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Seek Research Magazine

Hello, my name is...

By Julee Cobb

For some, it symbolizes tradition and valuing previous generations. To others, it’s a vanguard statement or trendy distinction. Of course, if you consider William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a moniker means reputation, which to the star-crossed lovers was both important and inconsequential at the same time.

 The name of Kansas State University’s campus in Salina has, for 50 years, signified change. Since its establishment in 1965, the property has been given four different titles, and just this past October, transformed again. But what sets this recent identity shift apart from the others is its substance — there is more, a lot more, than what meets the eye.

Kansas State University Salina is now known as Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus — an idea that came about two years ago when university officials were planning for the future. Several committees were formed to discuss, research and develop concepts that could exhibit the campus’s unique and somewhat exclusive educational style in a way to give it a much-needed niche and help with national growth.

When examining what the campus is at its core and the type of learning environment provided to students, there was an undeniable consensus that the word “polytechnic” encompasses the campus mission. A polytechnic education is synonymous with hands-on, interdisciplinary and applied learning, focusing on professional programs that prepare students to move directly into their chosen career field. From the beginning days of Schilling Institute through Kansas Technical Institute, Kansas College of Technology, K-State Salina and now, the campus on Centennial Road has always offered that kind of immersive experience and it’s precisely the direction in which current Dean and CEO Verna Fitzsimmons wants to keep moving.

“Since its inception 50 years ago, the campus has consistently provided an educational climate that integrates theory with experience through project-based work, research opportunities and connections to industry,” Fitzsimmons said. “We are ready to take that tradition into the next 50 years, and identifying ourselves as a polytechnic campus perfectly represents who we are and the experience our future students will have here.”

During the investigatory phase of how to best position the Salina campus for success, the committees examined a variety of variables: the high school population within the state of Kansas; magnet schools across the country that are hubs for aviation and engineering technology; and the distinctiveness or comparability of its programs against other universities. That information confirmed an imminent need to engage students on a national level, which involved creating a way to market the campus not for its location but its for signature education.

“The Salina community has always lent its loyal support to our cause and we are thankful for how the city has invested in the growth and change of the campus,” Fitzsimmons said. “We are at a juncture, though, where we have to demonstrate our uniqueness within the K-State system as well as what makes us different from other institutions with similar programs of study. In order to be competitive, we must show how our students learn, not where they learn.”

The idea of changing the campus name to demonstrate a polytechnic identity was then presented to faculty and staff at large, advisory board members and campus industry partners. The transformation was gauged with students and alumni, and even counselors and admissions representatives at state community colleges were asked to weigh in. When explained the reasoning behind the proposed change, it was evident that becoming “polytechnic” is a step in the right direction.

The decision to transform from K-State Salina to Kansas State Polytechnic was first approved at a Kansas Board of Regents meeting in September 2015 by the Council of Chief Academic Officers. A month later, the proposal went before the Council of Presidents and the Kansas Board of Regents where it passed and went into effect immediately.

Polytechnic in motion

From curriculum overhauls to newly acquired research projects and special opportunities with industry experts, Kansas State Polytechnic is working to give its students an even better innovative and fully engaged education. The new campus motto, “The experience matters,” reflects how the polytechnic way of learning is more than memorizing theory and listening to lectures in a classroom.

In the engineering technology department, computer systems technology faculty members have completely revamped their program: what students study and when, and how they work with one another and outside companies. The curriculum change puts more responsibility on the students — still providing them with the much-needed foundation in technology, but also giving students an expanded opportunity to apply what they’ve learned to present trends.

“Things are always evolving in this industry, and while it’s virtually impossible to anticipate, we can quickly adapt to these changes because our reorganized curriculum structure is set up in a way to make students prepared and relevant,” said Troy Harding, computer systems technology professor.

Starting in fall 2016, students are required to enroll each semester in studio classes where they will work in a group on projects related to a local company’s need. For freshmen and sophomores, the studio time is worth one credit hour, while it equals out to six credit hours for juniors and seniors. The idea is to introduce the younger undergrads to applicable learning and communication skills early so they can build upon their experience every year. These studio classes also integrate knowledge from other electives such as management, business, math and speech.

In the unmanned aircraft systems program, students illustrate polytechnic education through building their own drone and integrating components on it such as a control link, receiver and autopilot. Students master mission-planning software and fly unmanned systems in the field, all while troubleshooting the process.

Also provided are ample opportunities for UAS students to engage in professional research projects in the mapping and surveying, agriculture, energy inspection and airworthiness certification fields. Kansas State Polytechnic’s ambitious UAS program is collaborating with entities such as the Bureau of Land Management, Federal Aviation Administration and Westar Energy to integrate unmanned technology into commercial applications and help develop standards for the future of unmanned flying.

“Anyone can purchase an unmanned aircraft and fly it, but that’s not what industry needs,” said Andi Meyer, UAS research program manager and senior researh engineer. “Our UAS students know how to fly safely and collect quality data that clients need for a variety of applications. That means selecting the right aircraft with the right camera and gimbal, flying it at the right altitude and speed and then taking the gathered data and putting it into a model that provides the right information.”

The idea of a hands-on education isn’t lost on Trevor Witt, a junior in UAS. As a student employee in the UAS lab, Witt has worked side by side with faculty and staff acquiring various approvals and exemptions from the FAA for the program as well as processing and analyzing data from research projects. Witt’s experience on campus even has encouraged him to start his own business offering low altitude aerial photography and external test piloting.

“My favorite part of the polytechnic education is connecting the dots — when you go from an idea or a theory to seeing it in motion, actually working,” Witt said. “Employers are looking for experience, and this counts.”

Kurt Carraway, acting UAS program manager, couldn’t be more proud of Witt and all of the students in the innovative field. He says potential employers pick up on their determined spirit.

“Our students are eager to learn — and that attitude becomes infectious,” Carraway said. “They want to gain a perspective that isn’t typically achieved outside of the classroom, and this translates into marketable experience.”

Elsewhere around the polytechnic campus, professors are ensuring the connection between the classroom and a career is always being made. In the airport management program, students have been united with a variety of aviation professionals from across the state, engaging in everything from airport rescue firefighter training to land development and architectural design. In the digital media program, students are tasked with leaving behind the traditional term paper to use editing and producing skills on a visual project. And in mechanical engineering technology, students are divided into design teams to create an actual product or solve an actual problem for a local company.

Polytechnic on the horizon

About a week after the Kansas Board of Regents approved the Salina campus’s request to transition into the polytechnic campus, a celebration was held for all students, faculty and staff. The event commemorated a significant turning point in the campus’s history and served as a kickoff for an exciting new era.

In December 2015, an executive director of enrollment management was hired to advance the polytechnic brand and implement a national recruiting strategy. Campus committees continue to facilitate details of establishing the School of Integrated Studies. And assisting the university as a whole to become a Top 50 public research institution by the year 2025 remains a priority.

“I know there has been a lot of change on this campus over the years, however, we believe the polytechnic name will stand the test of time,” Fitzsimmons said. “The name truly represents who we are — our offerings, our expertise and the experience. And in the end, for students, that’s what it’s all about.