In the basement of Kaufert Laboratory, students throw chipped wood into a machine that pressure-cooks it at 320 degrees Fahrenheit until it turns into pulp. This is a basic paper-making course, where students are well on their way to perfecting tomorrow’s cereal boxes and newspapers.
The 40 students and three faculty members of the Paper Science and Engineering program, on the St. Paul campus, form tight bonds as students progress through four years of intensive study required for a paper science degree. The highly technical, little-known program prepares students for the lucrative job market in the paper industry, all the while maintaining a familial atmosphere.
“I’m from Pennsylvania, and it was definitely hard to be this far away,” said paper science sophomore Chris Fromhartz, but “the first time that I met Shri (Ramaswamy, a professor in paper science), he took me around the department and introduced me to everyone who was just standing around.”
“It’s almost like Cheers,’ because everyone knows your name,” Fromhartz said.
Students in paper science hope to one day work in two main areas of paper production: as process and production engineers, or as chemical and equipment suppliers.
The program, which is in the Department of Wood and Paper Science in the College of Natural Resources, is closely related to chemical and mechanical engineering. Students are required to take classes such as calculus and organic chemistry before they can begin paper science courses in their junior year.
The difficult courses might be one of the reasons the program is not flooded with applicants, as one might expect considering the program’s strengths, such as the high availability of scholarships.
Fifteen paper companies annually contribute money to the Paper Council Scholarship Fund, which is used solely for scholarships and available to any student with a 3.0 grade-point average taking at least 12 credits. About 30 percent of paper science students receive these scholarships, which increase annually and total $7,500 by the end of senior year.
Low applicant rates are partly responsible for the fact that every student in last year’s graduating class of 10 got a job in their field.
“They all had jobs at least a quarter before they graduated,” said Ulrike Tschirner, a professor in paper science.
The low number of graduates helps paper science majors gain high-paying jobs. Typically, students will receive at least $38,000 per year immediately out of school.
“The paper industry hires way more people into the field than (those who) graduate from paper science in a year,” Fromhartz said. This year, the department will only graduate one student, but typically the department sends about 10 students into the work force annually.
The faculty would like to see that number rise to about 20 to better serve the paper industry.
The industry is very supportive of paper science education and goes out of its way to make sure that students are taught accurate, useful information. Representatives from paper mills across the country visit frequently and often invite students back to the mill for tours and internships.
“We use the mill as a teaching laboratory,” said Mutombo Muvundamina, a professor in the program. In fact, at least one internship is required by the program for graduation.
Hands-on internships are only one advantage of the program, which also includes personal teaching and advising strategies. “Most advisers don’t call you and talk on the phone,” said Katherine Kelly, a junior in paper science.
Kelly said her adviser takes extra steps to make sure she graduates on time.
“If she notices something, she’ll give me a call, and say Hey, you’re missing this class and it’s not going to be offered again until next year,'” Kelly said. “You feel like you have somebody looking out for your best interests.”
The small scale of the program is partly because of its short existence. In 1970, it joined only a handful of paper science programs nationally.
“We are one of the 10 programs in the nation who do offer pulp and paper degrees,” Ramaswamy said.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the program’s low enrollment is that many people simply don’t know the program exists.
“Nobody grows up saying I want to be a paper science engineer,'” Tschirner said.
The majority of students in the program transferred from different majors. Many who come from other engineering fields in the Institute of Technology say they enjoy the close-knit community and personal attention of paper science.
“I always felt lost in IT, but I felt at home in paper science,” Fromhartz said.
Val Fulton, a junior in paper science, also compared her experience in paper science to IT. “I have a bad taste in my mouth from IT,” Fulton said. “I don’t think they’re all that concerned about the individual student.”
But unlike most paper science students, Fulton said she has always wanted to work in paper engineering.
“I grew up in a town that had a paper mill,” Fulton said. In her hometown of International Falls, Minn., she worked in the Boise Cascade mill. While working in the mill, she decided that she wanted to pursue a career in paper engineering.
“Most engineers start out as process engineers,” Fulton said. As a process engineer, “you need to figure out the way a machine works and how to make it work better.”
Muvundamina said “what a process engineer does is make sure that the (paper-making) equipment is running properly and at the right conditions.”
Another paper mill career students go into is the actual production of paper. While process engineers trouble-shoot equipment, production engineers actually work on the equipment that makes the paper. “They could work directly on the floor, where they are responsible for one machine,” Tschirner said.
The “allied industries,” which comprise the companies that supply chemicals and machines to the mills, are the other major employers of paper science students.
However, employees of these companies work directly with the engineers in the mill, not in an office behind a desk. For example, someone working for a chemical company could be responsible for making sure that the mill has the right chemicals and that they are used properly.
Ramaswamy said job opportunities will continue to abound because the allied industries are expanding as they become more aware that they can utilize the skills of paper science majors.
“That’s only going to increase the demand.”