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Despite a few challenges, the inaugural engineering program at Oklahoma Baptist University is flourishing.
Alex Shuman has been fascinated with building and designing things since childhood. When he and his friend re-engineered his Nerf blasters to shoot at a higher speed, Shuman was hooked.
“Initially, I thought, ‘That’s stupid to try; they shoot just fine,’” he remembers, laughing. “I quickly figured out that’s not true. You can make them shoot way faster.”
And an engineer was born.
Shuman spent his first year at Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) as a physics major, but when the engineering program launched earlier this year, he couldn’t resist adding it as a second major. He realizes being part of the first-ever graduating class of engineers is an exciting opportunity, but also a weighty one.
HANDS-ON — Three new OBU engineering students watch a demonstration at the GF Central plastics plant in Shawnee, Oklahoma.The new program will prioritize practical, hands-on experience for every student, including opportunities for local internships.
“There’s a little bit of responsibility on our shoulders to make sure we put a good foot forward when we go into the field, to put that good reputation back onto OBU,” he says.
Engineering has long been the most requested program by prospective students, so creating this new division was a logical next step. The school originally budgeted for 12 incoming engineering students for the Fall 2023 semester. However, when classes kicked off in August, 37 students had enrolled. The program is a major milestone in the university’s 113-year history.
But the road to this successful launch wasn’t an easy one.
Dr. Heath Thomas, OBU president, has never been one to sidestep a challenge. He has led the student body through one obstacle after another, from a devastating ice storm in 2020 to a tornado in April 2023. So it was no surprise when the school initiated blueprints for an engineering program while the nation was still grappling with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic.
“We’re not afraid to recognize that doing the right thing often costs us, but the good news is that God has made us to do hard things,” Thomas says. “We shouldn’t have even thought about laying the groundwork for [engineering] during COVID, but we did because we were far behind the growth curve. OBU should have had engineering a decade ago.”
Dr. Chuck Baukal was hired as director of the new program in November 2022. Baukal, a licensed professional engineer, brings more to the table than just his engineering background.
At first glance, the twists and turns of Baukal’s career may seem baffling.
“Why on earth did I do some of the things that I did?” he says.
For instance, Baukal is a program evaluator for an agency that accredits undergraduate engineering programs. Becoming a program evaluator while he was still working in the industry proved to be an added stress, expense, and a drain on his time.
“I had to take vacation days to go on these accrediting visits,” Baukal remembers. “It had no benefit to my company whatsoever. And again, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Baukal also took seminary courses so he could become a better Sunday school teacher. While these classes weren’t advantageous to his job, he felt compelled to take the extra steps.
Now, all those “detours” in his professional journey are falling into place. Baukal recognized God was weaving together a foundation that prepared him to help build a stellar engineering program — one that could become a cornerstone of the university.
Baukal’s wealth of knowledge in industrial work, coupled with his nearly 38 years of college adjunct teaching experience, make him uniquely qualified to lead the engineering effort. He has also authored a number of books on industrial combustion and engineering education.
Since Baukal was hired, the pace has been rapid: recruiting students, helping design a complete renovation of Thurmond Hall (where the program will be housed), and attending countless planning meetings with accrediting agencies, advisory boards, and university leadership.
Throughout the chaos, though, Baukal has stayed focused on a personal goal: to create a well-rounded engineering curriculum. He realized several years ago that graduates were ill-prepared to enter the workforce. They had book knowledge but no practical experience.
Baukal sees this emphasis lacking in many programs around the country. Bigger schools prioritize professors’ research, which brings universities the funds needed to operate as well as notoriety to their faculty. But it comes at the expense of hands-on application.
“Graduates are not ready to start working because they only know the theory side,” Baukal says. “I’ve been frustrated for a long time about how we as a nation teach engineering. So when I saw this opportunity, I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to stop bellyaching and really do something different.’ Because we do a disservice to our students when they’re just not ready after graduation.”
