Engineering and construction students aren’t having to wait until their first job to have a one-on-one relationship with an industry practitioner. More practitioners are coming to them–in class. As budgets tighten, research burdens mount and teaching gaps emerge in often specialized subjects, more industry experts are going back to school as part-time "adjunct" professors. But some schools find that greatness in the field or boardroom does not always mean finesse in the classroom.

There are no overall statistics on the number of adjuncts teaching at the college level, but they are becoming more necessary. "Our enrollment has doubled in the last two years, to 400 undergraduate students and 67 grads, but the state cut our budget 5% last year and 10% this year," says Janusz Supernak, chairman of San Diego State University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept. "We can still encourage research and teach courses while generating some money at the department level through part-time teachers." Visa problems for foreign grad students also add to teaching gaps at some schools.


At Arizona State University, Tempe, 17 faculty "associates" teach about 50% of undergrad courses in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, says Director William Badger. "They are all from the industry and many are alumni who are now company owners. They bring real-world practicality into the classroom."

S. Narayan Bodapati, construction department chair at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, says adjuncts "fill a great role, especially in specialty areas." He says it is difficult to find a full-time instructor to teach such courses as electrical systems in his construction management curriculum. "It’s hard to match faculty to all courses," says Bodapati.

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Pete Sweeney, a Newark, N.J.-based vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, has moonlighted as an adjunct instructor for eight years at Manhattan College School of Engineering in Riverdale, N.Y. He started when he agreed to teach classes for a colleague of a former employer who took ill. "I really enjoyed it," he says. Sweeney teaches a course one night a week, this year on engineering risk and decision analysis for grad students and undergraduate seniors.

Sweeney teaches a number of older students, including "mid-career" professionals. Students often mix during teambuilding drills. "Some call me with problems outside the classroom," he adds. Sweeney can satisfy state continuing education requirements by creating a new class and teaching it.

But wary of other practitioners’ classroom skills, schools often must teach them to teach. "We send our associates to a 14-hour faculty boot camp, which goes over grading, policies and using powerpoint, among other things," says Badger. As other schools do, Arizona State relies on faculty mentors and student evaluations. "The associates usually score between 80% and 85%," he says. "If they drop below 80%, I get a new faculty associate." Badger also interviews graduating seniors to get a read on performance.

Adjuncts say pay can be sub-par for the workload but they do it for the student interaction. Even so, some schools are still lukewarm on them. "I’m not a big proponent, particularly at the undergraduate level," says Richard H. Heist, Manhattan College engineering school dean. "An adjunct here has to be an engineer, with at least an M.S. degree. We just let one adjunct go. He was a good person, but a bad teacher."