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Grand Valley STEM Graduates Help Drive Economy

GRAND RAPIDS -- Grandville native Jake Hall never changed his major while in college. He knew he wanted to pursue an engineering career since his first year of high school.

He works full-time as a product design engineer and product manager for Viable Inc. in Grandville. Hall will graduate in August from Grand Valley State University with a bachelor's degree in product design and manufacturing engineering, and a minor in biomedical engineering.

Hall is among the 700 students annually who earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field from Grand Valley, representing roughly 13 percent of all degrees granted. A new study released by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program shows that as of 2011, 26 million jobs in the U.S. require a high level of knowledge in a STEM field.

Hall said he was accepted at Purdue and Michigan State, but chose Grand Valley because of its hands-on, real-world program.

"That's what sets Grand Valley apart from others," he said. "I didn't want to do research, I wanted to work directly with people and companies to help them solve problems and to develop products."

About 85 percent of first-year students who begin a STEM major continue in that major after one year. The six-year graduate rate for STEM majors is 40 percent.

While at Grand Valley, Hall worked on projects such as a biopsy device that can help detect disease, a Skittles sorter that is used for educational outreach programs at Grand Valley, and a repurposed Barbie Jeep that helps a 2-year-old with spina bifida be more mobile.

"I like sitting around with a pen and pad and brainstorming new ideas," said Hall. "My professors in the School of Engineering taught me how to take a concept and make it a reality. At Grand Valley, it's not 'what if,' it's more 'what happens.'"

Grand Valley's Seymour and Esther Padnos College of Engineering and Computing has a consistent 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates. Paul Plotkowski, dean of the college, said West Michigan employers tell him they like hiring Grand Valley graduates because of the practical, hands-on experience they receive.

Enrollment in engineering programs has grown by nearly 50 percent in six years, from 1,044 students in 2006 to 1,491 students in 2012.

"Our enrollment is growing rapidly to try to respond to the demand for engineers and computing professionals," Plotkowski said.

Grand Valley is building a new laboratory dedicated to supporting and attracting students in STEM fields. The four-story Science Laboratory Building will house 15 teaching labs, 14 faculty and student research labs, study spaces, offices and a greenhouse. The $55 million building will be financed with $30 million from the state and $25 million in university bonds; no tuition money will be needed for the building. It is scheduled for completion in 2015.

Nicole Eves graduated in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in cell and molecular biology. She works as an associate microbiologist for an area food processor. Eves said employers recognize the strengths she brings to a job because of her Grand Valley education.

"They know the skills I gained from designing experiments and conducting research with my professor would transfer well to the workplace," Eves said. Eves worked with Bruce Ostrow, associate professor of biology, on a Student Scholars Day project that examined the connective tissue in flying squirrels. She also had a job shadowing experience in Dallas, Texas, at a breast cancer research clinic.

"Even though I didn't go into genetics counseling like I thought, the interpersonal and communications skills I learned from the nurse practitioner and others at the clinic always relate back to the workplace," she said.

Other STEM graduates echoed the same sentiment. There are more than 15 Grand Valley mathematics graduates working at Auto-Owners Insurance in Lansing. While they bring proficient technical skills, Darlene Miller said they also bring critical thinking skills.

"New employees hired by Auto-Owners need to possess many of the skills that a mathematics degree develops: logical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail and effective communication," Miller, who graduated in 2000, said. She recently moved into a management position at the insurance company.

Megan Shaff, who graduated in 2009, works in the actuarial division of Auto-Owners. She said working on group projects as a student has helped her work collaboratively, productively and efficiently. "These are necessary skills in my current position," Shaff said.

Ed Aboufadel, professor and chair of mathematics, said the connection between Grand Valley and Auto-Owners has grown so strong that the company buses students to Lansing for a career fair in hopes of recruiting them.

Grand Valley attracts more than 24,500 students from all 83 Michigan counties and dozens of other states and foreign countries. Grand Valley offers 82 undergraduate and 30 graduate degree programs from campuses in Allendale, Grand Rapids and Holland, and from regional centers in Muskegon and Traverse City.

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