By Lorraine Wilde
Have you ever thought about changing careers or earning a degree, but the route you’d have to take just wouldn’t work for your situation? Washington Engineering Institute (WEI), founded by Licensed Professional Engineer, Dave Bren, is offering Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees in Civil and Mechanical Engineering Technology using an affordable, practical, outside-the-box approach that works for its students.
While working for the City of Blaine, Bren noticed the need to bridge the gap between engineering technician and the licensed engineer. Two-year associates programs teach practical skills but not the theory needed for professional licensing. Four-year bachelors programs are heavy on theory, but not always grounded in practical application. “In 2009 I quit my secure job and used my retirement savings to start WEI as a specialized career school based on an entirely new model,” asserts Bren. “Our courses are taught by real engineers. Classes are on evenings and weekends, because our students work in engineering-related jobs, and they pay as they go so they graduate with little or no debt.”
WEI’s goals and ideals are evident the moment you walk through the front door of their modest classroom space deep within Haskell Business Complex off Fraser Street in Bellingham. There are no fancy waiting rooms or faculty offices. Instead, you are greeted by a tenacious-looking wolverine mascot and a bulletin board full of engineering-related job openings. “Before they begin, many of our students are working a job they don’t like. We let them pay as they go, and we challenge them to find a job in the field by the end of their sophomore year.”
New student, Kyle Schores, had already earned his Bachelor’s degree in Business before he began taking WEI classes last fall. “WEI’s approach is upside down compared to my first degree,” notes Schores. “It took until my fourth year of classes before I was finally learning practical business skills. Here at WEI, I’ve already learned and used enough computer-aided design (CAD) in class to feel confident offering that skill to an employer, and I’m only in my second quarter here.”
Bren confirms that tactic. “We structure the first two years of our program with heavy application, to get our students skills that will get them a job as an engineering technician,” explains Bren. “The junior and senior years are heavy in theory to give them the educational foundation they’ll need to pass the professional engineer licensing.”
The no-frills approach attracts students from a range of backgrounds. Mother of two grown children, and soon-to-be grandmother, Edris Walker, commutes from Camano Island to pursue her associate’s in mechanical engineering. Walker worked as a machine operator in the paper industry for Kimberly Clark for 17 years before being laid off. “Work was all I knew, so then I went into quality control at Boeing but was laid off a year-and-a-half later. It was hard to find another job at a comparable wage. So I went back to school,” explains Walker. “I like WEI because it’s flexible and it feels like a family here. You know you’re going to get help. Dave is interested in us. He’s cares about our success.”
Schores echoes that sentiment. “Dave e-mail’s the heads of companies every month to find out what they’re looking for and then matches students up with employers and sends them off with recommendations. Many WEI students have gotten engineering-related jobs through Dave.”
Bren connects students with professionals through internships and jobs, but also in the classroom. “Our instructors are all working professionals in the field. They bring real world experience into the classroom, real examples, and often lead field trips to sites they are working on.” Professional electrical engineer and founder of Schira Consulting, Celt Schira, teaches the upper division calculus sequence to juniors and seniors. “WEI’s unique and effective education model works because we have a defined and concrete endpoint: success on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. I prepare students for the first of two engineering exams given by the national organization that licenses engineers. I teach them the language that is the foundation of engineering.”
WEI’s approach also works for new American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student chapter president, Valerie Elizondo. She earned her first associates degree in the Whatcom Community College Running Star program and worked as a construction flagger for two years. This month she earned her Associates in Civil Engineering at WEI and got a job as a civil 3-D drafter at Whitewater Engineering. “Tuition is low, it’s hands-on, and local so I didn’t have to move. It’s been perfect for me,” beams Elizondo, who expects to earn her Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from WEI within another year-and-a-half.
“The sparseness of our facility is intentional so that no unnecessary costs are passed on to students,” assures Bren. The college currently has 77 full-time students who pay only $5400 per year to attend, and not a cent more. “Our students don’t even pay for books,” boasts Bren. “We share them, and we haven’t raised tuition since 2012. I’m hoping we can keep overhead and administrative costs down, stay super-efficient, super-skinny, and if we can get 10 new students this year, we won’t have to raise tuition for another year.”
Small classes also allow for efficiency and flexibility. “My classes often begin 10 minutes late,” chuckles Bren. “Our students are working in the field on real projects, so they are sharing that with fellow students while they wait for class to begin. They talk about their jobs, future jobs, about what they learned at work. It’s hard for me to interrupt that valuable real-world learning.”
Schira loves her WEI teaching experience. “My big class has 15 people. If I have a curriculum idea, I can just chat with Dave and his wife and fellow faculty, Katherine Bren, in the hallway. It’s very efficient here because we all understand exactly where we’re going.”
The next step for WEI is accreditation. “It’s a multi-year, expensive process that requires that you first have graduates from your program,” explains Bren. “We are into our sixth year and we just graduated our first Bachelors degree in November. Our alumni are now out working in positions of management and hiring which creates more opportunity for our existing and future students.” WEI is looking forward to fulfilling the requirements for the national accreditation process and training more engineering technicians and professional engineers for Whatcom County and beyond.
Washington Engineering Institute
1414 Meador Avenue, Suite 104
Bellingham, WA 98229