Going the Distance
In getting his Bachelor’s degree online, the mechanical engineer sheds light on a growing trend and a unique program at the University of North Dakota
About 15 years ago, Todd Torrence worked at Pratt & Whitney Space Propulsion in San Jose, California as a technician, performing nondestructive testing techniques such as ultrasound, radiography, liquid penetrant, magnetic particle, and eddy current on solid rocket motors and related components. He worked on such notable programs as the Minuteman missile, Space Shuttle Booster Separation Motors, and Global Missile Defense.
In doing this, Torrence recalls, “I worked with the engineers on failure investigations. I learned what an engineer actually does, and that sounded interesting to me. I liked the technical end, problem solving, and learning how things work.” He decided to pursue his mechanical engineering degree in 2002 and started taking classes in subjects such as statics at local community colleges. But he never got to finish the plan there because the facility closed, throwing himself and many others out of work.
A native of Chicago, the 36-year-old Torrence received an associate degree in nondestructive evaluation from Moraine Valley, a community college in the Chicago area. “Originally, when I left school, I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” he says. After working another job near home, he headed west to work at Pratt & Whitney.
But after they closed, he wanted to get back to the Chicago area, so he inquired at Hamilton Sundstrand, a sister company to Pratt & Whitney owned by United Technologies. The closest facility they had was in Rockford, IL, about 80 miles northwest of Chicago. He applied for a job there as an engineering technician because he had a couple years of engineering school. “It was enough to get in on the bottom engineering rung at Hamitlon Sundstrand,” Torrence says.
Then came a game-changing discovery: Torrence learned that the University of North Dakota (UND) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) program, and this would allow him to continue pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He found several local colleges around, traditional four-year schools, but all their classes came during the day, eliminating them as an option because he needed to work. “I went online and Googled ‘online engineering bachelor degrees.’ Really, the University of North Dakota was the only option I found that was an accredited school,” he relates. He started there in 2006.
In doing this, Torrence became part of a trend of engineers increasingly taking courses and completing degree programs online, also known as distance learning.
Indeed, many engineering colleges around the country offer online graduate-level programs, often in specialized areas. But online undergraduate engineering programs are rare, and the University of North Dakota offers the only accredited mechanical engineering program in the country.
The UND online BSME program covers the same material as its on-campus counterpart. Matt Cavalli, assistant dean for outreach and recruiting in the school’s College of Engineering and Mines, states, “That’s part of the accreditation process, assuring that the online degree is equivalent to the face-to-face degree.” He adds, “It’s been very successful. I think this last year, about 15 percent of our graduates in ME were distance students, and that percentage continues to increase.” UND’s Online & Distance Education division also offers bachelor’s degrees in civil, chemical, electrical, and petroleum engineering as well as certificates and courses in a host of subjects.
Labs Difficult from a Distance
Another challenge with undergrad online engineering programs is their sheer size and the time it takes to complete them, as compared with graduate programs. UND’s BSME degree consists of 129 credits. Cavalli explains, “The time to graduation for a distance student is typically much longer than for an on-campus student because they’re taking maybe two classes a semester on average as opposed to five or six classes for an on-campus student. And some of them will take a semester off because of job and family commitments.”
For UND’s online classes that have labs, the students typically come to campus for a week in the summer for each lab. Torrence made the trip to the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks, three times and labels the experience as intense and stressful. “You’re essentially doing everything students on campus did over the whole semester in a week,” he says.
As for the classes, Torrence says he watched the same lectures as the students on campus. They have a camera set up in the classroom that records the whole time, and you can hear the questions the students ask and hear the teacher and see what they’re presenting. “I like that because if I didn’t understand something, I could always go back and listen to the lecture online again. We would do the same homework as required on campus. We took the same tests at essentially the same time. It was almost like being there. The only thing you miss is the interaction with the instructor during the class.”
Although taking the undergrad online BSME route had its challenges, Torrence now reflects favorably on it. “It was great because I was able to work fulltime during the day, and I would get home and do all the classwork and homework and take tests.” It took until 2012 to get his BSME. “It was six years, but I probably could’ve done it in four.”
New Breed of Engineering Student
As another factor in the equation, it costs more to get an online engineering degree than it does the on-campus variety. According to Cavalli at UND, “There’s an additional fee associated with the online courses for things like the technology and the additional support staff needed. Many students have support from their employers for the cost of the education. Particularly for students paying out of pocket, costs can be a significant issue.”
However, on the plus side, some people argue that students learn unique skills through online programs that they might not otherwise. Blake Haggerty, director of the technical support center and an instructional designer in engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), says, “It gives the students hands-on experience using the types of tools they’re going to use in the workplace.” His cohort Gale Spak, associate vice president of continuing and distance education at NJIT, explains, “We’re in an emerging, evolving global economy. Engineering firms have global projects, and companies have offices around the world. If you’re going to succeed in the company as an engineer, you work in teams and in different time zones. These are key attributes of online learning.” She adds that employers look for these skills, and students have begun to request that it be noted on their transcript that they did their degree work online.
Meanwhile, Torrence reports, “Since I’ve gotten my degree, the company has pushed me into more design and development of new programs and products.” At Hamilton Sundstrand, he works in the Space Systems enterprise focusing on turbomachinery, actuation, and thrust vector control for missile and space applications. As an engineering technician, he mostly worked on existing products that have already been proven in the field and qualified. Currently, he’s designing a fuel manifold for a torpedo engine and developing an electromechanical actuator for control of a rocket or missile, essentially starting from scratch.
“I would definitely recommend it, especially for someone in my situation, where there’s no other way to work full time and also get a four-year degree,” Torrence says of his experience getting a BSME degree online. “Distance is the only way to do it. You just have to keep up on the lectures, watch the classes, do the homework, and put the work into it.”