Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Professor Frank Harwath is hoping to take it one step further and build a better engineer to design that mousetrap.
Harwath is a professor of engineering and the director of North Central’s new engineering programs, which the College will offer starting with the 2018-2019 academic year. Students will be able to pursue bachelor of science degrees in computer, electrical and mechanical engineering.
According to Harwath, the College strives to create the “ideal engineer”—one with a comprehensive liberal arts education.
“Industry and academic partners have told us that the ideal engineer participates in teams effectively, communicates respectfully, clearly and concisely, and executes compassionately and realistically,” said Harwath.
The new programs allow the College to imagine and build a new brand of well-rounded engineers. The College for many years has offered a “3-2” program option—students get the small school experience for their first three years at North Central, completing core science, engineering and math courses and earning a bachelor of science degree in chemistry or engineering physics. They then complete a second bachelor of science degree in two years in an engineering specialty like civil, aerospace, nuclear or chemical at a partnering university.
“Our dual-degree programs have produced successful engineers, and while there is unique utility to those, we have been asked for some time why we do not offer bachelor’s degrees in engineering on our campus,” said Stephen Maynard Caliendo, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “With the building of the Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center came renewed and invigorated interest.”
“Our courses will be based in projects and open-ended questions, not driven by texts or timed tests.”
Caliendo began to lay the groundwork for an engineering major when he was appointed dean in spring 2016. He worked with Sun-il Kim, associate professor of computer science and chair of the department of computer science, to find a leader with the right vision to direct a different kind of engineering.
“We compiled a search committee that included faculty from areas that would be particularly important to programs rooted firmly in the liberal arts tradition: philosophy, communication, computer science, mathematics and physics,” said Caliendo.
The search led them to Harwath, who for more than 30 years worked in industry design and developed products and processes. Harwath started three companies, accumulated 84 patents and designed products used in high performance computers, graphics hardware, cell phones, fiber optics and sporting goods.
“Coming in with a lot of industry experience gives me a kind of unique perspective—I have a first-hand point of view in seeing what’s really necessary in new engineers,” Harwath said.
Leading a collegiate engineering program signaled a sea change in Harwath’s career path. His experience mirrors the diverse training that he hopes North Central engineering students will obtain.
“I wanted to get into teaching,” Harwath said. “I started looking at what was necessary to be competitive, and it really was necessary for me to upgrade my skills. So I went back out and got my Ph.D. It had a side benefit that I didn't expect: typically people who have been around as long as I have got their Ph.D.’s 30 years ago. So I'm much more current with technology.”
Frank Harwath, professor of engineering, director of engineering program
North Central’s engineering programs are distinctive by design. They will incorporate the grounding in the liberal arts for which the College is knownalong with experiential practice with the most up-to-date equipment and techniques.
“Because of the focus on our strong liberal arts foundation, engineering programs at North Central are embedded within arts and sciences,” said Kim, who has developed the computer engineering major. “Though the core engineering content is similar in many aspects (to what is taught at other institutions), the emphasis on verbal communication, writing, leadership, and engagement with other disciplines will help our students become more well-rounded engineers.”
The engineering faculty is partnering with faculty in other disciplines to create courses specifically designed for engineering students, taking on concepts such as effective writing, communication and ethics from an engineering perspective.
“One of the things I try to highlight in the discussion about ethics with engineers is to have them realize that in a great number of engineering jobs, there are safety-critical and perhaps life-critical decisions that are oftentimes made,” Harwath said. “And that’s what I’m really looking for: leadership in making those decisions.”
With this innovative approach, North Central aspires to create competitive and highly sought-after programs.
“At North Central College, students will experience the same rigor and training that they can expect at large public institutions but have smaller class sizes, work more closely with faculty members, and engage in project-based pedagogy from the first year of study,” said Caliendo.
“I don't want it to just be a situation where we’re comparing North Central to other competitive schools in the area,” said Harwath. “I would look at it more globally and realize that anybody on the planet can implement the best practices of engineering pedagogy. And if not us, then certainly somebody else will.”
Sun-Il Kim, associate professor of computer science and chair of the department of computer science
Students can expect to encounter world-leading facilities in the Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center upon starting in one of the three engineering programs. They will be introduced to basic electronics methods and applications in the HARTING Electronics Lab. They will use the latest technology in the Omron Design and Automation Lab, to be dedicated in May, including 3D printers and miniature, automated production lines. They will further test theories in automation with industrial robot cells. The metrology laboratory will develop expertise in creating stable, usable products by determining how and why they break and working backwards.
Harwath jokingly explained the particular appeal of this lab. “That's actually going to be one of the more fun things to do. People like to break things.”
North Central engineering students will have rich opportunities for experience, including internships at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Richter Grants, which allow students to conduct research anywhere in the world. They will be encouraged to present original research at local, regional and national conferences.
Harwath wants North Central students to leave the College fully prepared to enter the professional realm. The programs will be based in the practice of engineering while leaving room to adapt to the needs of the future. Harwath hopes the new programs combine practical ability as well as ingenuity.
“Our courses will be based in projects and open-ended questions, not driven by texts or timed tests,” he said.
The new engineering programs will also provide perspective on the role of the engineer throughout history.
“Sometimes I think we get the idea that engineering is esoteric,” Harwath said. “But look at Stonehenge. That’s a functioning observatory and a calendar from 5,000 years ago. Or the Mayan calendars—they’re fantastic and have been around for such a long time. The technology people have been able to come up with from virtually nothing is amazing.”
Watch this video to learn more from the North Central engineering faculty.