EC: In engineering, it’s primarily degree enhancement. People who get certificates have other engineering degrees, but they may want to get a specialization. Maybe I’m a civil engineer, but I want to work more on the environmental side, so I take some classes and I get an environmental certificate. This is typical, at least here, and I think throughout engineering, it’s more of a degree enhancer.

MG: What broad industrial or societal trends are especially affecting the field of engineering now? You’ve mentioned increasing digitalization and data…

EC: That’s the area. What I would focus on is artificial intelligence and automation. Virtually all forms of engineering are now utilizing artificial intelligence. Even things like experimental fluids. I myself am in robotics, and we use a lot of artificial intelligence there, but you use it in ways that you might not think about. As a mechanical engineer, I did work in artificial intelligence. Why? If you’re going to move a robot in a difficult environment or a robot that has complicated dynamics like the legged robot, if you want to develop mobility intelligence, you have to understand the dynamics of the environment and the vehicle and you have to marry that with artificial intelligence. You can use artificial intelligence in additive manufacturing to get a better product. It’s used virtually everywhere.

Automation, too. It’s really put an emphasis on robotics within engineering disciplines and it’s not all in one department. You’ll see mechanical engineers working on it, you’ll see electrical engineers working on it, you’ll see computer sciences working on it. Something that’s becoming bigger and bigger is bioengineering or biomedical engineering. That’s not a traditional field of engineering, but more and more you see that the technology developed in bioengineering departments is needed by the health care industry, which is a very huge industry within and outside the United States.

MG: What Kentucky business sectors employ the most engineers, and what are some of the trends there?

EC: In Kentucky, many engineers are employed in the broad manufacturing industry. But within manufacturing you have a lot of work done in the aerospace industry, a lot of work done in the automotive industry, and here in Louisville we have GE Appliances, which is making devices that go in our homes: refrigerators, washing machines, etc. We also have quite a big employment in the spirits industry. Bourbon – something that Kentucky is well known for – employs a lot of engineers.

They try to make the processes more efficient. They try to save energy, to improve the product, to improve the way that you transport it. And they build the distillery; those are engineering systems.

MG: UofL and Louisville recently entered into special technology-focused relationships with IBM and Microsoft regarding artificial intelligence and big data and analytics. What is the impact of this on engineering and engineering education?

EC: For engineering, it supplies us with tools that we may not have access to because of cost. We already are working in pretty much the same areas as IBM and Microsoft, but they are providing tools that the engineering classes can use. By tools I mean software they develop. Software can be very expensive, and if they make it available to you either for free or at a low cost, you have something that you might not otherwise have to use. I think their biggest impact is on bringing those tools outside of engineering, where they were almost unknown. As we go forward, my vision is that you will see people who are in the non-STEM disciplines having more STEM knowledge; I believe that Microsoft and IBM are helping us to give some technology training to people outside of the usual STEM disciplines.

MG: How is Speed School doing at finding the faculty that it wants? 

EC: We’re an attractive program. Since I’ve been here we’ve done several searches, and in each case we’ve been able to get the kind of faculty that we’re looking for. We just replaced one of our chairs, or we did a search for a chair, and we were able to get a very high-quality faculty member in that position. I was attracted to this program because the university has a good foundation and high potential for growth, and it’s in a city that’s very attractive, so we’re not struggling with finding good faculty.

MG: What are some of the collaborations that the school is doing with the private sector or with other schools? Are you doing projects with UK or Purdue or whomever?

EC: We have numerous projects with other schools, but that’s done at the individual faculty level. We just got a 1A NSF EPSCoR (National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) project with the University of Kentucky, which is perhaps $13 million or so. We have too many partnerships to count with other universities, primarily through research. In terms of the private sector, we also have a huge number of partnerships.

One of Speed’s distinctions is we have a co-op program. In a three-year period, we’ll have over 400 co-op partners. Each of these is a partnership with industry. With one company, we have a relatively exclusive master’s program; they’ve agreed to send their engineers who want to get a master’s degree to Speed School. Something that’s recently gained visibility is our partnership with a diamond company. They make artificial diamonds, and we’re exploring ways to use those diamonds within electronics. Many of our faculty work with small businesses through SBIRs or STTRs.

MG: There is some excited talk of a coming fourth industrial revolution with potential advances and impacts on quality of life from applying nanotechnology, material science, energy storage, additive manufacturing, robotics, and the internet of things. But it also could be very disruptive. Is the buzz warranted, or is it likely to play out more slowly and less fantastically?

EC: Honestly, I had not been hearing that term, but all these technology areas listed under this fourth industrial revolution I’m very familiar with. These are technologies that if you don’t use them – say you’re an industry and you don’t adapt the ones that are most relevant to you – you will not stay competitive. From an industrial point of view, when I think of these fourth industrial revolution technologies, it’s saying that you need to be using the appropriate technologies to increase your efficiency and basically stay competitive.

Obviously, some of these things are going to have a dramatic impact on lives –  say, in things related to robotics for the home – but only when they become affordable. Some things won’t have a huge impact until they become affordable. You do see robotics at home right now because of the Roomba and products that are similar. Robotic vacuum cleaners are now becoming relatively ubiquitous in America, but that’s because they can make them fairly cheap. Maybe you can get one for about $300. So as these technologies are developed, it’s not the fact that they exist that will change people’s lives, it’s that they exist and are affordable. Until they become affordable, they’re not going to have that impact.

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