Defining Technology by its alumni

The careers of Technology graduates can help place the discipline in context.

By Kim Medaris Delker

Technology is one of modern language’s most-used words. It also is one of the most vague and least understood.

Merriam-Webster defines “technology” as “the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area,” but that definition leaves a lot open to interpretation.

Because “technology” is in its name, Purdue’s College of Technology often experiences definitional questions of its own. What do the students study, and what kinds of jobs do they secure upon graduation? And on a campus like Purdue, with a world-renowned College of Engineering, what makes a technology major different than an engineering major?

College of Technology Dean Gary Bertoline said the college has a targeted mission to break down the definition barrier. To help prospective students, their parents, and potential employers better understand how technology can be defined by its successful alumni.

“We have a unique role in the state and national economy in preparing students with a more applied educational experience that produces graduates who can be described as engineers and applied computer scientists,” Bertoline said. “The college fills a very important piece in the employment continuum in these areas that are underserved nationally. Fundamentally, we have a unique place to fulfill, and it’s an important place, especially with our current economy and its dependence on technology.”

Just what is that place? College of Technology researchers put into motion what is known as “use-inspired” research that can help business and industry in the short and medium terms, leading to an immediate return on investment, and, in some cases, innovation.

Thanks to a large percentage of the college’s faculty having served in industry, Bertoline said, the college serves a role in the state that is unique.

“We’re doing more applied research with companies, asking them about their most difficult problems that they can’t seem to find the time to solve or find the right people or researchers,” he said. “We can help Indiana business and industry become more competitive.”

What do technology grads do?

In short, College of Technology graduates are career-ready. They’re equipped to make a difference as soon as they earn a degree.

College of Technology graduates hold a wide variety of job titles, from engineers of all types to project manager, human resources director, software developer, airline pilot and supply-chain specialist. In short, the answer to the question, “What do technology graduates do?” is perhaps another question: “What don’t they do?”

Technology graduates often hold the same or similar jobs as engineering and computer science graduates, and they are compensated at near-equal rates. According to data collected by Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities salary survey of May 2011 graduates, the average starting salary for electrical engineering technology graduates was $59,466, and for mechanical engineering technology graduates, it was $53,600.

“If you go to business and industry many of our graduates have ‘engineer’ in their title,” Bertoline said. “Business and industry understand the important role that the college has in producing applied engineers.”

So if graduates of an engineering program and an engineering technology program often hold the same positions, what is the difference between them?

The answer lies in the very definition of the word “technology” as a “practical application of knowledge.” Someone who is studying in the College of Technology has specialized knowledge that lies in the middle of the technician-technologist-engineer continuum. For instance, a technician is highly skilled in a particular technology (such as home heating and air-conditioning), but they have little understanding or need of the theory behind that technology. Meanwhile, engineers are primarily engaged in the design of the technology or system. But technologists are firmly in the “sweet spot,” as Bertoline describes it, complementing the roles of engineers in business and industry. Technologists focus specifically on how to apply knowledge to solve problems.

“Those in technology tend to be self-directed learners who can solve open-ended problems by using off-the-shelf technology, whereas engineers are more focused on the theory and math,” said Ken Burbank, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology. “Technology and engineering are really two paths to the same profession.”

Practical application of knowledge

Kyle Bowen is a shining example of someone who has taken the skills he learned as a College of Technology student and spawned that knowledge into innovation. Bowen, a 1999 computer graphics technology alumnus, is director of informatics at Purdue, where he leads a technology group focused on creating innovative tools for teaching and learning. Some of his recent projects include Hotseat, a collaborative, micro-discussion tool that allows students to provide near- and real-time feedback during class via Facebook, Twitter, text message or an app and Mixable, a learning application that blends a student’s course enrollment information with their Facebook account.

Bowen said he chose to attend the College of Technology over other options because of the college’s focus on “a unique combination of relevant theory and hands-on practical skills that was responsive to the latest technology trends.”

Bowen credits not just excellent faculty but a strong yet flexible program with giving him the tools he’s needed to be a success.

“My College of Technology degree provided an excellent foundation for life-long learning, but it wasn’t too rigid that it locked me into a specific career path,” he said.  “My studies taught me that technology is but a medium. The real opportunities are in how technology can be applied.”

Computer and information technology alumna Diana Ephlin believes that the College of Technology instills far more than technical skills into its students. She earned a degree from Purdue in 1983 and has held a variety of positions throughout her career. Currently at Eli Lilly & Co. as vice president of human resources – global manufacturing and quality and Elanco Animal Health, she feels that what she learned in the college helped her get where she is today.

“The computer technology program taught me to think logically and rationally, collaborate with others and focus of the needs of the customer or business,” she said. “These are essential skills that I still use today in human resources.”

Flexible for the future

As the College of Technology looks to the future, in addition to continue to turn out successful alumni who are moving our world forward, it has lofty goals, according to Bertoline.

A major priority in the coming years is to make sure that the college’s curriculum adequately meets the needs of students and, in turn, of what business and industry are looking for so the college can continue to be attractive and relevant to students.

“Our focus is on changing the world,” Bertoline said. “We want to change the world and become the model for the nation in the preparation of graduates in technology education.”