Daniels awards prize for competency-based degree to Purdue Polytechnic Institute

September 4, 2014  

Polytechnic competency1

Purdue President Mitch Daniels, from left, and Gary Bertoline, dean of the College of Technology, listen as student David Tishmack speaks at Thursday’s (Sept. 4) announcement. Tishmack, is a first-year mechanical engineering technology student in the Polytechnic program. (Purdue Univesity photo/Mark Simons)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue President Mitch Daniels on Thursday (Sept. 4) announced that he has awarded a $500,000 prize to the College of Technology, newly redesigned as Purdue Polytechnic Institute, for a proposal to create a transdisciplinary bachelor’s degree program based on learned and demonstrated competencies.

The Purdue Polytechnic Institute is a key element of the university’s Purdue Moves initiatives unveiled by Daniels in early fall 2013. Gary Bertoline, dean of the College of Technology, said the Purdue Polytechnic Institute will serve as a “transformational engine” in the College of Technology by integrating methods of learning that are driven by students’ passions and interests and, importantly, by the needs of the marketplace.

Daniels said that Purdue is committed to advancing competency-based education, which is one important element of many innovative features of the Polytechnic Institute.

"I'm very pleased to announce that Purdue Polytechnic Institute has created a dynamic, integrated degree program proposal that will allow students to move as fast as their ability and diligence will permit, reducing their time to degree and their costs as they do so," he said.

"We hope that this degree program will serve as a model for other Purdue academic programs that lend themselves to competency-based education. 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."

Purdue Polytechnic Institute's planned implementation of its competency-based degree positions the university as a leader among higher education institutions exploring competency-based education, Daniels said.

Competency-based degrees are awarded based on demonstrated mastery of concepts and skills rather than performance measured only at fixed calendar intervals of classroom time.

Polytechnic competency2

Incoming Purdue Polytechnic Institute freshmen try out exercises to work on team building and collaboration. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons) 
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In traditional grading, letter grades serve as a general indicator of a student's classroom accomplishment, while competencies, such as those that are a part of the Purdue Polytechnic Institute's proposal, effectively let employers know what graduates are able to do. 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, students would work at their own pace to master specific concepts, vocabulary, software and uses.

Competencies have also been identified for higher order skills, such as information literacy. Students would work through a cluster of competencies to demonstrate skills such as making informed decisions (informed designer), organizing and capturing knowledge for a team (knowledge manager), or curating data.

The national interest in competency-based education, also called direct assessment, comes on the heels of U.S Department of Education guidelines released last year for institutions wanting to provide federal student aid to enrollees in such programs. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed legislation that further enables institutions offering competency-based degrees to participate in federal student aid programs.

Purdue Polytechnic Institute faculty spent a year working to create the proposed transdisciplinary degree. In the process, faculty examined all aspects of higher education and incorporated the latest research about human learning and motivation, said Bertoline and Fatma Mili, College of Technology associate dean.

The degree program will be open to students in any discipline. Learning will be organized around themes and driven by problems rather than "seat time," and students will receive credentials based on demonstrated competencies.

For fall 2014, Purdue Polytechnic Institute has accepted a pioneering cohort of 36 students who are enrolled at Purdue through home departments in the College of Technology and Exploratory Studies. Their first-year studies will be delivered through the institute's proposed degree program, which will be refined as the academic year progresses.

By fall 2015, Purdue is planning to begin admitting students directly to the program through Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

"We will be using the latest experiential and scientific educational research applied to emerging technology programs of study to create the best education for a brighter future for our students, our communities and our world,” Bertoline said. “Competency-based programs are one example of the transformation that touches all parts of the college and nearly every fiber of its culture.”

Mili said the transdisciplinary degree would give students a head start on tackling the multifaceted demands they will face as 21st-century professionals.

"The future demands graduates who have the technical skills, the sense of agency and the values-grounding to take on grand challenges and to be as comfortable in the boardroom as they are in the boiler room," Mili said.

The transdisciplinary degree proposal has been met with enthusiasm among industry leaders who look to Purdue to train graduates whose skills and knowledge are on the cutting edge.

For instance, James Spohrer, director of IBM Global University Programs, says the proposed program has great potential to benefit the next generation of workers.

"Purdue Polytechnic Institute's unique competency-based transdisciplinary bachelor's degree proposal has the potential to accelerate the development of next-generation, T-shaped graduates, who possess demonstrated competency depth as well as broad empathy to effectively hit the ground running, work in teams and tackle the most pressing real-world challenges of business and society," Spohrer said.

Through the program, students will graduate with the same degree but with one or more concentrations that reflects their interests and passions. Some of these concentrations will correlate to existing Purdue majors; others will emerge from the program's environment.

For example, the degree program can allow agriculture students interested in mobile app design to learn how to create an app that helps farmers identify the best markets for their crops. Similarly, the program can allow an English student interested in writing game scripts to learn how to animate storyboards as he or she scripts them.

Instead of attending classes about a specific topic, the program's students will attend concurrent, group-learning sessions that involve multiple subjects.

"As we work to transform the College of Technology, we also will examine how our degree programs can mesh with the current and emerging needs of today's employers in high-tech, advanced manufacturing and innovation," Bertoline said. "We also will partner with our colleagues across campus as we work on competency-based programs to create innovative degree programs that integrate technology with other disciplines."

Examples of these types of offerings, Bertoline said, could include degrees in aviation financial analysis or unmanned aerial systems or concentrations on integrated manufacturing systems.

The program initially will involve 18 faculty members from the colleges of Education, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Technology and Science, and Purdue University Libraries. Each student will have a faculty mentor who stays with them throughout their program studies, and students will participate in key decisions about their education.

Faculty members will assess and credential students through demonstrated and documented competency as it is achieved.

That concept, combined with the program's student-driven and collaborative nature, will produce graduates who are adept at the transdisciplinary thinking and empathy required to make quick, action-oriented professional decisions, Bertoline said.

He also said that while project-based senior projects have been a part of the College of Technology in varying degrees for years, as Purdue Polytechnic Institute evolves, these projects would take on even more importance.

"We want to make this an expectation of all of our students: that they complete an industry-sponsored senior project," Bertoline said. "In the second year of such a program in our School of Engineering Technology, we have 35 industry-sponsored projects lined up, which provide work-team experience, exposure to project demands and timelines, and most important, industry contacts for after graduation."

Purdue Polytechnic Institute plans to admit about 100 students into this degree program for fall 2015. Students in the fall 2014 cohort will be able to transfer to the degree program once it begins admitting enrollees.

The $500,000 prize, funded through the president's office, is the culmination of a university-wide challenge Daniels issued in an open letter in January. To help Purdue lead the innovation and transformation of higher education nationwide, Daniels offered $500,000 each to the Purdue department or program that created the first three-year degree and the first competency-based degree. The award for the three-year degree program went to the Brian Lamb School of Communication for its proposal to offer an accelerated plan of study in several areas that also requires summer courses. 

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 765-496-1325, ahamon@purdue.edu 

Sources: Mitch Daniels, president@purdue.edu

Gary R. Bertoline, bertoline@purdue.edu

 Fatma Mili, mili@purdue.edu

Related information:

Fact sheet on Purdue Polytechnic Institute and competency-based education

Fact sheet on Purdue College of Technology:

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