New opportunities for engineering, other students at Wichita State

Students brainstorm a motor project in an Engineering 101 lab at Wichita State University.
Students brainstorm a motor project in an Engineering 101 lab at Wichita State University. Eagle correspondent

Leaders at Wichita State University hope to offer students from Wichita and south-central Kansas some new opportunities, and not only because millions of dollars in new scholarship money from Koch Industries will allow them to offer stronger scholarships.

Kimberly Engber, the dean of WSU’s honors college, has worked on plans for months that involve attracting smart, local high school students to enroll at WSU. But part of what she and Royce Bowden – the dean of WSU’s engineering college – want to do is figure out how to form project teams of engineering majors working with business majors and liberal arts majors.

Bowden notes that this isn’t a new idea; it’s been tried, successfully, at other universities. And Engber points out that one big challenge of the 21st century – perhaps the biggest challenge – will be helping people keep pace with technology and what it can do for them.

Bowden came to Wichita from Mississippi knowing how important engineering is to WSU and to the local aerospace industry.

“But what I am trying to accomplish will affect more than our engineering students,” he said.

Of the $11.25 million given by Koch to WSU – the gift was announced in December – $1.54 million will go to the new Honors College to attract and support high-achieving students. That will happen, in part, by creating the Koch Scholars Program, a competitive award for high school seniors who plan to enroll in the honors college and major in business or engineering.

Another $1 million was earmarked for an idea called the “Koch Innovation Challenge,” run by the College of Engineering.

Both of these new programs will involve not only challenging students academically, but pairing liberal arts majors with engineering and business majors.

“The most obvious connection in doing that would involve students studying communication, embedding them in projects with business and engineering students rather than having them all working in isolation from each other,” Engber said.

Bowden said he envisions forming teams of five that “would start designing things from the moment they arrive” at WSU. The five team members could include three engineering majors with two non-engineers – “from business, or the arts, or from liberal arts, or whatever,” he said.

Teaming practical-minded engineers with broad-thinking humanities folk, Engber said, means “we will get the top of the top students pursuing rigorous professional degrees, and immerse them in work with students exploring the big, enduring questions.”

It would start with freshmen, she said.

“Highly motivated, curious students who can really become passionate about being in college and want to meet each other,” Bowden said.

“They begin to get to know each other and create for themselves their own network of students that would keep them operating at that top level – and catch them when they hit walls.”

Pairing students from distinct disciplines would be a good idea even without the infusion of the Koch money, Engber said; it’s always good to get diverse people talking and thinking outside their circles.

But what the Koch donation will do through scholarships, she said, is instantly make WSU more attractive to Wichita and south-central Kansas high school students who might feel otherwise inclined to leave town. The Wichita area produces many high achievers year after year, she said.

Once they get to WSU, it won’t only be the scholarships and the chance to collaborate with differing disciplines, she said. She plans to serve students with specialized advising, including those who will be working their way through multiple majors.

“We’ll even put them in small seminar classes like you’d get in a small-college environment,” she said.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.