Charged for Success

5/13/2019 Amy Clay-Moore

In 2012, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering recognized a changing landscape in which advanced technical knowledge increasingly needed to be combined with professional skills in order to meet the demands of industry.

Written by Amy Clay-Moore


Chris Hillebrand (MEng ’18) discovered his passion for renewable energy when first learning about the manufacturing process for photovoltaics as an undergraduate at Tennessee Tech. Understanding that he needed deeper and broader technical knowledge to contribute to the development of renewable energy technologies, he decided to pursue a master’s degree. Illinois Engineering’s Master of Engineering in Energy Systems was the perfect fit. 

Supporting students and growth

As professional programs like the MEng degree grow at Illinois and become more in demand among engineers in the workplace, the College of Engineering is making a concerted effort to support the students who embrace them. Last year, the college launched the Center for Professional and Executive Training and Education to ensure that students have what they need to thrive and make the most of their educational experience.

"We're investing in creating a high-powered educational experience," Harry Dankowicz, Associate Dean for Graduate, Professional and Online Programs, said about resources coordinated by his office. These investments aim to better prepare professionally-oriented master's students for success in industry careers.

"If we're so deliberate in our undergraduate curricular design and in all of the programming and services we provide for our undergraduate students, then surely we need to be as committed to the career development of students in our professionally-oriented graduate programs."

Support staff in the form of academic advisors, capstone project coordinators, and a dedicated career services coordinator help professionally-oriented master's students distinguish themselves to potential employers. In summer 2019, students will be able to take an online career-development course that better prepares them for the job-search process. Starting fall 2019, the College will offer new capstone opportunities and will introduce a seminar that focuses on skills development and tech talks suited for professional master's students.

“By studying Energy Systems, I hoped to equip myself with all the tools I would need to be someone who could play a part in the energy transition to come in the next few decades.” 

In 2012, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering recognized a changing landscape in which advanced technical knowledge increasingly needed to be combined with professional skills in order to meet the demands of industry. 

To continue to serve the university’s land-grant mission in this changing environment, the College explored ways to transfer the knowledge gained from the latest research to engineers like Chris who were seeking innovative solutions in an industry context. The professionally-oriented Master of Engineering (MEng) degree was developed to broaden the base and diversity of students pursuing graduate study beyond those interested in research careers. 

Hoping to make an impact specifically on the energy industry, Professors John Abelson (Materials Science and Engineering), Cliff Singer (Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering) and Paul Debevec (Physics) had an idea for such a degree program. 

Encouraged by the recent success of a graduate certificate in Energy and Sustainability Engineering (EaSE), they began to work on the Energy Systems program. “These unique offerings educate Illinois graduate students – the leaders of tomorrow – with a purposeful mix of interdisciplinary understanding and core competence,” Professor Abelson said. “The EaSE certificate and Energy Systems MEng have already placed numerous graduates in industry, higher education, and policy positions both nationwide and internationally, where they develop solutions that transcend traditional disciplinary lines.” 

“We really wanted to develop a degree of practice,” recalled Elizabeth Hayes Stovall, who served as College of Engineering Director of Graduate Programs when the Energy Systems curriculum was designed. Students on a professionally-oriented career track would take classes alongside research-oriented master’s students to gain the same technical expertise. But Stovall and her colleagues wanted to go beyond a coursework-only alternative to a thesis-based MS. 

“We wanted students to be able to apply what they were learning in their coursework and develop the requisite soft skills so they could be leaders in their field or even just be more effective at their current jobs.” As a consequence, a distinguishing feature of the Energy Systems MEng and future Master of Engineering degrees became the professional development requirement, giving students the opportunity to integrate their new knowledge with professional skills, for example through a practicum or project. “We added this professional development piece so that graduates could hit the ground running.” 

When he became director of the Energy Systems program, Professor Rizwan Uddin decided to further enhance the professional development experience. He articulated clear learning objectives and established specific milestones for students to meet. “We always realized the importance of the professional development component in this degree program. However, what was not clear was exactly how it would be made available.  We’ve worked hard over the last four years to develop an excellent pathway that allows flexibility as well as achieves our goals,” Professor Uddin said.

It was the emphasis on industry-preparedness that drew Hillebrand to the Energy Systems program.

For his capstone project, Chris worked with a professor to optimize an energy storage device. “We developed a process that doesn’t require chemistry acumen and takes only about 2 minutes to complete. It’s more accurate and it’s lower cost,” Chris explained. “It was a great opportunity for helping me understand what the energy storage industry is like and also the technical parts of energy storage.”

Inspired by the success of the Energy Systems program, a number of new Master of Engineering programs have been established in the last several years, with more planned for launch in the near future. These include degrees in traditional disciplines, such as Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Bioengineering, as well as new and highly interdisciplinary curricula in plasma engineering, aerospace systems engineering, and the unique railway engineering program developed in partnership with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. 

These programs have continued to grow and expand. 

The Bioengineering MEng now offers concentrations in bioinstrumentation and computational genomics, with a concentration in pharmaceutical engineering under review. The Electrical and Computer Engineering MEng has seen dramatic growth in demand and enrollment of industry-bound students in just a few years’ time. Several of the programs are available online for distance learners, enabling even greater access to Illinois’ world-class education, especially for those already in the workforce. 

Chris Hillebrand now works as a Project Analyst for SunPower Corporation, an American energy company that designs and manufactures crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and solar panels.

He credits the Energy Systems curriculum’s flexibility with allowing him to explore his interests in solar energy and electrochemical storage, while developing those soft skills critical for industry. “The current generation of college graduates will be one of the first to have the opportunity for a professionally taught degree specifically in the field of renewable energy/energy storage. Without any doubt, we’re hungry for change, knowledgeable, and ready to play our part in handling the reins of the future of the energy industry. A wave is coming.” 

This is the kind of impact that continues to inspire Harry Dankowicz, College of Engineering Associate Dean of Graduate, Professional and Online Programs, and his colleagues. “At Illinois, we aim to respond nimbly to new ideas and give broad access for meaningful contributions to all members of our society. Our students are imbued with the knowledge and sophistication to drive innovation and adapt to the changing technology landscape. In return, they contribute to the well-being of our society and quality of life of all people.” 

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This story was published May 13, 2019.