A school with his name on it
Former legislator honored with unveiling of Tom Rukavina Engineering Center
Marshall Helmberger
M. Helmberger
Tom Rukavina, (short guy in the center) is surrounded by students attending the Iron Range Engineering Center, in Virginia.

VIRGINIA—For a politician, having a building with your name on it is the ultimate symbol that you’ve made a difference in the lives of people. But even before Friday’s unveiling of the new Tom Rukavina Engineering Center, on the Mesabi Range College campus, the former state representative from rural Virginia knew his tireless efforts to enhance educational opportunity on the Iron Range had paid off.

The engineering school building that now bears his name got its start several years ago, as educators seeking to introduce an innovative teaching method into an engineering school found a backer in Rep. Rukavina, who had pushed for years to bring four-year educational options to the Range and to better link those opportunities with the needs of the region’s major industries.

“It was a meeting of the minds,” said Ron Ulseth, Director of Curriculum for the school.

It was also a matter of timing, as the DFL had just retaken the Minnesota House, and Rukavina was tapped to chair the Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy committee, which gave him significant influence over higher education spending.

It was both Rukavina’s foresight and his ability to obtain funding for the school that made the difference, said Carol Helland, Interim Provost at Mesabi Range College, during comments at last Friday’s unveiling. “Thank you, Tom, for your vision,” she said.

Rukavina, who also spoke at the event, said many others deserve credit more than he. “I just got the funding,” he said.

Still, Rukavina acknowledged he was happy to have his name on a school, and particularly pleased he didn’t have to die first to achieve the honor. “I think it might have been cheaper and easier, however, if they’d just melted down a couple jars of old pennies and made a life-sized statue of me,” he said.

Innovative program

With funding from the taconite production tax and through a partnership with Mankato State University, the new school was launched in January 2010. Since opening to college junior and senior year students, the program has provided students, most of whom come from northeastern Minnesota, with a real hands-on teaching method, known as project-based learning. The students, in most cases, have already completed two years of community college by the time they enter the program, and they spend two more years working towards a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

But unlike every other engineering school in the country, where students are expected to learn mostly through classroom lecture, students in the Iron Range Engineering (IRE) program learn by solving real problems and taking on significant projects. Sometimes, that means working with real clients, such as a mining company or electric utility, to solve an engineering problem or challenge. In other cases, students in the program have real product ideas and spend their training developing business plans and fine-tuning product design and manufacturing methods. “A lot of our students are entrepreneurs,” said Ulseth.

The project-based approach is much different from traditional teaching methods because it is much more personalized and student-directed and it gives the students more autonomy over their learning program.

“We were looking for a model of learning that would better align with student needs in graduation,” said Ulseth about the choice of project-based methods. “Ours is the only purely project-based model in existence in an engineering school,” he added.

To date, the program has launched 50 new graduates, and two-thirds of them have remained in northeastern Minnesota upon graduation, many of them going to work for companies like Essar Steel, United Taconite, Marvin Windows, Minnesota Power or Cirrus Designs in Duluth.

Another third of the students have gone on to work for engineering firms elsewhere in Minnesota and a handful now work for major corporations, such as Proctor and Gamble and Amazon, outside of Minnesota.

“It shows our students are capable of competing on a national stage,” said Ulseth.

The four-year degree and the real-life experience that Iron Range Engineering provides to students from the region is helping to stem the region’s “brain drain,” which has been a regional concern for over two decades.

Ulseth experiences some of the benefits of that on a personal as well as professional level, noting that his son and daughter-in-law are each graduates of the program. “And both of them are working on the Iron Range,” he said.

Roth Indihar, who grew up on Lake Vermilion, is another young Iron Ranger who has found a career in the area. Indihar, who was a member of IRE’s first graduating class, currently works for United Taconite on safety project design. He said the project-based approach to teaching employed at IRE took some getting used to at first.

He had completed two years in the more traditional engineering program at Itasca Community College, where the learning process is highly prescribed and teacher-directed. “Usually, in college, the instructor hands you a syllabus the first day of class and says here’s what we’re going to be learning.”

The project-based model, says Indihar, flipped that traditional approach upside down, giving the student much more control and autonomy over their learning and providing real hands-on experience. “You might not get as much of the highly technical background, but you develop more of the problem-solving skills,” he said.

Looking back, Indihar said the program served him very well in preparing him for the workforce. “What I do at United Taconite is very different from the school courses I took in engineering. What the IRE program taught me was what I needed to work in the real world. If I had gone somewhere else, I don’t think I’d be at this level.”

For Rukavina, it’s stories like Indihar’s and others that demonstrate the difference the new school has already made for the Iron Range. “From the early years of my tenure, I always wanted to have a four-year program connected to the needs of the mining industry. It really is a dream come true,” he said.

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1 comment on this item

A well deserved honor. Tommy was driven to bring educational advancement to the Iron Range. Who will carry the torch now?

I would like to share a funny story about Tommy. Tommy and I went to JC together. Tommy sat in front of me in Professor Andrew Lang's Principles of Economics class. Mr. Lang always took roll, and sat us alphabetically in the lecture hall. Tommy sat in front of me. After Mr. Lang took roll and cast his eyes across the room, he began his lecture by "reading a couple of items out of the Wall Street Journal". Tommy, wise as a trap shy mink, slowly made his way to the back seat in the room, and when the time was right, he silently exited the lecture hall like an Indian scout. I can't remember one time Tommy stayed for a complete lecture.

I felt years later, when I saw him working on behalf of education for the Range, that a building in his name would be appropriate. After all, I reasoned, anybody who never attended class and could graduate from UMD, must have know something about education.

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