For all of his academic prowess and technical genius, perhaps John Evans’ real superpower is listening to his students, alumni and industry peers.
Evans serves as the department chair of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, where he also holds the title of Charles D. Moller endowed chair and professor. For years, he noticed an increasing need for his undergraduate students to have industry access for research projects. Meanwhile, his young alumni had an interest in business and management skills, and his industry partners wanted ways to retain the ever-in-demand Auburn engineers.
Over the last 10 years, Evans and his colleagues put their engineering know-how to work on this complex problem. The result? An all-online master’s degree in engineering management that launched in 2018 and now enrolls nearly 90 students.
Yes, Evans and the program were all online before all-online was the standard practice brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. They realized that career engineers wanted the training offered by a master’s in engineering management, but couldn’t easily trek back to the Plains for in-person classes.
First proposed in 2016, the program, approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, offers four focus areas: manufacturing; occupational safety and ergonomics; systems, and product innovation. These specialties build on Auburn’s existing faculty and research strengths. Moreover, they support Alabama’s strong and growing manufacturing and technology industries, while offering engineers a path toward enhanced career mobility.
At Huntsville’s Radiance Technologies Inc., chief executive officer Bill Bailey knows first-hand the frustrations inherent in balancing full-time work, full-time parenting and education. Early in his career, he was married and working full-time as he completed his electrical engineering degree.
Throughout his career, while raising seven children, he sought master’s degrees four different times. The first three attempts were stymied by trying to balance career, family life and school. On his fourth attempt, an MBA after master’s programs starts in engineering and engineering management, he is two courses away from completing his advanced degree. Now two of his older children are working on their own MBAs, while working full-time and parenting full-time. Bailey says he understands the competing demands and wants to make it as easy as possible on his employees.
“I’ve done it when I had little children,” he says of fitting school work into a busy career and family schedule. “I’ve done it twice when I’ve had older children. It’s something you do for your family. But at the end of the day, it’s not just the employee that’s struggling, the family pays a price, too. That’s what we were trying to minimize. We want to make it as convenient as we can.”
Some 13 Radiance employees are now taking classes toward a master’s in engineering management in a group model, a cohort approach to use academic-speak. While many other companies fund their employees’ efforts in Auburn’s online program, Radiance is unique for the size and scope of its group: students range across 13 Radiance locations in nine states.
Impressive, but that’s only half of the total number of Radiance employees being educated by Auburn professors this semester: an additional 13 Radiance employees are in the master’s in business administration program.
Radiance employees are able to take classes during their lunch hour, while at work, and they are often paired up with a co-worker on homework and class projects. It’s more efficient for the student and for Bailey’s company. Plus, it’s allowing his 900 employees the chance at a master’s program in a much easier way than his own academic journey.
“I can’t make it painless, but I sure can make it easy,” he says. An added bonus? “It’s making people notice us,” Bailey says. “It sure is giving us a competitive advantage” in recruiting.
Auburn’s master’s in engineering management, which has graduated five students to date, is ranked No. 5 among the top 50 online master’s in engineering management by the website Best College Reviews.
LuAnn Carpenter, director of student program assessment and administration for Auburn’s industrial and systems engineering department, says most of the students either hold an engineering undergraduate degree or a science or technical degree and five years of experience. No graduate admissions exam is required if a prospective student had a 2.75 grade point average from an accredited undergraduate engineering program. A fourth of the 87 students currently enrolled are women.
The 10-course curriculum is designed for a complete online experience.
Occasionally, Auburn faculty make in-person visits, such as to Radiance and other industry partners across Alabama, Evans says. He sees the program as a blended approach that fits the market’s needs. He and his colleagues knew their engineers were in need of business and management knowledge, but from an engineering perspective.
“We’re not trying to compete with MBA,” he says. “An MBA doesn’t fit their needs.”
Instead, he and his faculty looked at their strengths, their undergraduate students’ industry needs and the growing manufacturing and technology businesses across the state and region. “We’ve tried to offer a degree in strong, specific areas that are our main strengths.”
The master’s in engineering management has increased Auburn’s industry connections, an additional bonus for College of Engineering undergraduates, as it increases opportunities for research both at the bachelor’s level or if they stay at Auburn for a fifth-year master’s degree.
“It gives them a tremendous path forward,” Evans says. “It all blends together and reflects very progressive thinking.”
For the program’s first graduate, Eric Moore, the master’s in engineering management allowed him career advancement. With his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn, Moore considered a master’s in mechanical engineering before realizing that the master’s in engineering management was a better fit for his role as director of maintenance for facilities management at Auburn University.
Moore and his team manage a portfolio of buildings across Auburn’s campus, which includes more than 10 million square feet. He realized this master’s program offered him the management component he needed to supplement the technical skills of his undergraduate work and professional experience. Plus, as a father of two, the online approach suited his schedule.
“After my kids would go to bed at night, I would watch lectures and complete assignments while sitting at my kitchen table or on my back porch,” he says.
The master’s degree preparation gives him an advantage in his current role. “It’s prepared me for looking at things in a different way.”
While many other educational opportunities reluctantly adapt to an online model, Evans has embraced it for the sake of his students, his faculty and his alumni.
“We have working individuals that need the freedom to travel,” he says of students that have careers across the medical and space industries, as well as the military. “We have long had the ability to structure our classes in such a way to do this. Our classes are made for this. Most of our classes are applied and broader types of classes, project-based, team-based projects. Our retention rates are high.”