August 18, 2009 — With state funding for higher education constricting, the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science is increasingly looking to the private sector to help fund education and research programs.
From a corporate perspective, the Engineering School serves as a pipeline of well-qualified engineers and can also bring its intellectual resources to bear against research questions.
AREVA, a global nuclear energy company headquartered in Paris, with a facility in Lynchburg, represents an important corporate partner to the Engineering School. The company has been a champion of an undergraduate engineering distance-learning program, Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia, since its creation in 2007.
"We have found common ground with AREVA and are now working on several mutually beneficial opportunities, the PRODUCED program being an important one," said James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School.
PRODUCED students join live class sessions online and in real time through tablet PCs and computer headsets for two-way audio interaction. The program allows them to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering science without leaving their communities. It's a learning environment suited to nontraditional students who may be balancing their educations with families and careers.
Students enrolled in the PRODUCED program can expect a rigorous curriculum.
"While they might not be sitting in a classroom in the Engineering School, these students will be learning the same engineering concepts and also held to the same high academic standards as their counterparts here on Grounds," said James Groves, director of PRODUCED and assistant dean for outreach at U.Va.'s Engineering School.
AREVA began recruitment talks with the Engineering School in 2006 because it foresaw a need for hundreds of engineers. AREVA officials, regional business leaders and Central Virginia Community College (CVCC) representatives had already determined that the best approach for all parties was to educate more engineers in the Commonwealth.
"We knew that we were competing with other local companies for the same students," said Jim Hicks, vice president for business integration at AREVA. "In discussions with representatives of many of those companies, we decided to stop worrying about hiring each other's people and focus on getting more engineers in Virginia."
AREVA needs a wide range of engineers, including those who specialize in mechanical, electrical, civil and nuclear engineering. Nationally, the company has hired 300 employees in each of the last four years, but is working against the fact that 25 percent to 30 percent of its workforce is eligible for retirement, Hicks said.
Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia is one solution to the shortage. At varying levels, AREVA is now sponsoring more than 40 students in the program, offering mentorships, paying tuition and book costs and offering employment to graduates. The company also allows flex-time to its current employees so they can complete the program while working.
AREVA's vision is shared by the Region 2000 Partnership– a network of organizations and companies, including AREVA, which is working to promote economic development, marketing and workforce training within the 2,000 square miles surrounding Lynchburg.
Besides AREVA, companies participating in the PRODUCED program with the community college include Barr Laboratories, Babcock & Wilcox, Delta Star, Diamond Power, Flowserve, Georgia Pacific, Harris Corporation, Hurt and Proffitt, Innovative Wireless Technologies, Southern Air, Wiley and Wilson, and William R. Jennings Jr.
"We have been working with Region 2000 to try to make central Virginia a great place for people to get an engineering education and engineering jobs," Hicks said.
About 125 students are enrolled in the PRODUCED program, with the first class set to graduate in 2012. The program offers classes at CVCC and Danville Community College and will be expanding across southern and southwestern Virginia in the coming months.
Students who finish the first two years of the program with at least a 3.4 grade-point average are guaranteed admission to the U.Va. Engineering School. They can complete their four-year engineering science degree through distance education in their local communities or attend U.Va. as residential students.
Jacob Bumgarner, a 20-year-old Amherst resident and AREVA engineering intern, began the program in August 2007 and will finish in summer 2012. He started taking classes at CVCC and will now take his classes online as a U.Va. student.
He appreciates being able to see his family more often than if he were a residential student at U.Va. and believes there are fewer distractions from his studies at home. The distance-learning set-up also saves him the expenses associated with living away from home.
"This program has allowed me to continue living at home, while working and earning an engineering degree from one of the most prestigious schools in the country," Bumgarner said. "I am also lucky enough to be sponsored by AREVA, so I am able to learn something from school, and then come to work and actually see how it is used."
Sandy Harris, 21, also started the program in August 2007. Along with Bumgarner, she was one of the first four graduates to complete an associate's degree in engineering from CVCC in May 2009. She plans to complete a bachelor's degree in engineering science, focused in materials science and mechanical engineering, at the end of summer 2012. She will take the remainder of her classes online while working as an intern at AREVA.
In addition to the flexibility offered by the program, Harris appreciates the financial savings. Groves estimates that students who take classes online without becoming residential students at U.Va. can save $16,000 over the course of their education.
"I was inspired to enroll in PRODUCED in order to save money while still receiving a quality education," Harris said. "Tuition at community colleges is significantly less at than four-year institutions, both public and private, and the ability to work while paying for school also helps with finances in these economic times."
AREVA's sponsorship of students in the PRODUCED program was an ideal fit for 21-year-old Greg Troyer. He is connected to his hometown of Gladys, and the distance-learning program has allowed him to stay close to home while completing his engineering education.
This isn't the first time Troyer has balanced his education with work. During high school he worked on a dairy farm and in a woodworking shop, and managed to graduate a year early. After graduation, he worked in construction and began taking courses at CVCC. With an interest in engineering and knowledge that there was a demand for engineers in the Lynchburg-area, Troyer enrolled in the PRODUCED program in part because it offered him an avenue to advance his career.
"We're all given abilities and opportunities in this life and it is up to us to take advantage of them," Troyer said. "You don't have to leave home to do something meaningful."