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WVU Tech college of engineering and sciences runs on 'performance excellence' mindset

WVU Tech’s Leonard C. Nelson College of Engineering and Sciences has earned a reputation for quality academics and for producing work-ready engineers. For Dr. Zeljko Torbica, that reputation was a major draw.

Dean Torbica (or Dean Z as he’s known by the campus community) came to the university after a storied career in construction engineering and academia. He started out as a structural engineer. He worked for a multi-national firm that was active in more than 70 countries. He spearheaded a popular online construction management program at Drexel University and published research in a number of professional journals.

In 2012, he decided to make the move to WVU Tech.

“It was a combination of things that brought me to Tech,” he said. “It was a new challenge in my professional career and an opportunity to have some influence on an engineering program that has been so respected for so many years.”

In his time in Montgomery, Torbica said he’s been pleased with the progress of the college. The University went through the rigorous ABET accreditation process, adding Computer Science as the ninth such accredited program. The college has expanded its public STEM outreach programming and has encouraged more students to share their work and build new student organizations.

The college has significantly improved in national rankings in the last few years as well, including U.S. News & World Report’s annual Top 100 Undergraduate Engineering Programs list. Torbica said it’s because his faculty and students have been working hard to spread the word by sharing their research and presenting at conferences and competitions.

“That improvement is mainly because we have been working aggressively to improve the visibility of WVU Tech’s engineering programs on a national and on a global scale. We’re sending faculty and students to be in as many places as possible,” he said.

The college has also chipped in on a number of national STEM initiatives.

Last year, it joined more than 120 schools nationwide in a commitment to produce engineers specially trained to address the large-scale “Grand Challenges” of the next few decades – challenges such as “engineering better medicines, making solar energy cost-competitive with coal, securing cyberspace, and advancing personalized learning tools to deliver better education to more individuals.” A letter outlining that commitment was presented to President Barack Obama in April of 2015.

The University also aligned itself with the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE)Engineering Deans Council Diversity Initiative. Presented to the White House last August, that initiative seeks to increase opportunities for women and other under-represented demographics in the engineering disciplines among both students and faculty.

Public outreach is another critical aspect of the college’s mission. Faculty and students regularly work with K-12 educators throughout the region to introduce young minds to STEM fields. It’s a great way to further increase visibility, and Torbica sees a bright future for WVU Tech’s STEM outreach programming and summer programs like Camp STEM and the STEM Summer Academy for Girls.

“We believe that’s one area where we’re ahead of many of our peer institutions. We’ve really done a good job at trying to connect what we do with younger students and their parents. We want to expand those offerings and take them to the next level,” he said.

A vision of growth

As the college heads into the next academic year and the University begins its transition to a new campus in Beckley, Torbica said that his team is focused and enthusiastic. Their goal is to maintain the college’s level of academic excellence while enhancing opportunities for students in the college’s programs.

“There is a legacy here that a lot of great professors have built over time, and the new group of people that we have hired is just spectacular,” said Torbica.

“Hands-on education is the trademark of Tech. There is a significant connection to real-life problems that we try to incorporate in our teaching philosophy. We don’t want to change the program. We just want to improve it even further.”

That hands-on focus means lots of research in the field and hefty lab requirements for students.

“We’re maintaining our academic rigor and our practical philosophy, and as we move forward, we’re also going to be focusing on our lab space and facilities. Competitive institutions maintain excellent facilities and we’re going to continue to do that to remain a competitive program,” he said.

Ultimately, Torbica wants to see the college double in size. He said that attractive programs, increased research opportunities and partnerships with local business and industry on internships and co-ops will help do the trick.

“I would like to see us significantly increase in that way, to offer more opportunities. I would like to see our college get to that critical mass. Our new location is going to offer an opportunity to really grow our program,” he said.

Working by example

Torbica was recently named a fellow of the American Society for Quality (ASQ). The organization selected Torbica for his work on consumer satisfaction in the construction industry, which offered valuable insights for the business side of the construction engineering field.

“ASQ is a very influential global organization. Businesses and industry throughout the world look to them for guidance because ASQ is on the cutting edge of quality and improvement. This is a major recognition in my professional career and I’ll hold the title proudly,” he said.

He’s currently in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the 2016 World Conference on Quality and Improvement, May 16-18, where he joined other ASQ fellows to be honored at a special event.

For Torbica, events like the ASQ World Conference offer a chance to spread the word about WVU Tech’s programs and exchange ideas with professionals in industry and academia.

He’ll take that line of thinking to Germany a month later. Torbica was selected to attend the German Academic Exchange Service’s (DAAD) Germany Today program in mid-June. That program will take college and university administrators from American institutions to Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Heidelberg and Bonn. The group will meet with officials from top German universities to discuss how these institutions partner with industry to enhance the student experience.

“They are the best at this, so I want to explore how they’re doing that and see if we can apply some of those practices here. I also want to uncover potential opportunities for collaboration between Tech and some of these international institutions,” he said.

“The way I see it, if you look at the common theme in all of this activity that we’re doing as a college, it’s about constant performance improvement – a search for greater performance excellence. We find that by looking for new ideas and actually being in the epicenter of discussions. What is the next thing? What is the best practice? That’s what we’re interested in,” he said.

“You can always improve. You can always be better. That mindset is how we do things.”