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Trailblazing grads get real-world education, jobs

Iron Range Engineering

Real-world education means degrees, jobs for engineers.

By Charles Ramsay, Daily News Regional Editor [published in the Mesabi Daily News, Virginia, MN, 12/10/2011]

BIWABIK - Iron Range Engineering is going first class - as in its first set of graduates in the innovative, four-year degree program that is already poised to place trained engineers in well-paying Range jobs.

The 12 grads were celebrating the completion of their work on Thursday at the Lodge at Giants Ridge, and Saturday received their degrees at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which oversees the program.

The program began in 2009, and is based at the Mesabi Range Community & Technical College. Most students graduating went through two-year community college programs before enrolling.

As of Thursday, the following had prospects opening up:

  • Three have full-time jobs lined up at United Taconite.
  • One has a job with medical supply company Medtronics in the Twin Cities.
  • One is going to be working at U.S. Steel on the Range.
  • Two are going on to do full-time graduate studies, one of them in cardiovascular engineering.
  • Five were in various stages of second interviews or further consideration for jobs, some of which are on the Range.

The program is unique, as it is "a project-based learning model of engineering education," said Trent Janezich, IRE program director of operations, who is also with the Arrowhead University consortium.

Students take on industry-sponsored projects, consider and work through ways to solve them, while Range companies can see engineers-to-be going through their paces, he said.

There are a number of partners in the program, from government, politicians, industry and education, who have contributed ideas and mentoring, as well as ways to train engineers for current and future jobs on the Range.

Students of the first graduating class are "trailblazers," said Ron Ulseth, IRE director. "They took a risk," in enrolling in a new program, he added.

While math-related and regular engineering studies can give students some exposure to back-of-the-book problem-solving, "we practice engineering the way they do in industry," Ulseth explained.

"What these students are doing is learning to learn in the here and now," solving real problems, he said.

Students coming out of the Iron Range Engineering program "are very much in demand," Ulseth said. A grad who is 22 years old can start earning a salary of $60,000 annually at a well-paying job in industry, he said.

Nine projects are presented to a student for problem-solving each semester, three of which are heavy industry; three which are entrepreneurial; and three that are biomedical in nature.

Robb Bigelow, area manager of technology at United Taconite, has worked with several students in the program and is impressed.

They have had some in for summer internships and educational projects. A team of students came in for a project, scoped it out and received guidance from U-Tac staffers while arriving at a solution, he said. "They have a very professional approach."

A real problem at the plant that needs improvement is offered to the team, some ideas are given, then students put a design together, such as filters becoming dirty during operations. The team came up with a plan to have the filters washed, without shutting off the machine using the filters. A special pump sprayed water on the filters, with a nozzle designed to clean them with an acceptable amount of water pressure.

"These are real projects," Bigelow said, using ""less theory, and real problem-solving."

Coming out of the program, students are used to working in an industrial environment, are trained in mining safety rules, and are ready to start, he added. The program "has been a good pipeline of young engineers."

Two of the program's students, Eric Schaupp and Matt Hudson, won an award in August in the student division of the Minnesota Cup for engineering a lightweight portable generator that can operate on different fuels.

Prospects for the engineering program seem to be reaching maturation as well. A bonding bill in the last legislative session has set aside $3 million in funding, which will include a new building on campus at the MRCTC.

Accreditation of the program is next. Once graduates are out in the working world, experts examine the program and determine its ability to produce qualified engineers.

"I feel extremely proud today of what we've accomplished," Ulseth said. "But this is a mountain we're halfway on. We have to be accredited."

For the Mesabi Daily News online story, click on

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