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Doug Mell started his new job with a big assignment.

Just two weeks after being hired as executive director of communication and external relations at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Mell was tasked with drafting the papers to designate the school as a polytechnic university. That was October of 2006 — and he had just months to research and prepare.

On March 9, 2007, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved the resolution designating UW-Stout as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.

“I had to rapidly learn about polytechnic,” said Mell.

And one of the things he discovered was that UW-Stout was already polytechnic — a practice put in place by founder James Huff Stout in 1891.

Charles W. Sorensen, UW-Stout’s current chancellor, had advised the regents of this, noting that the designation would just be an acknowledgement of what Stout already is.

Defining moment

Designating UW-Stout as a polytechnic stemmed from ever-increasing competition in the field of higher education, and Stout was seeking a “way to stand out.”

In addition to raising the university’s profile, the designation would also attract more resources and students. Peer institutions would be beneficial connections as well.

“Around the year 2002, we challenged ourselves to define who we really were,” said Sorensen. “Were we a ‘comprehensive university’ that was indistinguishable from any other state university? Or were we something more unique?

After three to four years of studying the issue, having an open dialogue on campus, hosting visitors and visiting other polytechnic universities, we settled on the designation. That was because, given all of the characteristics, we fit the definition.”

As stated by Sorenson, “polytechnics are comprehensive universities offering professional, career-focused programs in the arts, social and related behavioral sciences, engineering, education, and natural sciences and technology that engage students in active, applied learning, theory and research essential to the future of society, business and industry.”

In the early years of Stout, industrial education and home economics — polytechnic in nature — were the major fields of study.

“The correlation translates to today,” said Mell.

That eased concerns of many at the university, since the mission did not have to be altered drastically. Polytechnic was added to the mission statement, and Stout’s name did not have to change.

Faculty and staff had long debated over the polytechnic designation of UW-Stout. Ultimately, after several years, the designation gained the full support of the UW-Stout Faculty Senate, the Senate of Academic Staff and the Stout Student Association.

“It was not an easy decision,” said Mell, “and it shouldn’t be an easy decision, because when you do seek this designation you are basically branding yourself for life.”

And with polytechnic in its title, perception had to change, and with that came responsibility. Each and every decision or choice the university makes is based upon the question, “Does it fit?”

Out of the polytechnic effort came a new logo, the Discovery Center and more.

Hands-on learning

According to Sorensen, the polytechnic designation ties in with Stout’s mission “to remain an engine for economic development.” The university’s program selection complements Wisconsin’s goal to attract companies with high-paying jobs.

Stout’s outreach centers — in the areas of industrial design, packaging engineering, product design and vocational rehabilitation — assist start-up businesses in their quest to be competitive in the global market.

“Six years into it, it’s becoming part of (Stout’s) DNA — who we are,” said Mell. “And it’s making its way into the student body as well.”

Laptop computers for undergraduates became standard issue as part of their fees. The laptops are refreshed when students are juniors, and leave with them when they graduate. They come pre-loaded with software, and students have access to the free Help Desk at Stout for service issues, whether in person or over the phone.

Sorensen has said that UW-Stout has been a recognized leader in educational innovation: “We are committed to using modern technology for all education and business functions.”

Mell notes, “The whole idea of technology is cutting edge. It is infused in the classroom.”

Also, lectures are married to hands-on learning in labs.

“The best way to educate is to have them do things,” Mell said. “We want our students to have on-the-job training.”

From co-op education to internships, practicums or student teaching, more than 90 percent of students have some on-the-job experience before they graduate. In fact, Stout boasts a 97 percent job placement rate for graduating students.

Stout tracks down as many students as possible to get responses to surveys, and the high percentage (91 percent) of participants is indicative of the success rate. The results show the polytechnic designation has been a positive new direction for UW-Stout.

“That number is validation of what we do and how we do it,” Mell said.

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