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Former MIT Leader to Help Transform Engineering, Technology Education

Dr. Kirk Kolenbrander and the text Dr. Kirk Kolenbrander, Executive Vice President of CETA.

Dr. Kirk Kolenbrander raised a lot of eyebrows recently when he announced he was a leaving a senior post at a world-renowned engineering school after nearly 3 decades. But in his mind, the move makes all the sense in the world.

In March, Kolenbrander was tapped to lead Southern New Hampshire University's (SNHU) College of Engineering, Technology, and Aeronautics (CETA). He left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after 29 years, most recently serving as vice president. Eyebrows rose because the move meant leaving a university founded in 1861 with nearly 12,000 students and a faculty that includes 90 Nobel laureates, 75 MacArthur Fellows and 59 National Medal of Science winners, among other distinctions.

CETA, meanwhile, is not yet 3 years old. SNHU took the opportunity to found the college when it took on students from Daniel Webster College in Nashua in 2016 when the school's parent company declared bankruptcy. SNHU is building a permanent home - a state-of-the-art $50 million building in the center of the main campus that will feature a makerspace, a 3D printing room, a drone flying area and unmanned aerial vehicle prep space, a robotics lab and more - that will be ready in January 2020. For now, the college operates out of a 20,000-square-foot annex space by the east end of the SNHU campus.

But what motivated Kolenbrander had more to do with SNHU's mission and CETA's vision than the college's still brief history. SNHU, he said, is in a unique position to create a new, scalable model for higher education. Traditional colleges, he said, are operating on a struggling business model. He wants to create a sustainable model that provides affordable, engaging learning experiences that help product employees ready to contribute to companies on day one. He said SNHU has mastered "scalability."

"It's hard to overstate how advanced Southern New Hampshire's understanding is, while at the same time how unprepared so much of higher education is to address these challenges," Kolenbrander said recently, about a month into his new post. "Southern New Hampshire can play a profound role in giving students - giving learners of every background, the opportunity to contribute in this environment."

Engaging and Accessible

Even before earning his bachelor's in chemistry and Ph.D. in physical chemistry and becoming a faculty member in MIT's Department of Material Science and Engineering, Kolenbrander was immersed in education. He grew up on a small college campus where his father was first a college professor and then senior administrator for many years. Before joining MIT, he spent 2 years work for AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Terri, his wife, would take him to nearby Princeton University when she thought his dream of a career in higher education might be dimming.

"And I would remember why it was I really needed to be among young people in a learning environment," he said.

Teaching was a rewarding track. He received some advice when he was first hired - to stick with education at least long enough to see former students making an impact on the world.

Dr. Kirk Kolenbrander holding a drone inside a CETA engineering lab."Because that's where the real satisfaction comes. It's a long game, but it's a beautiful game," Kolenbrander said. "You get to see the impact students have in the communities of which they're a part as they work on solving problems that matter."

One example is some of the work  Sal Khan, a former student, tinkered with at MIT using an Apple Newton - an early tablet computer - in a learning environment. Khan later founded Khan Academy, a set of free courses, practical exercises and instructional videos in math, science history and more that are ubiquitous in high schools and colleges around the world. One of Kolenbrander's former doctoral students now advises the Senate Armed Services Committee on a full range of acquisition and policy issues for the Department of Defense science and technology programs.

But it was about 5 years into his tenure in higher education that Kolenbrander began wrestling with the intellectual and human toll of traditional engineering programs. Instead of helping would-be engineers, many programs threw up barriers and demanded complex and rigorous prerequisites. He remembers hearing students talk about how important it was to them to have a clear physical and intellectual separation between their residence halls and their labs and classrooms. They felt it was vital that they had a safe refuge from coursework.

"I thought to myself, 'This is messed up. The students feel the need to escape from learning. That's not right,'" he said. In the years that followed, he led a series of efforts to integrate living and learning amid the rigorous work of education, research and innovation.

Since his arrival, Kolenbrander has embraced SNHU's commitment to providing world-class student support. He has learned about the way one online introductory computer science program is designed. The prerequisites to that course are only to know how to turn on the computer – and that's it.

"Maybe students begin with lots of coding experience and qualifications, and maybe they don't, but we don't want to tell them before they even start that they're not qualified," he said. "Instead, we need to establish an open door that then sets up a series of performance criteria that students can choose to meet or not. It's done in a way that invites participation, as opposed to asking first, 'How's your multivariable calculus?'"

Meeting SNHU

Kolenbrander first became aware of SNHU about a dozen years ago as an commissioner of the regional accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges – now called the New England Commission of Institutions of Higher Education. A fellow commissioner at the time was SNHU President Dr. Paul LeBlanc. Three years ago, Kolenbrander was chosen to chair the team that would visit SNHU for its annual accreditation evaluation.

"That required that I become an expert in what SNHU was doing," he said.Dr. Kirk Kolenbrander in an engineering lab at CETA.

In addition to visiting SNHU's campus and headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire, Kolenbrander visited SNHU programs around the world.

"I fell in love with Southern New Hampshire University and what it means," he said. "This is such a compelling mission."

Once the accreditation process was complete, Kolenbrander thought more seriously about what it would mean to devote the rest of his career to applying the model SNHU has developed to expand affordable access to education to a campus-based engineering and technology college. That means creating a model that is low cost for students and the university while creating the kinds of support services to increase student success.

"We need to create educational experiences that leave the student day-one ready for the workforce," Kolenbrander said. "They need to be ready to serve these companies and entities as they increasingly look to technology-trained talent that they're not getting."

A New Mission

When news of Kolenbrander's move to SNHU became public, LeBlanc told a local newspaper his job would be to help university leaders rethink, "how engineering education and STEM education can be more effective, more accommodating and more inviting." A big part of that, Kolenbrander said, will mean continuing his career-long focus on extending educational opportunities to women and minorities.

"The problems are compelling. The world needs solution to hard problems. The talent to address those problems has to come from everywhere," he said.

To begin, Kolenbrander said he is working with CETA's faculty and staff to serve CETA's current students needs, as well as recruiting the next classes of students. the next phase he likens to the college's upcoming move from its current home to the new building under construction on campus. When it opens in January 2020, it will be in the center of everything and will have many people interested in what it's doing and what it will mean to the campus and community.

"We are about to be in the center of campus with everyone peering in, and we want them to peer in, and we want to peer out," he said. "We want to let the light shine (in and on) what is engineering and technology and aeronautics, or what is STEM on this campus and online."

Regardless of what form that takes, Kolenbrander is not setting himself a low bar for success.

"What we develop here will change the basic model for how a residential-based (engineering) experience works. ... We'll educate a whole lot of people along the way, we will create an inclusive environment and we will support students."

"I want to work on those problems. It's not that I left MIT – I came to Southern New Hampshire," he said. "It is the leader. These problems are going to be solved right here."

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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