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Transforming the culture of learning

Although ground hasn’t been broken on the new Engineering and Business Convergence Center, Drs. Robert Scott and John Engdahl have already been putting the idea into practice for the last four years.

After discussing the details over their lunch breaks, the two professors combined their respective expertise to create “The Economics and Technology of Energy,” a course that has been taught to graduate students for the past four spring semesters.

The course, which consists of about 20 students from the Foster College of Business Administration and the College of Engineering and Technology, takes an in-depth look at the different energy problems facing the country today.  But rather than analyzing just the technical parts of the problem, Scott and Engdahl’s students are taught to think about the financial aspects of energy.

“Say we are talking about photovoltaic cells,” said Scott, the Chair of the Department of Economics. “The questions that we are presenting to the groups of students are things like where would you put solar cells?  How much would it cost?  How much energy would it generate?  What’s the value of that energy?  Basically, if this was your business, what would you need to know?”

For the main project of the class, Scott and Engdahl pair a student with business training with a student who has engineering training.  The group will then choose an issue related to the technology of energy and provide the class with a full business analysis of that issue.

Engdahl, who brings the technical expertise to the table as the Fites Chair in Engineering, explained that the class is a perfect preparation for what business and engineering students will see in the real world. 

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘the difference between physics and engineering is that in engineering there is a dollar sign in every denominator,’” he said.  “In every equation that engineers deal with, they have to think about money, and that’s what this course aims to teach them.”

Among the topics that have been studied by the class are solar energy, wind energy, nuclear energy and energy storage.

“It is a totally different way of looking at things,” Engdahl said.  “Everybody is trying to cram so much into the engineering curriculums and cover all the technical aspects, but where’s the big picture?  That’s where we wanted to steer this course.

“Let’s get our heads out of the steam cycle and thermodynamics or the accounting rules and theories. Let’s jump on something that’s a real national priority.”

Scott and Engdahl’s course has served as the perfect model for the new Engineering and Business Convergence Center, giving the professors and the departments involved a look into what makes these types of combined classes work.

The new 327,000 square-foot building will house the Foster College of Business Administration and the College of Engineering and Technology, with the Convergence Center serving as a centerpiece connecting the two. Bradley’s plans are for the Convergence Center to feature two large innovation and commercialization laboratories where business and engineering students, among others, can work together as the equivalent of a small company to complete projects.

“Students must have a basis rooted in technical understanding and good solid business analysis,” Scott said.  “Merging those two is the challenge.  But having professors like  [Engdahl] is a big help. He’s great at drawing on both types of experience during class and saying it in a way that technologists are able to hear.”

Both Scott and Engdahl explained how much they themselves were able to get out of teaching “The Economics and Technology of Energy,” but that most importantly, the students leave the course with skills that will translate directly to their careers.

“One group that we love to see work together are the engineers and the accountants,” Scott said.  “From out there in the real world, I hear stories about how the technologists and accountants are ready to come to blows. 

“Until they work together, they will never have a chance to bridge that, but once they’ve done it, both of them have changed.”