Northcentral Technical College and Mid-State Technical College are the first in what promises to be a long list of schools to create pathway agreements to the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s groundbreaking BS in Automation Leadership degree. The degree will enable individuals anywhere in the U.S. to gain the technical and leadership skills to take manufacturing into a new era of automation and Industry 4.0.
The Automation Leadership degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stout has rocked the world of higher education since the program was announced in June of 2023. It’s the first degree of its kind in the country, setting itself apart in two ways: what students are learning, and how they get credit for that learning.
On the content side, the program addresses industry’s acute need for technical experts who can also lead a company through a digital transformation. Graduates will have a working knowledge of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes, particularly focused on automation. They’ll also understand the IIoT, digital integration and data analytics aspects of Industry 4.0. Additionally, they’ll go through leadership courses and gain real-world experience to give them the business acumen to lead a company on its automation journey.
Dr. David Ding is the Director of the School of Engineering at UW-Stout and was instrumental in getting this program launched. He commented on the value graduates will have for employers. “They’ll be ready to take the leadership position to lead the company’s digital transformation.”
On the credit side, this degree program has more on-ramps, pathways, and credit for prior learning than any other like it. Thanks to its alignment with Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA) standards, up to 88 credits of the 120-credit degree can be earned through associated SACA certifications. That means any person who earns certain certifications at a SACA member organization (which includes high schools, technical and community colleges, and industrial companies) can automatically receive university credit for them, without ever enrolling in a course at UW-Stout or stepping foot on campus.
“The certification is the currency for university credit. It’s remarkable,” noted SACA Executive Director Jim Wall. “From anywhere in the country, a high school student has a pathway that could involve their high school program, community college program, working, apprenticeship programs – it doesn’t matter where they are. If they earn that certification they have a pathway not only to a baccalaureate degree, but to an advanced degree. And I don’t know that that path exists anywhere else in the world.”
Northcentral Technical College (NTC) and Mid-State Technical College (Mid-State) have recognized the value of this opportunity and announced articulation agreements that will enable their students to easily transfer credits to the Automation Leadership degree.
Just days after the program started classes with its first cohort of students, NTC and Mid-State each hosted a regional event to publicly announce articulation agreements to the UW-Stout degree. Each college filled a room with local business and K-12 leaders who will be able to take advantage of the partnership agreements.
Northcentral Technical College has three programs that will articulate to the Automation Leadership degree: Electro-mechanical Technology, Automation Systems Technology and Smart Manufacturing Technology. They will also continue to embed SACA certifications into other degrees in the future.
Dean Iain Cameron described the value of NTC’s state-of-the-art labs, both at their flagship Wausau campus and at their satellite campuses, that will enable students to get the hands-on skills necessary to earn SACA certifications. Attendees toured these labs, where Industry 4.0 technologies like FANUC collaborative robots and a lights-out manufacturing cell were on display.
Over at Mid-State Technical College, President Shelly Mondeik and Dean Ryan Kawski celebrated their 127th business partner to support the construction of the new Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering Technology and Apprenticeship (AMETA) Center being built in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Once opened, this building will feature cutting-edge Industry 4.0 learning systems for the Advanced Manufacturing Technology degree. This degree will also articulate to the Automation Leadership degree.
Both colleges shared their excitement at the opportunities that now exist in central Wisconsin to get more individuals into automation leadership positions quickly and affordably.
“This is the most innovative transfer agreement I think I’ve ever seen in just the ability for students to earn credits at a very affordable rate, get those SACA certifications that are going to lead right into that [degree at UW-Stout],” said Darren Ackley, Provost & Vice President for Learning at NTC.
Shelly Mondeik commented, “We don’t want to recreate something; let’s just take the good industry credentials that are out there. Let’s weave them into something that’s relevant to equal education. And let’s get these people into the workforce sooner…We continue to go down this road of seamless transition to a great partner with UW-Stout.”
It’s no secret higher education is facing a critical challenge. With a declining population of students coming into higher education, and with more options on the market for learners to get relevant workforce skills, traditional education needs to adapt its model. The Automation Leadership degree is the perfect example of how to positively disrupt higher ed.
Dr. David Ding and UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank were recently featured on The TechEd Podcast where they discussed how this degree came to be. What started as an idea and initial conversations with employer partners quickly became a clear call to action that there is a large gap in automation education they could fill.
“We went from recommendations on this degree pathway to launch in about a year. And that’s an incredibly rapid change for a higher education structure like ourselves. And so I think higher education in general needs to become more nimble, more flexible, faster, to get that that product out there, which is this this degree pathway,” the Chancellor noted.
It’s highly unusual for a university to move this quickly. But the need in industry was very clear, so UW-Stout took a calculated risk and created the degree. Dr. Ding said the response from employers has been nothing but positive.
John Peterson is the CEO of Schuette Metals and an advocate for moving manufacturing in the region forward. At the NTC launch event, he spoke about the acute need industry has for skills like these, and why the new degree is so groundbreaking:
“If you don’t have people that are educated and understand how to use this technology, you will not get the ROI. You will not get the results. Can we improve some of the things and get more people into manufacturing? Sure. But you’re never going to be able to grow if you don’t take this and embrace this 100%. Because I want to grow. And we’re not going to be able to do it just with people. We’re going to have to do it with automation. We’re going to have to do it with investment. We’re going to have to do it through education.”
The more colleges around the country that follow suit and create pathway agreements to the degree, the better off manufacturing in the United States will be.