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A 'French' connection

Dave French represents a growing student body for UND that is using the Internet to attend classes from across the country and around the world. A 22-year employee of Boeing Co. in Seattle, French graduates today from UND's School of Engineering ...

Dave French represents a growing student body for UND that is using the Internet to attend classes from across the country and around the world.

A 22-year employee of Boeing Co. in Seattle, French graduates today from UND's School of Engineering and Mines with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

French, who is 46, only spent a few days on campus during his two years finishing up his degree because he took his classes online while holding down his full-time job at the huge aircraft and weapons maker.

"I listened to some of your lectures while I was in a hotel in Paris," French told Arne Johnson, an assistant professor emeritus in electrical engineering, on Friday during a reception after the "Order of the Engineer Ring Ceremony."

It was Johnson who gave the first lectures 20 years ago via "distance learning" for the engineering school. Like many UND departments, distance learning has long been offered to off-campus, part-time, working students.

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But until recently, that required sending video tapes of lectures back and forth between students and faculty, meaning weeks of lag time, Johnson said.

weeks of lag time, Johnson said.

About six years ago, Hossein Salehfar, an associate professor in electrical engineering, put the first lectures online. Now, there are more than 150 students taking engineering classes online, some in Grand Forks, some in Taiwan or Saudi Arabia or California. The engineering school has about 700 students on campus.

"I have students in Iraq, who are in the military," said Ralph Johnson, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "They can continue their classes online."

UND, in fact, is the only accredited engineering school in the world that offers classes online, Arne Johnson said.

It worked out great for him, French said. He has been doing engineering education at Boeing for two decades, using his degree in industrial technology to show engineers how to use new computer software programs to design new aircraft such as the giant 787.

"I decided I wanted to go back and get a mechanical engineering degree," he said. He and about 10 other Boeing employees attended Henry Cogswell College, a small private engineering school in nearby Everett, Wash. But when he was halfway through the program, the school went broke.

French and others found UND, online and eager. Within a few weeks, Cathy Jones, the administrative assistant in the mechanical engineering department, got French and the other Boeing employees enrolled at UND. "That was really phenomenal," French said.

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Except for a couple weeks of summer labs on campus, French did nearly all his work at night, or during lunch breaks, or while on business trips to Paris.

Engineering lectures at UND, whether mechanical, civil, electrical or chemical, are digitally recorded and available within an hour for distance students to watch at their convenience. Tests and papers are e-mailed back and forth. French and fellow grad Darrell Burton used Burton's Lutheran pastor in a Seattle suburb as a proctor to oversee their test-taking.

French and his wife, Julie, have three children. His enthusiasm for UND has rubbed off. The oldest, Emma, 17, plans to enroll in UND in fall 2009 to major in elementary education, he said.

Julie French's mother grew up in the Leeds, N.D., area, and she still has relatives in North Dakota.

More than two years ago, before he needed to enroll in UND, the French's bought, online, a house in Leeds for $6,000 to use as a vacation home.

"No traffic, no crime, everyone is so nice," French explained.

Only days after they bought the house, the college in Everett closed down, French said, shaking his head at the coincidence.

Quick study

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French raves about how flexible and accommodating UND's engineering school is for long-range students, compared with other colleges. "The professors get right back to you when you e-mail them questions," he said. And it is professors teaching the courses, not teaching assistants or graduate students, as is the case at some schools, French said.

Arne Johnson said back in the 1980s, it was the Twin Cities corporation 3M that asked UND to develop a distance learning engineering program in engineering for its employees. "They first asked the University of Minnesota, but they turned it down. So, they came to us," Johnson said. UND was more amenable and flexible, Johnson said. "There are advantages to being small."

Six Boeing employees graduate today with engineering degrees; several more are enrolled in classes.

Boeing has 60,000 employees in the Seattle area, making it a logical growth area for UND's online engineering offerings, school officials say.

On Friday, French and the 84 other graduates of the engineering school took part in the "ring" ceremony. Using a giant stainless steel ring, each graduate pledges to uphold the obligations and ethics of the profession. Each gets a small steel ring placed on the little finger of their "working hand."

Standing next to French Friday was Van Thi-Bich Giang. Born in Vietnam, she came to America in 1992 and today, after eight years taking classes via distance learning, she will graduate with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering while working for Agilent in California, formerly part of Hewlett-Packard.

She started at UND in 2000. "Even when I was teaching in Malaysia, I continued at UND, online" she said. Her degree means a new and better job at her company, she said.

Richard Schultz, assistant professor and program director in electrical engineering at UND, said the 85 engineering graduates this year represent the largest class in a decade. And it's partly because of the online offerings, he said. "It's mostly about convenience and accessibility," Schultz said.

Online students actually pay a surcharge of about $200 per credit hour for the extra time and resources to put classes online, he said. The nearly 200 online students compare favorably to the 700 on-campus undergraduates in the school, Schultz said.

Salehfar agrees. "We would rather teach the online students," he said.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com .

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