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New engineering minors expand opportunities for undergraduates

Engineering encompasses a wide array of fields and disciplines, and while the majors offered to undergraduates help to define fields of study, sometimes a little extra attention in the way of a minor can help students expand a chosen field into a research breakthrough or a career.

That’s the intent of three new minors offered through the University of Missouri College of Engineering, which aim to give students a better understanding into energy, aerospace or neuroscience.

The undergraduate minor in energy engineering is aimed at providing better insight into the roles engineers play in the energy industry. Because many companies in the energy industry utilize engineers from a variety of disciplines, incorporating a background in energy engineering into a student’s main course of study will supplement a student’s educational skillset to pursue a career in a $737 billion-plus industry that affects millions of customers worldwide.

Engineering Teaching Associate Professor Gary Solbrekken said the energy engineering minor will provide students with a better background that will help them in energy-related careers. The aerospace engineering minor will take place of the aerospace emphasis and offered a more structured program.

“The Missouri Division of Workforce [Development] was doing a study of tradespeople, ones who’d been recently laid off, and they were trying to figure out what kind of training would have best benefited them,” said mechanical engineering Teaching Associate Professor Gary Solbrekken, who also is the director of undergraduate studies and coordinator for the energy engineering minor.

“That was the genesis of how we could get an energy focus in our engineering degree program,” he said.

Development of the minor was partially funded through a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor awarded to the Missouri Division of Workforce Development. The funds were subdivided to schools and workers’ unions, to establish and promote opportunities and training programs that could lead to careers in the energy industry.

Solbrekken said while the majority of the classes in the energy engineering minor are housed within the mechanical engineering and electrical engineering departments, students from all disciplines can benefit from energy expertise. He gave battery technology, biofuels and industry energy audits as examples for how the minor pertains to chemical, biological and industrial engineering.

To complete this minor, students must complete a minimum of 12 credit hours of required core courses, plus an additional six credit hours of approved emphasis area courses.

“Anybody in the college is eligible to receive this minor,” he said.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering also is taking the next step in an area that was previously offered as an emphasis. A minor in aerospace engineering will soon take the place of the aerospace emphasis currently offered by the department.

“There’s an interest in having something more focused than an emphasis,” Solbrekken said. “With a minor, it will put our students in better positions when they graduate.”

Solbrekken said the emphasis will be “retired” this year, meaning that for existing students, the aerospace emphasis will still be available. For incoming freshmen beginning next fall, the minor will be the only option.

The aerospace minor will allow for a more structured program that includes two required courses, at least two core courses and up to two more auxiliary courses. With the aerospace emphasis, students chose three elective classes from a list of aerospace-related courses.

A third new minor focuses on the life sciences within engineering. An undergraduate minor in computational neuroscience expands upon the graduate neuroscience courses already offered at MU through the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.

Electrical engineering Professor Satish Nair said the minor in computational neurobiology is the first program in this field of research offered to undergraduates. Previously, the field was only offered as a graduate program.

“We started this initiative about eight years back. Our focus was computational neuroscience, and we began research projects with neuroscientists,” said electrical engineering Professor Satish Nair, head of Mizzou Engineering’s Computational Neurobiology Center. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) proposed 14 “Grand Challenges” for engineering. One of those challenges — “reverse-engineer the brain” — included the work that researchers at MU had already begun.

Computational neuroscience is becoming an important tool for neuroscientists to understand how complex brain circuits work, for example, what causes post-traumatic stress disorder. Nair said its benefits allow researchers to integrate a variety of neurological data and information to shed light on how entire circuits function rather than focusing on parts of the problem. This type of research is also innovative in the medical field, helping researchers “engineer better medicines,” which is another grand challenge proposed by NAE for engineers.

Along with David Schultz, an associate professor of biological sciences, Nair said the “timing was right” to take the program and structure it as a minor available to undergraduate students in engineering or the College of Arts and Science (A&S).

“Biologists have the data, and engineers have the tools to make sense of the data,” Nair said.

Students minoring in computational neuroscience complete a six-credit core — a “biology core” for engineering, physics, math or psychology students, and a “engineering/physics/math core” for biology students. All students take a computational neuroscience course, and at least four additional classes, with at least two biological science and two engineering/physics courses.

All three minors are currently available to students and graduating seniors if they have completed the required courses.