PCEC dean reflects on upcoming retirement, building a community-engaged college

Paul Plotkowski is seated at a table smiling as others clap for his accomplishments
Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, smiles as others applaud his accomplishments during the Co-op Employer Forum August 4 in the Eberhard Center.
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, has an office in Kennedy Hall, but it's more likely that he can be found in the community, meeting with industry leaders.

It's the unique makeup of the West Michigan community that helped establish PCEC and has contributed, financially and through a vast number of partnerships, to its success. 

The college was established in 2004 as part of the university's academic reorganization. At that time, there were fewer than 50 faculty members, today, 95 faculty teach undergraduate and graduate engineering, computing, occupational health and safety courses and coordinate the Professional Science Masters program. There are 2,500 students enrolled in PCEC programs.

"All these programs were here at Grand Valley," Plotkowski said. "Then with the creation of Padnos College, my initial job was to embrace the history and culture of these programs and find synergies between them."

Plotkowski plans to retire at the end of the upcoming academic year. He reflected on his tenure of nearly two decades as the founding dean of PCEC and more than 30 years at Grand Valley, calling PCEC a model for a community-engaged college.

"We have been at the table in this community on so many fronts," he said. "Whether it's educating K-12 students through FIRST Robotics or STEPS Camp, or meeting the talent needs of industry by being responsive with curriculum and equipment to ensure our students are well prepared for the workforce."

two students look at a senior project in the Shape Innovation Design Center
Image credit - Emily Zoladz
student in head scarf explains her project, a trifold poster is displayed on a table
Image credit - Emily Zoladz
group of students look at the Laker Racing Club car
Image credit - Emily Zoladz
PCEC Senior Project Day offers experiential learning for students who also collaborate on projects with area businesses. Pictured are students and their projects in April; students from nine area high schools attended the event.

Plotkowski announced his retirement to leaders gathered August 4 at the Co-op Employer Forum, part of PCEC's annual Engineering Design Conference. Internships or a co-op experience are required for undergraduate students in PCEC programs. Only a handful of other engineering programs in the country require a co-op experience before graduation, he said.

The engineering co-op program was underway when Plotkowski arrived on campus in 1991. Now with hundreds of industry partners across the country, he said 90 percent of students complete their co-op experiences in West Michigan, which Plotkowski said speaks to the area's "strong and highly diverse industrial base."

The area's industrial sector has also proved philanthropic, consistently supporting new construction projects, like the privately funded Keller Engineering Labs, or refurbished spaces like the recently named Shape Corp. Innovation Design Center. The School of Computing has expanded beyond the Allendale Campus to occupy spaces on the Health Campus.

"The community has always been responsive to our needs, as we are to their talent needs. It's a great partnership, their interests align with what Grand Valley is doing," he said.

Paul Plotkowski stands behind podium
Paul Plotkowski announced his retirement to leaders gathered August 4 at the Co-op Employer Forum, part of PCEC's annual Engineering Design Conference.
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

One PCEC partnership has taken the university in a new direction. Plotkowski and B. Donta Truss, vice president for Enrollment Development and Educational Outreach, developed the Historically Black College/University (HBCU) / Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Pipeline Consortium. Since it was established, six colleges have partnered with Grand Valley, creating opportunities for students to earn advanced degrees while expanding the talent pipeline in West Michigan.

Plotkowski said while the initial cohort of consortium students enrolled in engineering or computing degree programs, the program has expanded to other STEM disciplines and then to all GVSU colleges. "The program is not without its challenges but we have seen a lot of successes," he said.

He credited PCEC faculty for being innovative with curriculum and forward thinking. "The first five years or so, I was leading from the front," he said. "Then there was a time when faculty and industry leaders were stepping forward with 'This is what we should be doing.' My role then became largely supportive."

A search will begin soon for a new dean, and Plotkowski has started to work with PCEC leadership on a transition plan. That person will be busy as new degree programs are in the early planning stages. And there will always be those meetings with area industry leaders; Plotkowski said he spends about half of his work week out in the community.

Plotkowski said after retirement, he would like to stay involved in outreach programs like FIRST Robotics. More than 800 middle and high school students participated in the robotics event or STEPS Camp last year.

"I'd like to be involved in FIRST Robotics and a few other things," he said. "But I hope not to fail at retirement."


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