Purdue University has introduced a competency degree program, putting students in control of their education.
The College of Technology program allows students to progress at their own rate as they demonstrate mastery of specific skills, rather than performance measured only at fixed calendar intervals of classroom time.
Instead of letter grades serving as a general indicator of classroom accomplishment, competencies will indicate to employers what graduates can do.
As part of the Purdue Moves initiative, students will experience yearlong industry-sponsored design projects, study abroad programs and design-lab courses their freshman year, The Journal & Courier reports (http://on.jconline.com/1rlpIcK).
The degree program comes during the transformation of the college into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, where teaching methods will shift to a hands-on curriculum.
University President Mitch Daniels wrote an open letter to the Purdue community in January, offering two $500,000 grants: one for the first department or program to create a three-year degree, and one for the first to create a competency degree. The award for a three-year degree program went to the Brian Lamb School of Communications.
College of Technology Dean Gary Bertoline said the move is part of a larger effort to fill the skills gap in business and industry.
"There are plenty of high-skill, high-wage technology jobs available, but students just don't have the skills necessary to fill them," he said.
The program offers students a chance to learn those skills and how to work together. For example, in an object-oriented programming course, students would need to successfully complete three competencies: object-oriented foundations, programming control structures and complex data structures. Within each competency, students work at their own pace to master specific concepts, vocabulary, software and uses.
The program has 36 first-year students who are enrolled in the College of Technology and Exploratory Studies.
By fall 2015, Purdue plans to begin admitting students directly to the program through the institute.
Students will graduate with the same degree but with one or more concentrations that reflect their interests and passions. Some concentrations will correlate with existing Purdue majors; others will emerge from the program's environment.
The program could allow an agriculture student learn how to create an app to help farmers or help an English student interested in writing game scripts learn how to animate storyboards.
"As we work to transform the college, we will examine how the degree programs can mesh with the current and emerging needs of today's employers," Bertoline said.
During the first week of classes, students were divided into groups of four to build a 24-inch tower of Legos that could hold a two-liter bottle for 10 seconds. Instructors asked them to take note of how the group worked, how they chose a design and who was a leader.
"We just said 'go' and they took off with it," said Jeff Evans, an associate professor in the School of Engineering Technology and a Purdue Polytechnic Institute faculty fellow.
With these students, the motivation is visible, said Rich Dionne, an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an institute faculty fellow.
"They're interested in this, and they engage with each other, which makes teaching the technical part of it easy," he said. "I've seen it already, and it's only been a week."
Mechanical engineering technology major David Tishmack is one of the students in the program.
"I like how it's 'here's a project, here's a team, and you have to figure out how to organize it,'" he said. "I can already tell that a lot of us will be in leadership positions in the future."
Future employers are hoping that's the case.
"We've hired Purdue grads before," said Dave Bozell, owner of CG Visions and a graduate of the college, "and they have the theory, but we still have to spend time teaching them how to apply it to what they're working on."
With the skills already in place at the start, fresh college graduates will be able to make more money and become industry leaders more quickly, Bozell said.
While the program is in its beginning phases, administrators believe it will serve as a model for other academic programs at the university.
"Many postgraduate jobs in our market are structured around entirely competency-based models, and so by introducing students to such a model early, we can prepare them for a lifetime of professional success," Daniels said.