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Mechanical engineering, chemical engineering or some type of focused program, such as plastic engineering? Which gives you the best preparation? The highest quality education?
Those are dilemmas teenagers face in their senior year of high school if they are seeking a certain type of technical training.
More than 30 schools in the U.S. offer specialized degrees that focus on plastics processing and there’s another group that focuses on polymer science, an approach which is closer to chemistry and physics than engineering. Examples of the former are the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Lowell, MA; Penn State University, Behrend, PA and Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI. Examples of the latter are Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
The plastics engineering programs tend to be located at public colleges and universities.
“We are obviously very focused on plastics in the same way a metallurgist would be focused on metals,” says Robert Malloy, chair of the Dept. of Plastics Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “This could be viewed in a negative way by some since we are less broadly educated than a mechanical engineer. However, as long as ME programs tend to avoid plastics and there are only a few schools with plastics programs, our grads will continue to be in very strong demand as they have been for 50-plus years.”
Differences Spelled Out
Malloy sees two significant differences between the Lowell plastics engineering program and a traditional mechanical engineering approach:
1) There are courses with labs every semester on plastics materials or chemistry. A typical ME course would have one or two semesters on general chemistry.
“I don’t see how an ME can really understand plastics without a lot of experience,” he says. “Our grads think on a molecular level relating the properties and processability of a plastic to its molecular structure. The strong materials background is key.”
2) There is a close relationship between companies that make plastics processing equipment or are engaged in plastics processing and the plastics engineering program. This helps ensure students are learning on the latest possible equipment and are tuned in to the newest technologies. “A recent grad from a ChE or ME program would need a lot of on-the-job training where our grads can make a significant contribution right out of the box (in most cases),” says Malloy.
At the same time, UMass Lowell wants to make sure its graduates have a sound engineering background. Malloy says UMass Lowell is the only U.S. four-year plastics engineering program accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc.
The educational approach is slightly different at Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, where a program is offered in Plastics Engineering Technology. The distinction is students in technology programs focus more on applications, while engineering programs focus more on theory, according to ABET.
“Plastics Engineering Technology students are presented with theory in a classroom setting and are then presented with a problem or a project where only a laboratory experiment will produce a solution,” says Steven H. Dillman, chair of the Engineering Technology Dept. at WWU and a professor in its Plastic Engineering Technology program. “One of the goals of engineering technology is to prepare graduates for the workplace.”
Dillman and Malloy both agree graduates of focused programs move easily into jobs after graduation because of the applications training, as well as industry collaboration. In Dillman’s view, the roles vary for different programs.
“Graduates from engineering programs are better suited to design products, materials and processes and then hand off those designs to a graduate from an engineering technology program,” says Dillman. “Granted, there is a lot of overlap between these two whereby engineering technology grads work for companies doing research and development and engineering graduates become process engineers, etc.”
Of course, the rub for either program is: Who can decide at age 17 or 18 that they want to be a plastics engineer? Representatives of more broad-based engineering programs would say their graduates are prepared for a broad range of jobs upon graduation and aren’t pigeonholed into a very specific field.
One graduate of UMass Lowell, Nick Fountas, describes how it worked for him:
“I entered Lowell Tech (now UMass Lowell) in 1975 as an electrical engineering major. The first year of all the engineering programs was common. That was a real bad time for business on the technology corridor on Rte. 128 (surrounding Boston). As a kid, I was wondering if I’m going to have a job when I get out. At that time, I happened to meet someone in my dormitory who was in the plastic program, which was very unusual and possibly the only one in the country at that time. They had an open house the next day. I was really excited by what I saw, especially the job prospects, and I dove into it. The faculty was hands-on and not as standoffish as some of the pure science departments where engineers were more focused on their research. There was a large preponderance of foreign graduate students (in the general engineering and science programs) that kept you one level removed from your professors. And that wasn’t the case in plastics. That accessibility made a big difference.”
Fountas later got an MBA and now runs an executive search firm that specializes in plastics and packaging.
Plastics engineering programs, however, are not immune from some of the problems that plague most academic institutions. Tenure can virtually eliminate the ability to weed out professors who give up or are barely competent. Engineering professors rarely, if ever, receive meaningful training in how to teach.
Unquestionably, though plastics engineering and technology programs definitely take a different approach and have an important role for some students.