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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato


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Iron Range Engineering (IRE) is a distinctive, undergraduate project-based learning engineering program. The IRE program is a collaboration between Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, MN, Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU) and Iron Range industry in northeastern Minnesota. Entering students are typically community college graduates who have completed lower division requirements for an engineering bachelor’s degree.  The IRE education model is used during the four-semester upper-division portion of a student's education for students earning the Bachelor of Science degree at IRE and Twin Cities Engineering (TCE). TCE is a collaboration between MSU, Normandale Community College, the other metro area community colleges, and Twin Cities industry.

IRE and TCE students do not take traditional lecture-based classes. Each semester, these students work in teams solving complex and ill-structured problems associated with regional mining, milling, and manufacturing industries. All of their learning activities are organized by and associated with these industry projects. At the completion of their two-year program, they earn a B.S. in Engineering from MSU with emphases such as mechanical engineering and/or electrical engineering. True to the intent of ABET student outcomes and the attributes of the “The Engineer of 2020”, graduates emerge from the IRE program with integrated technical and professional knowledge and competencies.

The IRE model was developed to address the need for change in engineering education by considering the entire education system and including these main points:

  • trans-disciplinary thinking
  • industry-sponsored project-based learning
  • experiential learning in context
  • competency-based assessments
  • significant exposure to professionalism, design, creativity, and innovation

The IRE model addresses the how of student learning in engineering while allowing for deeper integration of the what, the technical content merged with professionalism and design skills needed for successful careers.  Students combine learning of technical information with the execution of engineering design projects, which are usually sponsored by industry. Students divide their time every week between learning by doing the design and learning through methods that include, self-learning, peer-learning, and learning from faculty and other external experts. The majority of the learning is experiential and done in the context of the design. Students learn, practice, and receive feedback on professionalism, design, creativity, and innovation throughout the four-semester curriculum.

Projects are industry sponsored. IRE is located in the heart of Minnesota's iron range.  Within short driving distance there are six iron mines, two coal generation power plants, a wind-turbine farm, two paper mills, a new precious metals mine, and proposed steel mill. The managers and engineers in these industries have embraced this program and have committed to providing projects, project guidance, technical expertise for student learning, internships/co-ops, and assistance in assessment.  TCE is located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, home to a wide range of engineering and manufacturing companies.

During the proposal stage, students, in collaboration with faculty and clients, develop two plans: a design "work plan" which details the entire execution of the deliverable to the client; and a "learning plan" which addresses professional learning objectives, technical learning objectives, and the learning modes that will be employed to meet the objectives as well as methods for formative and summative assessment and reflection. When a student is confident in their knowledge, they present evidence to the faculty. Faculty vet the evidence and student competency through written or oral exams.

As students work on their projects they learn the fundamentals of project management and product development. After 4 semesters and 4 projects, the students are able to jump into a project management situation presented by an employer, or they are equally ready to attempt work on a project of their own. In December of 2011, the first class of 12 students graduated from IRE and the inaugural TCE class graduated in December of 2014. Since then we have over 100 graduates working in industry or attending graduate school. Many graduates have remained on the Iron Range, but others have gone to the Twin Cities metropolitan area and beyond. Both programs are ABET accredited and the cutting-edge curriculum was awarded the 2017 ABET Innovation Award.