- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Kirt Geslak scoops the tiny hot white polystyrene beads with a kitchen strainer, pouring them carefully into a metal mold.

As they cool, the beads will expand and form themselves into a solid mass in the shape of a mini football, explains Geslak, of Westville, a freshman at Purdue University College of Technology at South Bend.

Nearby, other groups of students are casting vinyl objects and creating plastic handles for screwdrivers. It’s a lot like what many of them may do some day in manufacturing jobs.

Purdue’s College of Technology at South Bend, which has offered degree programs here since the 1980s, is one of three pilot sites this fall for the Purdue Polytechnic Initiative. PPI is designed to provide students competency-based, interdisciplinary instruction. The other pilot sites are at New Albany and at the main campus in West Lafayette, the South Bend Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1srTJxn ).

The pilot effort here involves about 30 full-time freshmen at Purdue’s South Bend site — which is on the Indiana University South Bend campus — who are studying for bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology or engineering technology.

In the past, those students would have been enrolled primarily in separate classes based on their majors, and most of the classes would have been traditional, lecture-style courses.

Under the pilot, students in the three majors take classes together. And the lecture-style courses have been replaced with hands-on projects guided by professors. Many of the projects involve robotics, 3D printing, manufacturing processes and other skills. Students earn “competency badges” based on their ability to meet learning objectives.

“The goal is to learn skills that employees need in the workplace,” said Michael Sanders, director of Purdue’s South Bend program.

There’s a growing movement toward competency-based higher education: helping students earn degrees more quickly and economically, based on proven skills and experience.

PPI came about after Purdue President Mitch Daniels in January offered a $500,000 grant to the first department or program to create a competency-based degree. The School of Technology won the grant.

Under Purdue’s pilot program, technology students will continue to get letter grades and earn credits toward their degrees.

So far, students are giving a thumbs up to the team-oriented, hands-on approach.

“It’s way better than high school. In high school, it was lecturing. With this program, you get hands-on experience. It’s more like the work world,” said freshman Do Nguyen, of South Bend, an Adams High School graduate.

Freshman Thomas Rudecki, of Walkerton, is an engineering technology major, but says he appreciates that he’s learning some mechanical skills too. “It’s useful information for the future,” he said.

“It’s really different from high school,” said freshman Oriana Serra, of Granger, a Penn High School graduate. “You learn more this way. And it’s more fun.”

If the pilot succeeds and expands, Purdue Tech students — particularly adult students who have career experience — may eventually be able to prove their skills and “test out” of certain courses or projects, and thus earn degrees more quickly.

In this region, there are many small manufacturers who can’t afford to hire an employee skilled only in electronics or mechanics, Sanders said. This will give students experience in some tasks outside their specific area of study and make them more marketable, he said.

“We just believe this is going to be really well-received by the students and the workplace,” Sanders said.

For professors, there’s been a learning curve in switching from lecture-based to hands-on teaching. So far, three Purdue professors here are participating in the pilot.

“It’s a lot more like what happens in industry,” professor Sarah Leach said. As students get accustomed to working in teams of individuals with varying specialties, they’re experiencing what their future jobs likely will be like, she said.

“We get over this whole notion of accruing points for grades. I like the integrative approach,” said professor Karl Perusich, who has taught for Purdue here since the 1980s.

The approach puts extra demands on faculty. To help, upper level students have been recruited and are being paid to assist each professor in PPI courses.

“This is not a cheap way to do it. Ultimately it’s a better learning environment for the students,” Perusich said.

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Online: tech.purdue.edu/south-bend.

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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