Three years ago, the idea of having an engineering program at a mandatum-supporting Catholic college was a dream. Today, that program is a reality at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., thanks to a unique partnership with the University of North Dakota.
“This is a wonderful opportunity,” said Stephen Minnis, president of Benedictine. “We’re one of the smallest Catholic schools to have an engineering program.”
Darrin Muggli, a chemical engineer, had been teaching at the University of North Dakota for 10 years and had just been promoted to full professor. Yet, he dreamed of creating an innovative engineering program at a faithful Catholic college — a program that could utilize distance learning.
Last June, Muggli left his position at UND to start the engineering program at Benedictine.
“The reason I’m here is Catholic identity,” said Muggli, associate professor and engineering program director at Benedictine.
The program started with an engineering physics program two years ago. The engineering program began last fall.
Through a joint venture with UND, students are able to pursue an accredited program in chemical, civil, electrical or mechanical engineering at Benedictine. The five-year program results in dual degrees — an accredited engineering degree from UND and a companion degree from Benedictine. For example, an electrical engineer would receive an engineering degree from UND and might major in mathematics at Benedictine.
Currently, there are five sophomores, 20 freshmen and 50 applicants for the program in the fall.
Sophomore Michael Green, of Strasburg, Colo., said that he was attracted to the college for two reasons.
“I visited Benedictine because it was Catholic,” said Green, who was also considering Colorado State University and Colorado School of Mines, an engineering school located in Golden, Colo.
When he visited Benedictine, he didn’t know the school offered engineering until the afternoon of his first day visiting. When he learned that, he was sold on the school.
One distinctive component of the Benedictine program is that a portion of the coursework is taken through distance education while remaining on campus: 75% of the coursework will be in a traditional classroom; 25% of the coursework is distance learning via UND. Students watch a lecture or lab from UND, participate in group problems and use a high-speed scanner to scan their homework. A Benedictine professor is in the classroom to answer questions and offer support.
Senior electrical engineering student Dominic Reuter has taken three distance-learning courses so far. “Through UND you get a blackboard account,” said Reuter. “The lectures are videotaped and put on the blackboard as a link that you can download and watch on your computer. There’s also a whiteboard on the screen where you can see the professor’s notes and homework assignments.”
“The advantage is that you’re often able to watch the lectures on your own time,” said Reuter.
Muggli said there are several advantages to the distance format. Students who miss a lecture can download it for review later.
“The research is conclusive,” said Muggli. “There’s no significant difference between in-class education and distance learning. UND’s delivery is second to none.”
During the five-year program, students are expected to attend one or two intensive lab sessions over part of a summer at UND.
Liberal Arts Engineers
“Not only will our students be sound technically, but they’ll also have all the benefits of a liberal arts background,” said Muggli. “These are skills the industry is looking for.”
Green said that he was undeterred by the program’s additional year.
“Most engineering programs, on average, take four and a half years,” said Green, who was able to transfer in with some existing credits. “The liberal arts core and theology and philosophy requirements help create a more well-rounded engineer.”
Freshman student Abigail Jakos, of Sioux Falls, S.D., chose Benedictine for the sense of Catholic community she experienced upon visiting. She was debating between an accounting and engineering major until spring semester.
“After taking the ‘Introduction to Engineering’ and classical physics course, I fell in love with engineering,” said Jakos, who plans to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering.
She also highlighted the program’s core liberal arts requirement as an advantage. “The other courses help you to learn about how the world is,” said Jakos. “Not just engineering.”
As part of the program, the college is renovating the first floor of Westerman Hall — the campus’ science building — to accommodate engineering classrooms, offices and labs, and has ordered $100,000 in equipment. The school has just learned of the successful funding of a National Science Foundation grant that will enable the program to build identical labs to those being used at UND.
“I’m absolutely convinced that we’ll begin to draw nationally,” said Muggli. “We’ve just hired our second engineer faculty member and hope to have another the following year, and to keep adding.”
In fact, they’ve already had two civil engineering students who’ve transferred to Benedictine because of the Catholic environment on campus. In addition to four daily Masses, there are more than 60 Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) Bible study groups and a myriad of other faith-based and social service opportunities on campus.
Muggli added that the program is a model that could be adopted by other schools desiring to start engineering programs.
Said Green, “It’s going strong, and there will be bigger classes every year.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake
is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.