The University of Missouri–St. Louis/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, founded in 1993, provides affordable and convenient engineering education to local and nontraditional students. Moreover, program alumni are helping re-shape the tech industry in St. Louis.
by Terri McClain
Twenty years after its inception, the University of Missouri–St. Louis/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program remains a unique collaboration between public and private institutions, combining the strengths of both universities to provide a flexible engineering program for the St. Louis community.
The program occupies a special niche, opening doors for nontraditional students and native St. Louisans. The first such collaborative program in the United States, it is the only one accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
A unique partnership
The Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program’s 20th anniversary was celebrated Oct. 17, 2013, with a reception at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL). Not coincidentally, Blanche Touhill, now chancellor emerita of UMSL, and William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University — along with the late Christopher Byrnes, former dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science — spearheaded the program’s establishment. Both Danforth and Touhill spoke at the reception, describing the challenges surrounding the program’s formation and the positive impact it has had on the St. Louis region since its launch in 1993.
Initially, Touhill said, UMSL sought out partnerships with other public institutions in its quest to establish an engineering program tailored to the needs of students who live and work in the St. Louis area. Unsuccessful in these attempts, she was gratified to discover that Danforth and Byrnes shared her vision. Together, the two universities mapped out a unique public–private partnership.
The joint program offers full- and part-time UMSL students the opportunity to earn an engineering degree in civil, electrical or mechanical engineering. Students take the pre-engineering core, including mathematics, physics and chemistry, through UMSL. (About a third also take core courses through local community colleges, which have been another strong partner.) They attend upper-level engineering courses and laboratories at WUSTL in the evenings. Students register through and graduate from the University of Missouri. Throughout the program, they pay UMSL rates for all courses, even those taken through Washington University. Nearly 650 graduates have earned a diploma, signed by the chancellors of both institutions, that states: “University of Missouri/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program.”
“This program represents one of the most longstanding and successful ways in which Washington University contributes to the St. Louis region.” — Ralph Quatrano, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science
“This program represents one of the most longstanding and successful ways in which Washington University contributes to the St. Louis region,” says Ralph Quatrano, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “We appreciate the leadership at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, who strongly support the role of this partnership in Missouri’s higher education system. The strength of this premier program is further demonstrated through its recognition by the national accreditation team for the highest level of achievement.”
The program’s particular strength is the opportunity that it provides to nontraditional and economically disadvantaged students — as well as local minorities and women, historically underrepresented in some engineering disciplines — to study engineering at an ABET-accredited institution. Many forms of professional certification, and thus many jobs, require graduation from an ABET-accredited program.
“Many of our students would not have a path to engineering without our joint program,” says Joseph O’Sullivan, PhD, professor and dean of the UMSL/WUSTL Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program and the Samuel C. Sachs Professor of Electrical Engineering at WUSTL. “The keys are convenience, flexibility and a central location. In addition to offering all the usual academic support, we work closely with students to address financial matters, particularly through internships and scholarships.”
“When I heard about the joint program, I knew this was an opportunity for me to attend Washington University, which I had thought was too expensive for me to consider with my family income.” — Sophomore Travis Johnson
Sophomore Travis Johnson, from the St. Louis suburb of Berkeley, has a paid internship with Nidec Motor Corporation and hopes to earn a master’s degree in business administration after graduating from the Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program. Johnson was motivated to study electrical engineering after reading a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs during high school. “When I heard about the joint program,” he says, “I knew this was an opportunity for me to attend Washington University, which I had thought was too expensive for me to consider with my family income.”
In contrast, Kevin Deppermann, BS ’98, was a nontraditional student. An Army veteran trained in advanced electronics and father of three, Deppermann joined biotech firm Monsanto in 1978 as an electronic technician.
