Three years ago, Duane Roen arrived at ASU’s Polytechnic campus with the seemingly arduous task of building up the humanities at a place dominated by science.
His first semester, fall 2004, only 383 students took classes on art or literature.
But the campus rising on the closed Williams Air Force Base is a different place today.
This semester, 3,822 students are studying humanities, Roen said. A few dozen students have even declared them their major.
Arizona State University is arguably the nation’s largest university. But the Polytechnic campus alone is on pace to enroll 10,000 students by the end of the decade, and eventually double that.
By next fall, the campus is expected to hire 27 new full-time professors, increasing the faculty nearly 30 percent, said ASU Provost Elizabeth Capaldi.
But for all of the growth, Polytechnic is most notable for how it is building.
Traditional public universities, including ASU’s main campus, are structured like a shelf of textbooks. Mechanical engineering might stand beside art history, but the subjects don’t mix.
That is changing at the main campus in Tempe, under ASU President Michael Crow’s direction. However, the most dramatic transformation is taking place at Polytechnic.
A $106 million series of buildings with classroom and faculty offices, now under construction, will force students and professors from different academic areas to interact.
“We don’t have a building to a college,” Capaldi said. “Everyone will be able to meet each other and talk.”
Beyond buildings, ASU is designing Polytechnic’s academic programs so that they link together like a spider web. “They tie in a way that makes the whole much more than the sum of the parts,” Capaldi said.
The applied science school helps the education school train math and science teachers. The humanities program helps future engineers become better writers.
The College of Technology and Innovation connects them all.
Last month, ASU hired Keith Hjelmstad, formerly academic director of engineering at the University of Illinois, to head the college. The American Society of Civil Engineers this year gave Hjelmstad its George Winter Award, honoring researchers whose work includes “art as well as science.”
Polytechnic’s programs cover subjects similar to those at the main campus — psychology, business administration, engineering — but they are taught far differently.
Traditionally, university professors spend most of the classroom time lecturing.
At Polytechnic, students work hands-on with the subject being studied.
Within the engineering department, for example, students are building water purification systems that, when finished, are headed to Ghana. In past semesters, students have learned principles of mechanical engineering by building robot sumo wrestlers, said department head Chell Roberts.
“This is a fantastic experiment in really rewriting how to do technical education,” Hjelmstad said.
The university will use the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical thinking skills, to test how well its engineering programs teach. Administrators will compare results with those from the main campus.
ASU is one of the few universities in the nation to have two engineering programs and two education schools, as well as two humanities programs.
The Polytechnic versions provide more job training than academic theory.
“We expect everyone to be involved in scholarship of some kind,” Capaldi said, “but they don’t have as heavy an emphasis on PhD and research as Tempe does.”
In the technical industries, employers are often looking for more from applicants than just classroom experience.
“Right now there is some demand (for degrees),” said Larry Reichenbach, general manager of Astrotronics, a Mesa firm that manufactures parts for military and commercial aircraft.
“But in all honesty, the problem everyone has in this industry is finding qualified help,” he said.
The hands-on education isn’t limited to science. Roen said the humanities program teaches students to write for the Web and includes digital design. More specifically, Polytechnic offers a course on how to compile a family history.
Higher education has a reputation for resisting change. Hjelmstad, who will begin at Polytechnic in July, said engineering curriculum nationwide has barely changed since the end of World War II.
“It is incredibly difficult to change curricula,” Hjelmstad said. “The more we get ranked, the less likely we are to really want to change anything.”
That makes Polytechnic’s growth important, he said. “It’s about as close to a blank piece of paper as one could ever hope to get.”