Nov. 14, 2003
UW-River Falls Offers Pre-Engineering Courses
By Sarah Matara
UW-RF News Bureau
The UW-River Falls physics department offers an in-depth pre-engineering and dual degree program, which is a valuable asset to the western Wisconsin region, where new industries are establishing companies.
According to physics professor and department Chair Jim Madsen, UW-RF does not teach just the basics as other schools, but goes in-depth and offers students a variety of courses.
With the chemistry department, the physics department is designated as a Center of Excellence in Undergraduate Education by the UW System Board of Regents.
The pre-engineering courses, such as statics, dynamics and mechanics of deformable bodies are the same as those offered at an engineering school.
Statics is the study of the forces involved in rigid objects that are at rest. Skills learned in this class allow engineers to specify the appropriate sizes of components for buildings, bridges and machinery. This is especially important in construction, which is occurring every day in western Wisconsin.
Dynamics looks at the forces involved when objects are in motion. For example, skills learned in this class help to understand how an engine works with all of its moving parts.
The mechanics of deformable bodies studies how forces can change the shape of objects.
Madsen said, "These are the basic courses an engineer needs to design anything! In that sense, they are essential to a business that is producing a product and needs to understand how it will perform."
UW-RF also offers courses with a strong emphasis on electronics, such as Circuits and Devices, Analog Electronics and Digital Electronics. These classes are vital to anyone interested in a technical career. Most physics programs would offer just one course in electronics. Students may also take a computer programming course and two math for physics and engineering courses.
"Our program enables us to offer a much richer set of classes—two and a half years of courses which we can guarantee will transfer to an engineering school if students meet the required GPA," Madsen said.
The dual degree program allows students to attend UW-RF for three years, then transfer to an engineering school and finish in two more years. After a student is done, he or she holds an undergraduate degree from UW-RF in physics and an engineering degree from the school of engineering. UW-RF students usually attend the University of Minnesota or the University of Wisconsin-Madison to finish their engineering degree.
UW-RF physics students participate in an internship program that teaches them the realities of the workplace, such as writing resumes, cover letters and conducting research. Many students are placed at companies in western Wisconsin, such as Niro in Hudson, which makes equipment used in freeze drying, or Phillips Plastics in Hudson. Some are placed in the Twin Cities, at places such as 3M or Banner Engineering.
Plastics manufacturing and industry is growing in western Wisconsin because developers see a market with potential, which allows UW-RF students many job and internship opportunities. For example, two UW-RF alumni that completed the dual degree program are working in Clear Lake at a company that develops conformal coatings. These are used in archival preservation of old documents and as insulation in the electronics industry, since they are fire retardant.
Madsen said that the program at UW-RF is heavily weighted toward experimental and hands-on physics and students receive a broad background which allows them to step into industry with valuable problem-solving, lab, and research skills.
Madsen said that sometimes people do not realize all of the things students can do with physics.
"They can go right into industry as an engineer, or go for a master's degree, which pays them to perform research for someone for two years. Some students even end up going into other areas, like meteorology. It’s much easier to go from physics into a specific discipline like engineering than the other way around."
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