Educational Outreach - Distance learning gives students real-world expertise

Author: written by Greg McClure
Educational Outreach
The Partnership for Competitive Advantage (PCA), an affiliates program established by the Division of Engineering Professional Education, is designed to increase the competitive advantage of companies in Indiana and around the globe through education.

Engineering Professional Education at Purdue has been providing distance education since 1957, and the courses and programs have taken many forms of instruction over the years. For the most part, the focus has been on offering engineering graduate-level credit courses and programs. In 2004, added emphasis was placed on also offering non-credit, short courses and certificate programs to lifelong learners not seeking degrees or academic credit.

“From the perspective of the member companies, the partnership enhances their competiveness through education and training of their employees,” says Dale Harris, executive director of Engineering Professional Education and a professor of engineering education. “While we are starting with a portfolio of online Lean Six Sigma courses, we are currently working with companies to create additional opportunities in other business and technical areas. From a University perspective, the partnership enhances Purdue’s outreach and engagement activities to deliver on our academic mission to provide lifelong learning opportunities to individuals and companies in Indiana and around the world. Our division has a long and successful history of providing educational opportunities for distance learning using the Internet. The partnership will leverage that experience and expertise.”

Vickie Maris became the director of the professional development programs in 2005.

“We listen carefully to what clients need and design educational solutions to fit the knowledge gaps,” Maris says. “We don’t want to build courses and expect people to come to us. We strive to offer what clients have identified as a critical need. The affiliates program fosters this open communication about educational needs and recommended solutions. Short courses are a critical element in helping a company as they transition within a market to remain competitive.”

Recent examples within the college are the modules being developed and delivered around the topics of hybrid and electric vehicles. Through the partnership, Web-enabled versions of these modules will become globally available.

Maris says that she and her Purdue colleagues also hear repeated requests for courses that address soft skills and for courses in quality improvement. Online or blended delivery formats (short courses with online and face-to-face instructional components combined), along with customized, on-site programs are the most requested. There are a number of courses and programs accessible in these varied formats.

“We strive to offer what clients have identified as a critical need. The affiliates program fosters this open communication about educational needs and recommended solutions.”

– Vickie Maris


The online Lean Six Sigma program offered through the partnership, currently composed of three courses, is one such example. The program combines the methodologies and tools of Six Sigma for reducing variation in a process relative to the requirements, as stated by the voice of the customer, with the concepts of lean — reducing or eliminating waste in a process. The methods and tools in Lean Six Sigma are applicable across many disciplines, from engineering to health care to finance to education. They are used around the world in companies and organizations of all sizes.

“Through the program, we are striving to extend our reach to Indiana companies and to companies around the world. Learners engaging with the College of Engineering through the partnership come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from engineering to health care to military personnel,” Maris says.

“We offered the first Lean Six Sigma Green Belt course, which takes 10 weeks to complete, in March 2010. We have started a new section every month since then, and continue to have a waiting list. The Advanced Lean course is run every other month and is also proving to be very popular. The two courses are prerequisites for the online Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, which includes a management-approved project.”

Maris explains other facets of the new initiative.

“The member companies in PCA can interact easily with the college and with other member companies on development of lifelong learning topics and courses pertinent to industry needs,” Maris says. “For example, we have already had inquiries from companies interested in working with us to customize the case study used in the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and directly focusing the learning outcomes toward challenges unique to their particular organization. There is also opportunity for a company’s best practices to be highlighted in future editions of the course materials.”
Another benefit of membership in the affiliates program will be an annual roundtable event at Purdue.

“The roundtable will be an opportunity for members of the partnership to share best practices and forecast upcoming educational needs,” Maris says.

Drew Weintraut, director of corporate relations for the College of Engineering, has assisted Maris and Harris in creating the partnership. He says participating companies, such as Robroy Industries in Gilmer, Texas, will continue to chart the course.

“We will work with companies to help customize the value they receive from the partnership,” he says. “The incentive is improved competitive advantage. A benefit to the college is aligning ourselves even more closely with industry’s needs. Purdue has always been known for training students to meet industry needs and this is an opportunity for industry to make its needs known.

“It also will offer research opportunities. We can address needs and strengths in both and this is an opportunity to bring them closer together.”