Union in the News for October 22, 2004
Union intends to be a force in Tech Valley's burgeoning economy
By Joanne McFadden - The Business Review
The benefits that a "tier-one" school like the state University at Albany has to offer high-tech businesses are obvious, but where does a small liberal arts college fit into the region's high-tech happenings?
If you talk to people at Union College in Schenectady, they'll tell you that their school has plenty to offer and is an important part of Tech Valley.
Bill Schwarz, director of corporate and government relations, aggressively pursues and develops the relationships that will align the college as a major player in the economic development of the Capital Region.
Schwarz's chief focus is discovering just exactly how Union College can add to the development of Tech Valley. Schwarz said that the college's blend of liberal arts and engineering fits the bill for what businesses need.
"Companies across the board are looking for more than just technicians," he said. "They want people who can run a company, who are at home with technology, but just as at home with a spreadsheet, with a budget, with a Web site. That's the blend that we bring to the table here."
Ron Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the chair of the mechanical engineering department at Union College, sees the college's "Converging Technologies" initiative to bring together academia, business and government in economic development and to prepare students in emerging fields of study, as a continuation of the college's historical involvement in the community.
He points out that the college was one of the first liberal arts institutions to offer science and engineering in the early 1800s, and in 1903, the college engaged in one of the first industrial-academic partnerships when it hired a General Electric engineer to start the school's electrical engineering program.
More recently, Union was one of two schools funded by General Electric to "define" the engineer of the 21st century. Being an integral part of Tech Valley and the economic growth of the region is just another extension of this tradition of partnering with industry.
The idea is to produce engineers, but well-rounded ones.
"We do believe in the liberal arts, and we do educate our engineers in liberal arts," Bucinell said. "This gives them the soft skills that are essential to leadership."
Also, the school believes that liberal arts majors fill an important role in the high-tech arena, bringing their business, communications, culture and management skills to the table.
Schwarz said that the college can fill a niche in the region that has yet to be filled.
"The tier-one level universities do wonderful and well-funded R&D, and it's critical," he said.
However, a small company that is moving from research and development to commercialization has different needs, such as quality testing, which the faculty and students in Union's laboratories can provide. The relationship is symbiotic.
"What it does is, it satisfies the company's needs. It takes care of a commercialization project, and it offers our students graduate-level research opportunities to get involved with leading-edge technology," Schwarz said.
The students benefit from the practical experience they gain conducting research for industry, and the companies make capital investments in the college's facilities, keeping them current and up-to-date. In turn, businesses have the location and the workers to perform operations critical to commercialization.
For example, Schenectady-based Automated Dynamics, which fabricates fiber-placement equipment and advanced composite structures, equipped some of Union's laboratory facilities so students and faculty could perform composite testing.
CardioMag Imaging in Schenectady is another example. The company, which designs and manufactures cardiac diagnostic devices, has been meeting with Union faculty and staff to figure out what it might do with the college.
Alex Ross, a research scientist at the company, said an internship program is a possibility.
He said that bringing students into an industrial setting will offer them the opportunity to bring the theory they learned in the classroom into practice in a real-world setting.
At the same time, CardioMag will get a better idea of the local talent pool and also let students see its strengths as a potential employer.
"It allows us really to give back to the educational system and the community and produce a generation of working professionals," Ross said.
In addition, Ross said, the experiences and unique perspectives of students might be valuable to the company.
Another way that CardioMag may potentially partner with the college is to provide hands-on projects for design courses.
Creating a work force in this area is a critical component to economic development and a key factor in attracting and retaining high-tech companies.
To that end, both two-year colleges like Schenectady County Community College and Hudson Valley Community College, as well as four-year institutions, will be creating curricula to support the skilled and educated work force that these high-tech companies require.
Paired with courses of study are internships.
"The sooner and the earlier we do that, the more likely these students are to stay in the region post-graduation," Schwarz said.
Schwarz is contacting local companies to establish partnerships, and he is also networking with Union alumni such as Brian Epstein, CEO of Menands-based WiFiFee, a wireless Internet Service Provider.
Epstein's company is working with the college to set up a wireless Internet for downtown Schenectady. Epstein would like to see all of Tech Valley go wireless.
Bucinell, the professor of mechanical engineering, said Union's role is complementary to institutions like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and UAlbany.
"Our mission is kind of unique because it targets the creative class that everyone knows is so important to economic development," he said.
Lyn Taylor, president of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Union's initiatives could serve as a model for other institutions in the region.
"People thought initially that it was only about tech schools and businesses. It's about technology being the vehicle by which the entire community will benefit," Taylor said.