Chicago Partnership Enhances CBU Engineering Program

SCOTT SHEPARD | Special to The Daily News

Engineers in Chicagoland soon will be able to work on their master's degree in Memphis, thanks to a new partnership between Christian Brothers University and Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.

CBU last year launched the online version of its Master of Science in Engineering Management degree, and has enrolled a couple of students in Spain and 30 in Mexico. The biggest obstacle, however, was that outside of the region nobody has heard of CBU.

"We need the name recognition in the areas where we want to recruit students," said Neal Jackson, CBU's director of Graduate Programs. "If you go to Chicago, nobody's heard of Christian Brothers, but Lewis University has a fine reputation."

On campus anywhere

Both universities are sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, two of 60 such schools around the world. The plan is to ask each school to promote the degree program in its own community. Students still will enroll with CBU in Memphis but whether they are in Chicago, or Manila, Philippines, there's a local campus library, guidance and other students.

"This partnership with Christian Brothers is a natural outcome of our Lasallian spirit of association," said Brother James Gaffney, president of Lewis University. "The online program will provide students in the Chicago area with an opportunity to study and exchange ideas with students around the world who share their same values."

The degree is designed for a slender cross-section of technical professionals in mid-career who are finding themselves with management duties, or perhaps they've hit a career ceiling for lack of management skills. The master's program builds upon bachelor degrees in engineering, information technology, biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics and quantitative management.

People successful in these fields tend to be weak in the softer interpersonal skills that a manager needs, Jackson said.

"The typical engineer doesn't like talking to people he doesn't know," Jackson said. "It's part of their nature. This is not a general degree but for a unique group of people."

In that spirit, coursework involves a lot of presentations and group projects so students get comfortable forming
teams with strangers. Engineers think very logically, and within their own universe quickly learn to communicate in their own way, he said. Their logic also tells them that they need soft skills, and this is the path to develop them.

Only on the surface does it seem odd, Jackson said, that people can learn interpersonal skills by sitting in front of a computer.

"They interact through chat rooms, WebCT, e-mail and work on projects together," he said. "They get to have a very close experience."

An online teaching world

WebCT was one of the original systems used for online teaching. Though its parent company, Blackboard, has phased it out, WebCT lives on as a generic term for a Web site with bulletin boards, lectures, illustrations and other instruction material.

At the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing, the entire graduate program is online, so working professional nurses can take classes without having to live in Memphis. The program has even proven popular with military nurses who can take part even while deployed to Iraq.

Nursing instructors discovered early on that a virtual classroom actually produces more interaction. Sometimes in a traditional classroom many students are wallflowers while a few extroverts tend to dominate. In a virtual classroom the fear of speaking up is eliminated and teachers say one of their challenges is to keep all the participation on track.

Jackson sees another advantage to online training for his engineering students. Many projects today are handled internationally. Scientists and engineers from the United States, England, India and Japan can be found working different aspects of the same project as virtual teams.

Earning a master's degree in this way is prime preparation.

The Web initiative also is changing the way other classes are conducted at CBU. Most of the master's programs are designed for busy professionals, so now if someone's on the road for a business trip, they still can listen to a lecture and check the reading list from a hotel room. Other classes are hybrids, half online, half classroom.

The master of science in engineering management degree takes about two years to complete; students take one course at a time, compressed into eight weeks, the equivalent of two courses a semester.