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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 30, 2009
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Training Interdisciplinary Engineers
September 30, 2009   
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If they want to be successful in the modern marketplace, today's engineers cannot confine themselves to a single specialty; they need an interdisciplinary education, experts say. The privately-run Higher School of Mechatronics (WSM) in the southern city of Katowice provides such training.

Mechatronics is a combination of electronics, mechanical engineering, automatic control engineering, robotics, optoelectronics and sensory engineering as well as information technology and computer systems.

The Higher School of Mechatronics in Katowice began training mechatronics engineers in 2005, two years ahead of state-owned universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow and the Silesian University of Technology. Countries such as Japan and Germany started teaching specialists in mechatronics 10 years ago.

The Higher School of Mechatronics was established by the Incamminato company, a member of the KSK Kompleksowe Systemy Komputerowe IT group. The school admitted its first students in the 2005/2006 academic year. Today the school has about 500 students and the number of applicants is doubling every year.

The school offers full- and part-time bachelor's engineering courses in mechatronics and technical/IT education, in three areas: industrial mechatronics, image and sound IT, and work safety and production engineering. These courses last seven semesters and end with an engineering thesis and its defense. Graduates earn the title of engineer and can continue their studies to obtain a master's degree.

Why mechatronics?
Technical/IT studies allow students to acquire a combination of knowledge in technology and engineering, IT, multimedia technologies as well as project management, human resources management, psychology and labor law. The school trains engineers in areas that offer especially good prospects for career development, providing them with knowledge that enables them to work effectively in the modern business environment.

"The decision to launch the school was our response to changes taking place in the Upper Silesia and Zagłębie region," says Tomasz Niedziela, MSc Eng., WSM's press spokesman and one of its teachers. "As it moves away from traditional sectors of the economy, the region needs a large number of highly qualified specialists in fields that will determine its future development. Mechatronics is certainly such a field. Experts in mechatronics are able to effectively combine advanced precision mechanics with the latest achievements of electronics, something that is still a rare skill among Polish engineers. That's why mechatronics has unlimited development potential and engineers who specialize in it are sure to find jobs in the future."

Many WSM graduates launch professional careers even before they graduate. The school guarantees its students three-month internships in companies from the hi-tech sector. These are not obligatory, but most students take advantage of this opportunity to gain experience needed to work as engineers.

Practical skills
WSM students spend hours working in laboratories and performing practical tasks. The school has 14 specialist laboratories, including three computer labs. All these facilities are fitted with modern hardware and software needed to teach physics, mechatronics, electronics, robotics, IT, automation and related disciplines. The school also has a special audio-video lab where students learn advanced sound and image processing techniques. The university is especially proud of its robotics laboratory, which is fitted with an industrial robot network and enables students to work with Fanuc ARC Mate 100i and Kawasaki industrial robots as well as educational robots such as Boe-Bot, Hexapod, Humanoid, Quatropod, Lego Mindstorms, Lynx 6 and a Puma mechanical manipulator for demonstrating how robots are built. Small walking robots always steal the show at robot exhibitions, Niedziela says, but their main role is to be an excellent teaching aid.

"We invest strongly in our laboratories and use software that is not even available at some large state-run universities," says Niedziela. "This kind of equipment requires substantial financial outlays."

WSM students can work in the labs after school hours and prepare their graduation projects there. "Our main goal is for graduates to easily find their place on the labor market; they can practice on the same kind of equipment that they will later use at work," says Niedziela.

The school's staff combine teaching with research skills and interdisciplinary competence that they have acquired while working in industry and business, Niedziela says. "The teachers' experience in industry and business allows them to provide students with practical knowledge needed to meet the requirements of their future employers," he says.

The school has 53 teachers, including six professors, two teachers with postdoctoral degrees, and 20 PhDs. Some of the school's teachers also work at other technical universities.

"Our strategic goal is to build our own teaching faculty," says Marek Kluszczyński, chancellor and founder of the Higher School of Mechatronics. "The thing is that we need experts in a number of narrow fields here. That's why some of the teachers aren't necessarily scientists but specialists in a given field. For instance, we have a photographer from the ZPAF Association of Polish Art Photographers."

Competence Academy
WSM works closely with the Competence Academy, a training/educational center established by the KSK group to provide training services in personal data protection, information security and IT system configuration and security.

The center offers training courses for institutions, state enterprises and private businesses, in addition to specialist workshops for those wanting to expand their knowledge of information technology and IT system security. The courses are also available to WSM students for a reduced fee.

The Competence Academy is certified by the Microsoft corporation as a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for Learning Solutions.

The Competence Academy has introduced an Integrated Quality and Information Security Management System meeting the PN-EN ISO 9001:2001 and PN-ISO/IEC 27001:2007 standards, one of a few such systems in Poland's IT sector.

