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ICC moves to address region’s growing need for biochemical engineers
Photo: Training opportunities like the Biochemical Engineering Systems program will be at the forefront of turning out employees with the skills needed for the new era of bio-manufacturing. Pictured is Gordy Savela, chemistry instructor at ICC, with engineering students. Photo courtesy of ICC
For everybody who has ever wondered what a biochemical engineer does, here is the answer: There is not ONE answer. They might work on a new kind of fertilizer that will improve a farmer’s crop yield, determine how to grow large batches of mammalian cells for use in cancer drug testing, design the manufacturing equipment needed to convert raw materials into everyday products or discover a method for improving a well-known cold medicine.
In the next decade, the contributions of biochemical engineers to the worldwide community are anticipated to be vital not only in the medical field but also in the areas of biomass conversion to bio-fuels, innovations for reducing and dealing with environmental pollution and improvements to foods.
Regionally, industries such as the paper and pulp trade, agro-renewables, plastics, mining and manufacturing as well as pharmaceuticals will profit from biochemical engineering advances.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth rate for 2020 for biochemical engineers lies at 6 percent. That’s slightly lower than the national jobs growth average, yet still in the category of “in demand.”
The recognition of this need, as well as the expansion of the biochemical manufacturer Segetis to the Hoyt Lakes area, moved the faculty and administration at the Itasca Community College (ICC) to develop the “state-of-the-art, cutting-edge Biochemical Systems Engineering Program that will admit its first students in the fall semester of 2015.
Structured into three phases, each spanning one year, the developmental process of the program involves benchmarking and development of the coursework, implementation of the coursework and continued execution as well as expansion of the program.
To fund the entire development, ICC has filed a petition with the IRRRB for an $870,000 grant. So far, $220,000 has been awarded to cover the cost of the ongoing benchmarking phase.
Bart Johnson, dean of Academic Affairs at ICC, explains that the core components of the program will consist of the chemical and biological science behind the biochemical processing. The program design will encompass the necessary content and pedagogy – both knowledge- and technical-based – to produce an advanced workforce of technicians and engineers.
“The students will have the knowledge of taking a biological product and turning it into a chemical that we can use in the industry,” he said.
A graduate of the two-year program will have sufficient skills to enter a plant or lab of any company that uses a biochemical manufacturing process and work as a chemical specialist or operations technician.
Companies that have expressed an interest in guiding the future curriculum include the local paper mill – UPM Blandin – plus Minnesota Power and, most recently, Segetis. Typically, such partners participate in the form of an advisory group as the college develops the proposed educational career track. Says Johnson: “As we go forward, our intent is to invite representatives from the mining industry, other pulp and paper industries and from the biochemical processing facilities in our region to engage in the conversation as well.”
The industry partners benefit by shaping their prospective employees. Johnson explains the mindset: “This isn’t about what’s been the workers’ need in the past,” but rather what they believe will be needed in the future from forthcoming workers.
Shauna Paul, Segetis director of corporate development, shares this view and sees importance in “the ability to have direct influence on technical and business skills that are core to the operation of our bio-based chemical facility that will be in Hoyt Lakes.”
“When it comes to developing specific coursework unique to our technical or business needs, we will leverage our employees as subject matter experts to work directly with ICC to be sure we are developing the appropriate coursework for the students,” she said. “We anticipate there will be a high level of collaboration between ICC and Segetis that may even extend to scientists visiting students on campus or perhaps students visiting Segetis facilities. It really all comes down to what is needed and most appropriate for the mutual benefit of ICC students and Segetis.”
With the added classes comes the search for a new faculty member. Johnson anticipates hiring at least one new instructor as well as utilizing the faculty from the existing engineering classes.
”We already have strong engineering, pulp and paper science and power generation industrial technology programs. There are components of those curriculums and the faculty that comes with them that we will use as part of this program. But we will be searching for the right person not only to help pull the components together but also add to the curriculum and to support this program,” he said.
Once implemented, the Biochemical Systems Engineering Program will be a seamless educational track, starting with students taking advanced, college credit-earning courses in senior high school. Moving on to the two-year program at ICC, students have, after graduation, the option to pursue an engineering degree at one of the 13 four-year institutions ICC partners with. This career laddering approach allows ICC to prepare the workforce at multiple levels and therefore meet current and future needs of the biochemical industry.
ICC has proven successful in achieving workforce needs with its existing engineering programs and will build on those models, implementing content expertise, project-based learning, opportunities for internships, career preparation and job readiness. The Biochemical Systems Engineering program will complement the department yet also bring progressive changes to it.
”We are looking to provide the educational opportunities that prepare students for their future careers. Not just the careers of today, but those of the future,” he said. “As the bio-part of any manufacturing becomes more and more important, these types of training opportunities will be the forefront of what’s needed for these industries as we transition into this new era of manufacturing.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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