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Investigating the Impact of SAU's Problem Identification Methods on Grads' Careers

mike opar

September 2017 | by Dr. Michael Opar

I was given sabbatical leave for Spring 2017 semester to refine my problem identification method through additional research into other methods used in industry, at other universities, and investigation into how my former students apply the method in their careers. The resulting work will be incorporated into the Industrial Engineering Design course as well as other courses that I teach.

I visited universities, met with faculty and researched various approaches to problem identification to better understand how engineering graduates are prepared. The feedback from our St. Ambrose IE alumni helped me to better understand how I can teach the importance of problem identification effectively.

While I am still working through the information and data I gathered, it is clear that the problem identification St. Ambrose IE graduates learn is something very different from what some other universities teach. I found that schools focus on problem solving using methods such as Lean techniques and Six Sigma so that students develop a solution to a known (or given) project problem. Our focus in the Senior Design class on identifying the underlying problem appears to be quite unique and sets our graduates apart from graduates of other programs. I was both surprised to find that the emphasis on problem identification hasn't changed in the past 15 years and excited to further develop my work in problem identification.

In March, I took a side trip to The European Study Center in Heidelberg and CEPA in Strasbourg, Germany. Both institutions provide programs for undergraduate and graduate study abroad experiences. I discussed opportunities to teach in those programs as well as researched opportunities for our students to participate in a program abroad.  International experience through engineering education will further differentiate the St. Ambrose experience from other institutions.

Throwing back to my research in casting as a master's student, I took the opportunity to learn investment casting. I created a pattern of a small bee, molded, created wax models, and cast them in sterling silver. I was surprised at the level of detail in the finished castings. All of my prior experience had been in sand casting and iron. I made the silver bees into lapel pins for our two retiring faculty members, Dr. Tom Hill and Dr. Tom Yang.   

So now that my sabbatical is over, what are my reflections of the time spent? I know that the problem identification method we teach our IE students is unique; that companies often prescribe the problem solving tools that engineers should use; there are great opportunities for study abroad experiences; even well-planned research will yield surprises; I would not make a living as a jeweler; and that I miss my interactions with our students and colleagues.

I look forward to being back on campus and excited to be back in the classroom this Fall!   

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