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UNC faces tech curriculum crisis

By Will Costello
On September 4, 2016

Photo courtesy of www.acu.edu

Having been called, at various points in its history, the Colorado State Normal School, Colorado State Teachers’ College and Colorado State College of Education, the University of Northern Colorado has been in the business of teaching teachers for some time now. 

UNC has continued to provide teacher education since its inception, all the while gaining a reputation for quality in its nursing, business and performing and visual arts programs. Through it all, a liberal arts education is always something that UNC has promised. 

But with only a software engineering degree and a physics degree with an engineering emphasis to offer to students, UNC’s focus on growing industries in the technology sector is much less than its competitors' across the state.

According to payscale.com, nine of the 10 highest paying college majors are some variation of an engineering degree (actuarial mathematics, the only non-engineering degree, came in third). 

It might seem lucrative for UNC to consider adding some of these high-paying majors, but implementing entire programs is a difficult prospect. 

Colorado is already home to Colorado State University, University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines, all of which already have well-established engineering programs that would be difficult to compete with. 

To make matters worse, says UNC physics department chair Cynthia Galovich, the state must approve any new program additions, and might not want to add another engineering program to a state with so many existing choices. 

Tobias Guzman, assistant vice president of enrollment management and student access, is concerned about the cost of implementing such a program, a sentiment echoed by Galovich. Introducing an entirely new program would require space to hold classes, professors to teach them and equipment to use.

However, Guzman says that UNC limits itself if it chooses to remain satisfied with what is already accomplished. He proposes futurist thinking, and believes that UNC misses out on potential students if it isn’t looking forward. 

“I don’t want people to think that engineering is the focus. We fall short in our thinking if we say that Mines has engineering, or CSU has engineering, so we don’t need it. How do we expand our thinking?” 

According to Galovich, some of that futuristic thinking can be accomplished within her department, without establishing an entirely new program. 

“I’d say yes we are,” Galovich responded when asked if the physics department was doing enough to prepare students for technology careers, citing past graduates ability to get jobs.  “Now, what could we do to do a better job of that?” 

Graduates of the physics department go on to work at firms such as Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace, Galovich says. One even went on to co-found Sphero, the robotics creator whose design led to BB-8, the droid in the latest Star Wars film, "The Force Awakens."

As opposed to a place like Colorado School of Mines, which, as an engineering focused institution, has a broad selection of engineering degrees to choose from, UNC might be better off finding its own niche.

“If there were a particular area of engineering that UNC decided to specialize in, I think that would probably be more effective”, says Galovich. The possibility of an audio engineering certificate had been discussed, as a member of the physics faculty had experience in that field. 

If the department could establish a niche specialization, the idea would be to make people think of UNC if they wanted to pursue that field of study.

Another way to better improve students' chances in the job market would be to get UNC’s physics-engineering degree accredited, which would go a long way towards making students more employable, so long as the university would offer courses that the accrediting body wants to see.

 UNC has a series of “signature” programs that it is known for, but according to Guzman, these programs do not make UNC what it is. 

“Our identity is something much deeper, and much more embedded into our culture,” Guzman says. “What is at the nexus of our identity is how we teach students.”

Guzman went on to describe what is called the teacher-scholar model, which involves bringing together talented faculty who look not only to educate students on a personal level, but also to involve them in their work. 

If any new programs, engineering or otherwise, could fit into that framework, then UNC’s core identity would remain intact, according to Guzman. But if that nexus was lost, UNC’s identity would be as well.

 While the more well established engineering programs across the state may enroll many of Colorado’s potential engineering students straight out of high school, Guzman has other target audiences in mind, namely the adult student market, returning veterans, the 640,000 people in Colorado who have started a degree but haven’t finished one, and working adults who need to adjust their career. 

“That’s the audience that’s primary,” Guzman says. “We’re all competing for the undergraduate market at a very fierce level. So the basic numbers don’t pan out if we continue to stay focused on the undergraduate market.” 

In addition, the liberal arts education that UNC prides so much could potentially be lost if administrators focus too heavily on trying to achieve a career oriented agenda. Certain institutions still need to have a mission of a liberal arts education. Society needs more than technically trained graduates, and everyone from lawyers to doctors needs to receive an education, according to Guzman.

“An engineering or technology focused mindset is not for everybody. There are individuals who are just not into that,” Guzman says. 

But Guzman says that balance can be achieved between technology and liberal arts, and that it would be easier for a historically liberal arts university such as UNC to strike this balance than it would be for a large research institution. In the process, UNC might be able to adapt to a changing world without losing what gives it its tradition.

Story also featured in The Klaw Magazine.


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