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Morning Sun
  • FIRST IN PRINT: PSU could develop distinguishing new degree program

  • Pittsburg State University could soon be on its way to developing a degree program that would distinguish it throughout the Midwest.

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  • Pittsburg State University could soon be on its way to developing a degree program that would distinguish it throughout the Midwest.
    The state’s 2012 budget proposed by Gov. Brownback includes $500,000 in “targeted initiative” spending to help the university establish undergraduate and graduate degree programs in polymer chemistry. That money would increase to $1 million in 2014. Targeted initiative spending allocates money to specific academic programs instead of traditional block grants that are divvied up by the universities.
    University officials have been floating the idea for some time, and say the combination of strong chemistry and plastics engineering programs and the Kansas Polymer Research Center makes PSU the ideal university to offer the degrees.
    “The concept is not new, but it’s a natural outgrowth of our existing capabilities,” said Shawn Naccarato, PSU’s director of government and community relations and a key proponent of the degree program. “We have a top-notch research facility and great chemistry and plastics departments, and it makes sense to leverage those three together to create an academic program.”
    But it wasn’t until there were strong signals that the governor might allocate funds for the programs that serious talk got under way.
    “It seemed like the stars were aligning for this request in this legislative session,” said Karl Kunkel, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “There was a request to involve polymers and partner with the polymer research center. There is a lack of facilities like it across the country, and we saw it all coming together.”
    The $5.7 million KPRC was completed in 2007 on land donated by the City of Pittsburg and with a principle gift from the Robert and Gwendolyn Tyler Charitable Foundation. The 22,000-square-foot building has 18 labs and 22 fume hoods and accommodates 18 scientists and six graduate students. It has a history of working with raw materials such as soybeans and corn and converting them into materials such as foam, plastics, synthetic fibers, adhesives and construction materials. For example, researchers at the center developed the BiOH polymer for Cargill, which the company says is used in foams for car seats and home furnishings.
    “They said we had done in 27 months what it would take them seven years to do,” Naccarato said. “The work that they do at the research center is commercialization work. They work every day with private industry, and that fits with our role of matching academics with real world applications.”
    Part of the governor’s focus in education is on making sure more Kansans are prepared for technology-related jobs. Kansas produces large amounts of corn and soybeans, and there is hope the new program, with its research and highly-trained graduates, could attract business and jobs  to the state.
    “The thing about this program is that it sits very well with the governor’s overall higher education focus, which is to connect higher education with technology,” Naccarato said.
    Page 2 of 2 - Once the administration is certain the funding is secure it will begin the search for two of the four faculty members — three in chemistry and one in plastics — that would run the program, Kunkel said.
    “We would hope would they would be on-board by January at the latest and take the next semester to set up the curriculum and bring their research with them,” Kunkel said. “We would hope to have students enrolled and the program up and running by the start of the fall semester in 2013, and by 2014 be at full-strength.”
    Kunkel said it was difficult to speculate the amount of students who would initially enroll in the program because of its newness and the rigorous nature of its research. But ideally, he said, the first year would see 10 undergraduate and three graduate students. By the fifth year, if all goes well, enrollment would increase to 50 undergraduate students and 18 graduate students. Their classes would be mostly in either Heckert-Wells or Yates Halls, but there would be hands-on research at the polymer center.
    “We see this as an exciting opportunity,” Kunkel said. “It’s very progressive and unique to this university and the region. The more students we get involved and the more trained they are, the more productive they can be in chemistry and the economy.”
    Naccarato said he thinks that by the time the budget — including all of its revisions — is passed by the Legislature, the funding for the program will remain.
    “We have to remain vigilant, but at this point we feel confident that they’ll adopt a budget with the funding still there,” Naccarato said. “We have no reason to believe they would not agree with the governors support for an initiative like this.”

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