So, what’s different about OBU’s approach? For one, the class sizes. OBU boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 15:1; during the first years of the engineering program, the opportunities for one-on-one time with a professor will be even greater.
“It’s very common at big schools that during the first two years you’re in monster classes,” Baukal says. “The professor has no clue who you are. How could they?”
POISED FOR GROWTH — For years, engineering was the most frequently requested program by prospective OBU students, and the need is now being met. Already, 37 students are enrolled, all of whom will attend classes in Bailey Business Center.
OBU professors will also prioritize hands-on learning in lab environments as well as encourage students to have at least one internship on their resume before graduation.
“It’s my mission in life. I want our students to be better prepared,” Baukal says.
FIT FOR THE JOB — From adjunct teaching to writing books and patenting new technologies, Dr. Chuck Baukal has encountered many twists and turns in his career path. He believes God has brought him right where he needs to be: leading the new engineering program at OBU.
SHIFTING FOCUS — Alex Shuman, a sophomore who changed his major to engineering this summer, attends class during the first few weeks of the semester.
Spreading the Word
The new administrator can’t prepare students if there aren’t any enrolled in the program, so part of his job includes visiting places such as high schools, churches, and tech centers to recruit new students.
Freshman Sophia Ziesemer decided to attend OBU after a soccer scholarship paved her way to the university. Initially, she planned to enroll as a pre-med major, but after the engineering program was announced, she had a change of heart.
“I’ve always had a math, physics kind of brain,” she says. “So seeing that OBU was going to have this program after I’d already decided to play soccer there, I really just felt God was moving me this way — and that it was the perfect place for me to be.”
Ziesemer is majoring in mechanical engineering, one of two tracks students can take along with electrical engineering. Both tracks will relate to aerospace engineering, though the educational emphases are broad enough to transfer into any engineering career.
This focus on aerospace engineering, Baukal says, is a key feature of the program and its placement within the state. The industry has been blossoming in Oklahoma over the past decade. OBU’s program leverages key partnerships with leaders in the field like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Kratos, United Dynamics, and Envirosystems.
FIRST CLASS — Alex Shuman (left), Sophia Ziesemer (center), and Isaiah Jones (right) are thrilled to be among the first graduates of OBU’s engineering program — but they feel the responsibility, too. “We’ll help shape the program,” Jones says
THE NEXT GENERATION — Freshman engineering students work together on an in-class assignment. Though students will take plenty of lecture notes, these new courses place emphasis on action and firsthand experience.
“Two of our advisors on the advisory board are the chief engineer at Boeing and the president of Kratos,” Baukal explains. “At our very first advisory board meeting, the chief engineer asks me, ‘What if we could guarantee all of your students an internship for all the summers they’re in school?’”
The industry demand extends beyond simple internships.
“I heard a story that for one year, the Boeing branch at Tinker Air Force Base could hire every electrical and mechanical engineer who graduated from an Oklahoma university, and it still wouldn’t be enough for them. That’s the demand. They just can’t get enough engineers,” Baukal says
While Baukal considers this inaugural semester a success, he maintains the true measure is whether graduates are equipped to be a light for Christ in a world that’s never needed Him more.
And he takes this challenge seriously. He points to a famous quote from Albert Einstein: “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.”
The act of creation, Baukal says — invention and adaptation and problem solving — reflects on the intensely creative God who designed and sustains the universe.
“That’s the why in Christian engineering. Are Christian engineers any different?” the director asks. “Obviously, we hope so. And we think so. As the creator, God is the ultimate engineer.”
Building for Student Success
Students and faculty at Oklahoma Baptist University depend on the generosity of Kingdom-minded individuals to help lay the foundation for new scholarships, initiatives, and programs. If you’re interested in creating an endowment to support the OBU engineering program, our giving professionals can help you multiply your gift and maximize tax benefits. Start a conversation with WatersEdge today.