“After about 10 years, I thought, if I really want to go any farther, I need a degree. But there were no evening courses in engineering,” he says. “I went back to school in ’93 when the joint program started. This is the only program I know of that gives nontraditional students the freedom to go back and study engineering. Most nontraditional students have to work, or they have families, or they’re already established in their jobs and want to increase their earnings. It’s the only thing in town for that.”
Deppermann is now chief engineer and senior fellow at Monsanto, leading the Chemistry Crop Analytics and Automation: Automation & Engineering Team. He holds many patents and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Dean’s Alumni Award, which was presented by Dean O’Sullivan at the 20th anniversary reception.
Siri Vikan, BS ’13, is now an airport engineer at MidAmerica Airport. A single mother with a toddler, she entered the program after working long hours as a mental health professional. In the program, she discovered civil engineering as a path to blending her love of science with her desire to help the community. As a student, she became involved with Engineers Without Borders, working on a water tower project at an Ethiopian school for the blind. During this time she forged new partnerships with students in WUSTL’s traditional engineering program, which does not offer civil engineering.
“Bridging that gap was very meaningful to me,” she says. Vikan also assisted in the revitalization of the Washington University student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), an international educational and scientific organization. She also assisted with the WUSTL student chapter's first appearance at the Regional Traffic Bowl and with community projects.
“I quickly realized that, unlike a traditional program, I was really making strong connections and friendships with people who will be staying here in St. Louis. These are lifelong connections.” — Jennifer Pipas
Jennifer Pipas, a nontraditional student employed in the engineering department at the Metropolitan Sewer District, initially regretted missing the traditional college experience. “I quickly realized that, unlike a traditional program, I was really making strong connections and friendships with people who will be staying here in St. Louis. These are lifelong connections.”
Current students and alumni alike laud the program’s faculty, many of whom are engineering professionals able to offer timely tips and advice, introduce students to professional organizations and scholarship opportunities, and occasionally even hire graduates.
Shawn Leight, vice president at Crawford Bunte Brammeier and an adjunct professor of transportation engineering and planning, is known for being a very accessible mentor to his students. The program, he says, produces exceptional engineers: “These students are motivated and hard-working. They have families, they have jobs — they’re driven, and employers recognize that.”
“The biggest thing I appreciate about the program is how it is structured for the nontraditional students,” says T. Christopher Peoples, BS ’08. “A lot of professors were actually professionals in the same field as me, and they offered the benefit of their experience in the day to day.”
A native of north St. Louis, Peoples entered the program as a single parent with a full-time job. Named to the St. Louis Business Journal’s 2013 class of “40 Under 40,” Peoples, now 34, rose from an entry-level surveyor position at Pitzman’s Company of Surveyors and Engineers to become, at age 30, president and CEO of the firm. Internships and co-ops are great ways to build understanding and relationships, he says, noting that the relationship between businesses and universities need not be one-way.
“Companies have the ability to build reciprocal relationships with the schools,” Peoples says. “They can positively affect the curriculum by describing industry trends and what skills they are looking for. Having those skills means students earn a better salary coming into the industry.”
Impacting the region
“This program is feeding the workforce of St. Louis.
The diversity of the program makes the University of Missouri–St. Louis
stronger, makes Washington University stronger, and makes St. Louis
stronger.” — UMSL Chancellor Tom George
As he stood in the midst of the 20th anniversary reception, Peoples observed the wide range of companies represented among the program’s alumni and student interns and was struck by the level of homegrown talent. Also among the attendees were a number of international students who had discovered the Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program and hope to make St. Louis their home.
The event theme, Looking Back/Moving Forward, was significant, says Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, because “St. Louis is on the move. We see in our community a surge of innovation and entrepreneurship.” In order to thrive, these innovators in technology enterprises “depend on engineering talent like that produced through this joint program.”
UMSL Chancellor Tom George concurred. “This program is feeding the workforce of St. Louis,” he says. “The diversity of the program makes the University of Missouri–St. Louis stronger, makes Washington University stronger, and makes St. Louis stronger.”
Terri McClain is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Mo.