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Engineering Students Tap Into Iron Range

Mankato Free Press looks at cutting-edge engineering program.

Amanda Dyslin, Mankato Free Press, 9-8-2013

MANKATO — Far from Minnesota State University, Mankato’s home base, a cutting-edge engineering program in the North Country is giving Minnesota State Mankato students professional-grade, real-world experiences in the field.

They’re being trained on the latest equipment, including mills, lathes and waterjet cutters. They’re attending internationally renowned leadership conferences. And they’re touring and working with companies that might employ them one day, such as Minnesota Power, North Shore Mining and PolyMet Mining, which aims to establish the first nonferrous mining operation in the state.

All of this has been taking place in Virginia on the Mesabi Iron Range since the recently accredited Iron Range Engineering program began in 2010.

Its mission is to educate engineering students “by providing the synergistic qualities of technical learning and work on authentic projects with industrial partners.”

And as described by Rebecca Bates, chair of Minnesota State Mankato’s Department of Integrated Engineering, the way the program was established and how it’s being offered is pretty unique.

“We’ve done something kind of radical around how education is done,” she said.

The initial catalyst was the need for quality workers in the Minnesota mining industry, as well as furthering the economic development of the Iron Range.

A great deal of discussion and collaboration among state government officials, economic development workers, the local industry sector and those in engineering education led to the establishment of the program, Bates said.

Financial support has been provided by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which recently approved $1.9 million in new funding to help boost access to college courses that would lead to jobs in the mining industry or other Iron Range industries. About $1 million went to the Northeast Higher Education District for the Iron Range Engineering program.

Bates said the money goes to scholarships, faculty salaries and paying industry mentors to come in and work with students, among other things.

Minnesota State Mankato President Richard Davenport showed a great deal of interest in Minnesota State Mankato being the university to fulfill the needs of the program.

And a partnership was formed between Minnesota State Mankato and Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids to begin the bachelor’s-completion program.

Students first take two years at a community college studying subjects such as calculus and engineering prerequisites. Their junior and senior years are taken through Minnesota State Mankato’s IRE program, which focus on upperlevel engineering topics.

Two full-time Minnesota State Mankato faculty members live in Virginia to facilitate the courses. Bates visits monthly.

“I do a lot of the advising of students,” she said. “The students really are (Minnesota State Mankato) students even though they’re far away.”

In a new building on the Mesabi Range Community and Technical College campus, the project-based learning program includes about 40 hours per week working in an engineering setting, where they design and execute projects for industry clients in paper, mining and energy production, among other things.

“You learn engineering by doing engineering,” Bates said.

The students’ projects are wide-ranging, from researching more efficient means of mine ventilation to creating a light board for a DJ service to studying the body function involved when babies learn to walk.

One project that began in the spring of 2012 involved a group of Itasca Community College students beginning to build a battery-electric powered Urban Concept car for the 2013 Shell Eco-marathon.

The car had to accurately represent a production model car, including headlights, taillights, turn signals, a windshield wiper and a trunk.

In January of this year, with some of those students then enrolled in the IRE program, they already were able to use what they’d learned to finish the car before the competition in April in Houston.

After just one semester in IRE, students report on the program’s blog that they’ve learned a great deal. “Here at IRE, we work to become efficient project managers. This not only comes from our semesterlong projects, but from managing and completing all these things in a short amount of time,” wrote student Justin Magnusen in the spring.

So far, 40 students have graduated from the program and most have found jobs in the Iron Range area.

Professor Les Flemming said many college engineering programs have seniors work on capstone projects for two semesters, but the IRE students are receiving four semesters of that kind of project-based learning.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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