Better Together

Radiance Technologies was the first company to establish a cohort partnership with the College of Engineering in 2020.

Mention the year 2020, and most people will have flashbacks to face coverings, apocalyptic-like emptiness in public settings and of course, the great toilet paper wars.

But even as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed or halted many business operations, the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering quietly set into motion a string of exciting new partnerships to grow its graduate program enrollment and further strengthen corporate relations.

Auburn Engineering signed an agreement in spring 2020 with Radiance Technologies in Huntsville to establish its first-ever educational partnership, allowing Radiance employees to earn master’s degrees online while continuing their current career paths.

Eight employees initially signed on to earn a Master of Engineering Management degree as cohorts, meaning they take the same courses at the same time.

“Cohort education is valuable for all involved parties,” said John Evans, professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering who served as chair of the department when the partnership was established. “From the perspective of students, it’s easier to start your graduate education with someone you know — you aren’t jumping off the cliff by yourself. From our perspective in the department, it expands our programs and improves the performance of our students.”

Evans was instrumental in developing a cohort instructional model and getting the pilot cohort off the ground. With the help of Engineering Online and Continuing Education, seven other departments in the college agreed to participate in similar agreements by 2023.

Auburn Engineering now has educational partnerships with seven companies: Radiance, Leidos, PeopleTec Inc., Jacobs Engineering Group, Defense Acquisition University (DAU), Boeing and Honda Manufacturing of Alabama.

Employees at Leidos, PeopleTec, Jacobs and DAU who meet the application requirements can choose to pursue graduate degrees fully online in the departments of industrial and systems, aerospace, mechanical, computer science and software, chemical, civil and environmental and electrical and computer engineering. They can also apply to the interdisciplinary master’s of engineering program, which is tailored to fit each student’s specific background and career goals.

Fourteen Honda employees are currently pursuing graduate certificates through the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

The Radiance partnership has expanded to offer the master’s of science in industrial and systems engineering degree to interested employees.

The agreement with Honda — formed in summer 2023 — is exclusive to the four graduate certificate programs offered through industrial and systems engineering.

Stephen Woodry, quality leader for the Alabama Honda facility, said the certificates offer a “comprehensive curriculum that will provide our associates with the knowledge and skills they need to continue to grow and enhance their skills in an area they are passionate about.”

Honda employees may also use the credits they earn through certificate programs toward master’s degrees.

Stephen Schnelle, an electrical engineer at Radiance, graduated with a master’s of engineering management degree in December 2021. He was the cohort program’s first graduate.

“Given that I already had a research-based technical master’s, I primarily saw it as an opportunity to develop some of the softer skills I realized I was lacking,” Schnelle said. “Overall, given the convenience of the degree and the experience I gained, I think it was a great experience.”

Currently, 42 employees are pursuing Auburn Engineering degrees or certificates through one of these seven partnerships, making up 16% of online graduate student enrollment.

Radiance has had the most students since 2020 with 15, and nine have completed the program. Jamie Jones, director of Radiance University (the continuing education unit of Radiance), said the partnership has been a positive experience that has challenged their employees academically and helped them reach professional milestones.

“Radiance must continually invest in our talent pipeline to build corporate capability to ensure our customers have the best minds solving their toughest problems,” Jones said. “Through our partnership with Auburn, we can invest in employee-owners and customers simultaneously.

“The professors and staff at Auburn are always ready to participate in collaborative efforts that advance the engineering discipline, our employee-owners’ experience and the success of our partnership,” she added.

LuAnn Carpenter, director of student program assessment and administration for the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, assists in recruiting companies for educational partnerships/cohorts.

“The companies benefit by building or strengthening their relationship with Auburn University,” Carpenter said. “For example, one of the companies has included leadership training from the Harbert College of Business for its cohort students. The Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering benefits because the partnerships facilitate the recruitment of very high-quality graduate students for our online programs.”

Educational partnerships also serve as an outreach opportunity to build relationships with industry, Carpenter added.

“One company has provided multiple senior design (capstone) projects for our senior students,” she said. “The students also benefit because this program simplifies and streamlines the admission and advising processes. Being part of a company cohort also increases student retention, performance and satisfaction.”

For companies such as Boeing and Jacobs, which have multiple locations, the agreement with Auburn applies to employees at all sites.

For Jacobs, that means more than 55,000 employees at 400 offices benefit.

Educational partnerships offer employers the ability to help their employees grow throughout their careers.

“This partnership not only allows our employees to advance their own careers but also adds value to those employees from our perspective, as they develop new technical and professional skills,” said Scott Jernigan, project manager at Jacobs in Pensacola, Florida.

Employees who successfully complete all course requirements for their program receive either a full or partial tuition reimbursement from their company, with Auburn offering a 10% tuition discount.

This employer support, along with the support from fellow coworkers who take advantage of the partnership, is the encouragement many working engineers such as Tasha Wiley need to go back to school and continue to advance their careers.

“I know that PeopleTec made an investment in the company and its future, but they also made a huge investment in my future and my career,” said Wiley, software development manager and quality assurance manager at PeopleTec.

Wiley, part of the master’s of engineering management cohort, said the program aligns with the technical aspects of her current roles and allows her to encourage projects and help continually improve processes.

Along with fellow students at PeopleTec and other partner companies, Wiley has taken advantage of the new learning space available to cohort members at the Auburn University Research and Innovation Campus in Huntsville.

Students can use the space for quiet test-taking or meet as a group to watch lectures and study together.

Engineering Online and the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering are continuing to work together to recruit companies to form educational partnerships.

“It’s a win-win for our college and the students,” said Mario Eden, dean of engineering. “Our faculty and students benefit from the inclusion of experienced professionals in our virtual classrooms, as they can contribute real-world scenarios in class discussions. As for the student-employees, the knowledge and problem-solving skills gained through their graduate program are invaluable as they advance in their careers.”


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