Ethan Johnson (left) and Sam Fisher are earning four-year engineering degrees from Northern Illinois University without having to leave the campus of Rock Valley College, in Rockford. Outside their classes, the pair are also working as interns at local manufacturers.

Pathways to Prosperity: Feed the Engineering Pipeline with NIU@RVC

Students with a knack for math and science are discovering it’s possible to enter a well-paying career track while earning an affordable four-year degree – all while studying at their community college.

Ethan Johnson (left) and Sam Fisher are earning four-year engineering degrees from Northern Illinois University without having to leave the campus of Rock Valley College, in Rockford. Outside their classes, the pair are also working as interns at local manufacturers.
Ethan Johnson (left) and Sam Fisher are earning four-year engineering degrees from Northern Illinois University without having to leave the campus of Rock Valley College, in Rockford. Outside their classes, the pair are also working as interns at local manufacturers.

In their high school years Sam Fisher and Ethan Johnson took a shining to engineering. They excelled in math and science courses, and they enjoyed problem solving. When it came time to research colleges, they had plenty of options, but one route stood out above them all.

Fisher, from South Beloit, and Johnson, from Byron, stayed local and began earning a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, knowing they’ll spend the entire time studying right at their community college.

Through a unique collaboration between Rock Valley College, (RVC) in Rockford, and Northern Illinois University (NIU), students like Johnson and Fisher are pairing up their general-education courses from RVC with NIU classes taught right on campus.

Not only does the NIU Engineering at RVC program place students in internships with local manufacturers, but those students will see a substantial cost savings while doing so. The average student will pay about $40,000 for the experience – and they’ll also earn money through those internships, helping them to leave school with substantially less debt than their peers.

And, this past fall about 36 students earned a combined $64,000 in scholarships.

“There are so many employers in our region who have a need for engineering students as interns, which also reflects a need for full-time engineers,” says Kelly Cooper, executive director of Engineering Our Future and Early College. “It’s exciting to see so many companies supporting the NIU@RVC program and this internship.”

Once students have graduated, they’re likely to hear from local firms that have committed to hiring from RVC. Companies like Woodward and UTC Aerospace Systems maintain a large stable of mechanical engineers, but there’s also a large demand locally for electrical, software, civil and systems engineering, among other specialties. NIU offers clear pathways for students interested in those routes.

“It’s all about being employed, so at the end of the educational journey, you know you’re going to have a job,” says Anissa Kuhar, assistant director of marketing and communications for NIU. “That’s one of the best benefits of this program to our community is that it’s market-driven. The companies we’ve worked with have said, ‘We need people. Where are we going to get these people? Why go outside of the Rockford area when we can grow them right here?’”

Future engineers have many ways to get started. Before their high school years, area youngsters can engage in engineering principles through activities like school robotics clubs, where the concepts of engineering are introduced. Starting in their sophomore year of high school, students at Rockford’s public high schools can join the engineering academy pathway and learn engineering principles while pursuing college-level courses in calculus, biology, physics and chemistry.

Starting in the spring semester of 2020, Rockford Public Schools seniors can earn college credits while completing their high school engineering coursework at RVC’s campus.

“They’ll be sending us a cohort of 20 students to take their first semester of Rock Valley College engineering courses,” says Cooper. “It’s a nice stepping stone from high school and they’ll have 15 credit hours under their belts.”

Fisher got a head start while studying at South Beloit High School, where students can opt to spend their junior and senior years studying at RVC. By the time he’d gotten his diploma, he’d also completed an associate degree in science.
“At that point, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to go into engineering, so I just stuck with Associate in Science,” says Fisher, now an RVC sophomore. “But now that I definitely want to get into engineering, I just need a couple of classes to get to junior year.”

Johnson studied drafting and engineering at Byron High School, and he entered RVC just as the NIU partnership was coming to fruition. It was natural; he was already planning on attending NIU.

“You still have the chance to take classes in DeKalb, if you want,” he says. “You can go back and forth. We’ve had people from DeKalb here, and I plan on taking a tech elective in the summer at NIU, just so I can lighten my load later on.”

Fisher is treasurer of the Engineering Club, which provides another avenue for curious RVC students to jump on track. Club meetings usually involve guest speakers and tours to familiarize students with the industry.

Easy as it is to jump in early in one’s career, RVC also encourages working adults who want full-time or part-time study. The school holds regular information sessions, and its academic advisors can help potential students to prepare.
Engineering careers demand experience with math and science, including calculus, algebra and physics. They also require a good deal of critical thinking, too.

“An engineer is a problem-solver,” says Cooper. “So, they need to be able to analyze the potential root causes of a problem and then look at all of the potential solutions, all the while working together with others in order to determine the best path to take.”

Associate Professor Denise Anderson develops problem-solving skills and a wide range of other “soft skills” within her classroom – communication, teamwork and public speaking most of all.

“In my career as an engineer, I was amazed at how many meetings we’d go to where our engineering expertise wasn’t needed – it was our problem solving expertise they needed,” says Anderson, who worked at Woodward for 18 years. “So, you’re in a room surrounded by a bunch of engineers not talking about an engineering problem whatsoever, but they still want to know how you’re going to approach it, how are you going to tackle it?”

Accordingly, communication skills are essential in engineering, Anderson says. Throughout your career, you’ll need to justify your decisions, explain your analyses, persuade others to accept your solutions and speak clearly with clients. Those skills are approached through RVC’s general curriculum, but they’re specifically honed through Anderson’s classes. In her experience, engineers who struggled on the job had a few distinct characteristics.

“They were unable to articulate what they were talking about,” she says. “Their written work wasn’t very organized, and it was hard to follow. I tell students all the time that if I can’t understand your thought process, your logic, then what are you going to do at work when someone looks at your analysis?”

Anderson’s students spend a good amount of time practicing their writing skills through essays and lab reports. That’s important for students who might end up in regulatory-heavy fields like aerospace and health care, where documentation is abundant.

“I would say I probably spent 30 to 40 percent of my career at Woodward documenting and writing,” says Anderson. “It might be anywhere from an email to a colleague, where I’m saying, ‘This is my analysis,’ all the way up to reports or communicating with your customer. I get engineers who say, ‘I hate English.’ Well, unfortunately you’re not going to get away from it.”

Johnson and Fisher are putting those lessons to good work in their paid internships, and they’re bringing what they learn back into the classroom.

“You can go to class and an hour later, you’re on the job seeing how it all comes together,” says Johnson, who works at Automation North America, in Loves Park, Ill. “I’ve had many times where I’ve gone from work to school or school to work and I see it in action. There could be something you’re struggling with in school and then you look across the aisle, and someone’s doing it. So, I go talk to them and it’s like, ‘OK, now I get it.’”

Fisher works at Field Fastener, in Rockford, where he’s honing a wide variety of skills.

“I think I’m learning a lot that will greatly help me later on,” he says. “I’m mostly quality, so I’m checking parts, doing inspections, learning the machines I’ll use later on, and improving my teamwork skills, communication skills. I think this internship is definitely helping me.”