Advancing technical education
Every year in May, the Higher School of Mechatronics organizes a Mechatronics Festival. This year's festival, the fourth to date, was accompanied by events including the Third Planetary Robot Festival and the First Mechatronics Olympics.

The Mechatronics Festival is intended for students from technical secondary schools in Silesia province. The idea is to promote mechatronics by having technical secondary schools compete in building mechatronic devices, and also by telling the young people about educational opportunities available at WSM and putting in a plug for products offered by manufacturers of professional laboratory workstations. This year's event featured products by companies such as hardware and software provider Astor, teaching aid producer Encon Wrocław, industrial robot maker Kuka Poland, industrial mechatronics set manufacturer Mechatronika, and robot producer Roboshop.

Just four years ago, technical secondary schools in the region had problems recruiting students. With each successive robot festival held by WSM, the popularity of technical disciplines among young people in the province increased significantly. Today technical education in the region has changed completely. Mechatronics courses in secondary schools attract more applicants than the number of places available.

WSM not only develops young people's interests but also provides specialist staff for technical schools by training mechatronics teachers. WSM offers postgraduate courses in mechatronics for technical secondary school teachers. These are not WSM's only postgraduate programs; there is also an information technology management course called "Information Security Management-Security Audit and Security Policy," offered in association with the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA).

Working for the community
Katowice city authorities welcomed the establishment of WSM and provided the school with a new building as it developed and needed to expand its premises. Local government authorities in neighboring cities, especially Sosnowiec, also support the school because it aims to play an active role in the region by helping technical secondary schools.

WSM has spearheaded the establishment of the Silesian Partnership for Mechatronics, an organization that includes WSM and 16 leading high schools in the region operating under the supervision of the Katowice Board of Education. The organization aims to promote mechatronics but also help write applications for co-financing, for example.

In the fall, WSM plans to hold an event called Silesian Innovation Workshops in association with the Silesia Province Marshal's Office. According to Kluszczyński, many companies still do not know how to apply for funds for innovation, preferring to invest in the traditional way. "This could mean that we won't be able to take advantage of all the funds earmarked for innovation in our province," he says.

During the Innovation Workshops, advanced technology providers could meet with potential buyers and attend lectures discussing case studies from various sectors of the economy. This could serve to make small and medium-sized businesses more open to innovation, Kluszczyński says.

In March, WSM signed a letter of intent with the city of Katowice to establish the Katowice Center of Innovation and Technology Transfer. The aim is to promote ties between academia and business. "We are convinced that contacts between science and business should be expanded. That's the purpose of the project," says Kluszczyński.

New courses
WSM plans to launch three new courses in the near future; it has applied for clearance from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

One of these new courses is in production management and engineering, with a special focus on advanced technology in areas such as industrial automatic control engineering, digital media engineering, and information and security management in IT systems.

Another planned course involves cultural studies with a focus on electronic media. The aim is to expand the school's engineering profile to include the humanities. The course is intended for students who are interested in computer science but are discouraged by the large amount of math and physics teaching involved. "We want to target people with artistic skills," says Niedziela. "Some students can be great graphic artists, photographers or filmmakers without necessarily loving math, physics or chemistry. Such students will find a place at our school. And we hope that we'll finally have more women enrolling."

Today women account for just 8 percent of WSM's students. The school's managers say they are bending over backwards to increase the figure. Last year WSM reduced its registration fee for female applicants to a token zl.1.

To attract more students to full-time courses, the school has cut the tuition fee for the first semester by half. The best students are eligible for discounts throughout their studies.

WSM is working to establish ties with schools and institutions abroad. It is interested in working with several foreign universities with a similar profile.

The school's strategic objective is to build a strong academic center training professionals in technical disciplines as well as providing an art/humanities course linked to IT and engineering. Another objective, WSM managers say, is to build a strong scientific team capable of providing high-standard instruction and research, while contributing to projects benefiting the region's small and medium-sized enterprises.

Ewa Dereń

What's in a Name
Mechatronics, or mechanical and electronics engineering, is a branch of engineering that incorporates the ideas of mechanical and electronic engineering into a whole, and, in particular, covers those areas of engineering concerned with the increasing integration of mechanical, electronic, and software engineering into a production process.

Under another definition, mechatronics is a synergistic combination of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, control engineering, systems design engineering, and computer engineering to create useful products. The word itself is a combination of "mechanics" and "electronics."

Mechatronics is centered on mechanics, electronics, control engineering, computing, molecular engineering (from nanochemistry and biology) which, combined, make it possible to generate simpler, more economical, reliable and versatile systems.

A typical mechatronic engineering degree would involve the study of engineering mathematics, mechanics, machine component design, mechanical design, thermodynamics, circuits and systems, electronics and communications, control theory, programming, digital signal processing, power engineering, and robotics.
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