UMass Lowell Investments in Education

I had the good fortune to be asked to speak on a panel concerning the “Workforce of the Future” at the 3DExperience Forum hosted by Dassault Systemes.  Al Bunshaft, Senior Vice President, Americas Global Affairs & Academia at Dassault moderated the panel, which included Dr. Gregory Washington, the Dean of Engineering at UC Irvine; Landon Taylor, CEO of Base 11; and Charles March, Chief of Design Tools and Standards for Bell Flight.  Below is not a transcript, but a summary of questions (in bold) posed to me and my (expanded) answers.

UMass Lowell has made significant investments recently. Your school may not be the UML people think of if they haven’t been there recently. Tell us about some of the recent developments and how that’s impacting education. 

UMass Lowell has been undergoing a complete transformation over the past decade, driven by our 2020 strategic plan.  This plan centered on improving our student’s experience and providing the necessary infrastructure and climate for that experience.

On the infrastructure side, we have opened on the order of 14 new or renovated buildings in the past five years.  These include parking garages and dorms, and a number of new academic buildings.  On North campus, we have opened the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center; Pulichino-Tong Business Center; University Crossing; Lin Makerspace; and late this fall, we will re-open Perry Hall.  In addition to these infrastructure investments, we have invested heavily in new faculty positions – roughly 50 new engineering faculty have been hired in the past five years.

What is important to understand about these investments is how they impact the educational experience of the students – mainly in terms of experiential learning.  Experiential learning is a term used to describe education endeavors that provide practical experience, generally outside of the classroom.

For example, one may not think that new dormitories provide learning experiences, but with the new dorms, we were able to expand our Living Learning Communities (LLCs) where students live together around a theme – entrepreneurship, engineering leadership, or sustainability, for example.  In addition to living together, a number of programmed events (speaking engagements, activities, etc.) are built around the theme.  Research has shown that students in LLCs have significantly higher retention rates.

The new University Center houses staff for our professional co-op program, which is open to all Engineering majors.  This program prepares students to secure a 3-month or 6-month work experience in their field of study and reflects on that experience once the student returns to campus.  The work experience provides funding for education and helps connect classroom topics to the real world.

Our new Lin Makerspace allows our students to bring ideas to the prototype stage through our DifferenceMaker program, which instills the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation through a variety of workshops and competitions. Our new Dassault Systems 3D Experience Center will further enhance our capabilities in terms of ideation and prototyping.

The renovation of Perry Hall truly upgrades our laboratory capabilities in the College.  We recently launched two new undergraduate degrees, Biomedical and Environmental, in the College and each will have their teaching labs on the ground floor.  These labs further enable a hands-on education at UMass Lowell.

Finally, these infrastructure investments have also allowed us to increase our research capabilities.  The building of the Saab ETIC and the renovation of Perry Hall has enabled us to expand our research endeavors in nanotechnology, printed electronics, biotechnology, clean energy and sustainability.  Cutting edge research facilities, such as the cleanroom in the Saab ETIC, is critical to hiring world-class faculty and growing our graduate program.  But it is also vital to engaging our undergraduates in another form of experiential learning – research. Our UROC (Undergraduate Research Opportunities and Collaborations) program pairs undergraduates with faculty to tackle the important problems of today.  And involving our students in research is important to our partners which share research space on campus, the Raytheon Company and the U.S. Army Natick Labs, which are always on the lookout for talent.

So, UMass Lowell has truly changed a lot – both in terms of infrastructure and the student experience.  What has not changed is our commitment to the Commonwealth to continue to provide a talented workforce, engage in our community, and solve the pressing problems of today and tomorrow.

The Boston area has some of the most prestigious schools in the world, yet UMass Lowell plays a key role supplying talent to MA and NE companies. As the world of engineering education changes, can state schools change quickly enough. How do you see their role?

I’m a state school kid. I grew up outside of Chicago and went to Illinois and Georgia Tech for my undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees.  I also taught at the University of Florida before coming to UMass Lowell – so I have seen firsthand the importance of strong, state-backed universities.

To understand the critical nature of our business, one just has to consider the following data:  Roughly 85% of UMass Lowell students come from New England, with the vast majority from Massachusetts.  Why?  It’s the value proposition.  They can get a great education, leading to a great career, at a great price – especially when one compares going to school out of state or to a private institution.

But the real key is this: Graduates from New England tend to want to stay in New England.  Maybe it’s the Red Sox or the Patriots or the Shore, but somewhere on the order of 85% of graduates of UMass stay in Massachusetts.  This is what differentiates UMass Lowell from a lot of private schools – privates recruit from out-of-state at a higher proportion that we do, and thus, their graduates do not stay in the state at the same rate as our graduates.  Thus, we, disproportionately, provide a greater share of the workforce to the state and region than our private counterparts.

As for changing quickly enough, I believe UMass Lowell has illustrated that we can change and grow to meet the needs of the state (our enrollments in Engineering have doubled in the last decade).  I was just reviewing data on our 2017 Engineering graduating class – within six months of graduation, 99% were either gainfully employed or pursuing graduate studies.  Of those 99%, 93% are working in industry – which tells me that employers are hiring our students at a great pace and the job market is very good – so good that graduate school is not an overly enticing option!

But those rates, and our industry partners, continue to tell me that more talent is needed.  UMass Lowell can continue to expand, but we will need help.  Tuition from increasing enrollments can finance the hiring of faculty and staff to deliver programs, but we will need continued and increased support from the state – or elsewhere – to continue to expand our infrastructure.  The renovation of Perry Hall, mentioned earlier, is being financed by the University – not by the state.  Unfortunately, this is not a long-term solution for infrastructure development and upkeep if we are to keep tuition at reasonable rates.  Years ago, the state covered about 80% of the costs to run the University.  Today, the state covers about 20%.  Unless this support level changes, we will not be able grow and meet the economic needs of Commonwealth, region or country.

Let me leave you with one more stat as to the critical importance of state universities:  Nearly one-third of UMass Lowell students come from homes that have an income of $30,000 or less!  Think about that for the moment.  Obviously, a majority of these students are first generation college students.  UMass Lowell, and other state entities, are the only opportunities for these students to pursue degrees and improve their economic standing.  And it is clear from our placement data, that our Commonwealth needs these graduates!

Hopefully the role, and importance, that UMass Lowell plays in the Commonwealth, the region and beyond is clear.