The Oregonian: Portland State engineering school's practical path sets needed example
Author: Alysha Beck
Posted: July 3, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

One wall of the dean's office at the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University functions as a giant whiteboard. Information on the wall changes, but a list on the right side receives only occasional tweaks. It contains Dean Renjeng Su's five-year goals for the engineering school:

1. Build up a number (in the order of 10) of world-class research groups, based on the existing strengths in the college.

2. Team with public and private organizations in the Portland area to lead the nation in urban sustainability. 

3. Cultivate an innovation culture in Maseeh College.

4. Establish deep partnerships with regional companies for student and faculty success.

5. Develop a distinctive brand.

PSU has made some impressive strides on those goals, while racking up some high-profile achievements. The engineering school also has recorded a 23 percent increase in enrollment over the past five years -- to 2,306. The engineering school has succeeded in large part because it has taken a very pragmatic approach, an example that stands out in a state where goals often are more aspirational than practical.

A key to the school's successful approach -- one that should serve as an example of how to foster economic growth and promote innovation -- has been building and expanding relationships with local businesses. The most visible example is the school's relationship with Intel. In addition to employing about 1,000 PSU graduates, Intel funds scholarships at the engineering school and works with PSU to support a number of K-12 science-education initiatives. "It's been a really strong, very successful relationship," said Morgan Anderson, Northwest higher education manager for Intel.

The relationship produced a major award for PSU this spring when a team of engineering students won the Cornell Cup college engineering competition. All four students were at PSU as part of the Intel Vietnam Scholars Program, a partnership that demonstrates PSU's willingness to craft programs to meet the needs of employers. 

When setting up the program, PSU sent representatives of the engineering school to Vietnam to visit Intel's plant and meet managers. The Vietnamese students receive full scholarships, including living expenses, from Intel. By coming to PSU, they get access to better equipment and instruction than they could get at home. PSU gets top-flight students. Intel gets well-trained employees for its Vietnam operations, where the scholarship recipients must work for three years after graduation.

Another partnership exists between PSU and Mentor Graphics. The Wilsonville-based company recently made an $820,000 gift to Portland State to build a lab and fund a tenured professorship for a program focused on the use of computer emulation equipment. Mentor previously had donated a new emulator, a machine used for design verification, to the school.

Like Intel, Mentor is one of the biggest employers of PSU engineering graduates. Mentor spokesman Ry Schwark said the company has between 1,200 and 1,300 PSU grads on payroll and the majority are engineers. But Mentor doesn't need workers who are trained to use an emulator. Instead, Mentor benefits because its customers need those employees.

PSU has made more progress on creating partnerships than it has on some of the other goals on Su's wall, but it's making noticeable gains in most areas, including an innovation culture. This spring, the engineering and business schools combined to launch the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Su encourages students to generate ideas by offering $1,000 from the school to any student who has an innovative idea he or she wants to pursue.

Su said it's important to offer the money for "any ideas, not just good ideas," to develop an innovation culture. "Go for quantity and hopefully some will survive," he said. The winning Cornell Cup entry, a prescription drug identification device, was one of the ideas that survived.

We look forward to seeing how many more PSU engineering students' ideas survive, and how they help the Oregon economy.