Jalkio's Back

Engineering professor loves seeing students solve problems

For Dr. Jeff Jalkio ’83, associate professor of engineering, leaving his successful business to teach at St. Thomas was the realization of a long-term goal. “I’ve always wanted to teach,” he said.

Jalkio has lived on a faster track than most academics.

He earned three degrees in engineering while co-founding a successful electronics company at the age of 24.

A summa cum laude graduate in physics from St. Thomas in 1983, Jalkio got his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota in a combined 3-2 year cooperative program between the two schools. (Engineering students went to St. Thomas for three years and then spent two years at the University of Minnesota or the University of Notre Dame.)

He immediately moved on to study for his master’s in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. In 1984 he started his own company with his thesis adviser and another student. He got his master’s in 1985 and a Ph.D. two years later.

Ten years later, he began teaching at St. Thomas.

With other members of the Engineering Department, Jalkio has led the successful (and fast) development of two new undergraduate degree programs in engineering– mechanical and electrical.

He was well prepared. By 1997, CyberOptics Corp., the electronics company he helped found, employed more than 200 people. Jalkio was product designer, then vice president of engineering, then vice president of research. He co-invented several of the company’s early products, including the Laser Align, Laser Lead Locator and CyberScan metrology system. He holds eight patents, has authored numerous articles, serves on many scholarly and technical engineering panels, and has won several awards for academics, product design and entrepreneurship.

“All of that work wasn’t really as difficult as it sounds,” Jalkio said calmly. “The research for my Ph.D. was closely related to product development for the company. The technical courses tied together nicely because they had a common foundation. I’ve never understood why people find science intimidating. It has always struck me as a way of looking at how the world works. When you have a question, you perform an experiment to get an answer.”

At St. Thomas, Jalkio teaches digital design, circuit analysis and microprocessor interfacing in the electrical engineering curriculum. In recent years, he has taught classes in the graduate and undergraduate engineering program, including calculus, statistics, metrology, mechatronics, electronics and controls, and has run the senior design clinic.

“I love teaching. I love to see the expression on students’ faces when they first grasp a difficult concept and realize that they’ve mastered it. That’s what drew me into teaching in the first place. From a more selfish standpoint, trying to explain something to students forces you to examine it at a much deeper level and helps you understand the material better yourself. Also, students’ questions generally lead you to new insights since they are looking at the material in very different ways,” Jalkio said.

Engineering at St. Thomas began on the graduate level by offering a master’s in manufacturing systems engineering in 1986 under the leadership of Dr. Fred Zimmerman. That grew to include master of science degrees in manufacturing systems and in technology management. The total number of active students (most part time) range between 250 and 300 each semester.

At the undergraduate level, a degree in manufacturing engineering began in 1994, followed by mechanical engineering in 1998 and electrical engineering in 2001.

St. Thomas is the state’s first and only private college or university – and the fifth in Minnesota overall – to offer a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Student numbers have grown from 42 in 1995 to 240 in 2003. Now seven full-time faculty serve the undergraduate programs and 45 adjunct faculty serve primarily the graduate programs.

Dr. Ron Bennett, chair of engineering and director of graduate engineering and technology management, equates much of the growth to hands-on programs, the high demand for engineers in the job market, and to faculty who enjoy working with students and collaborating with other university programs. “They care about students and develop thinkers with a passion to make a difference,” he said. “Jeff embodies that culture of service. He’s bright as can be, of course, but he also treats other people extremely well. He’s awesome.”

“Now,” Jalkio said, “as we walk across campus, engineering faculty are stopped by teachers in fields like history and theology. They say, ‘Thanks for attracting such outstanding students to St. Thomas. We are delighted with them. They ask the difficult questions, which is exactly what teachers want.’ ”

There are many reasons why Jalkio likes teaching at St. Thomas, especially being at a school that emphasizes the liberal arts.

“Engineers assume they are going to solve technical problems but many difficulties they encounter are people problems,” he said. “A lot of what students learn in required liberal arts courses is every bit as useful to them in their work as what they learn in engineering classes. Engineers have to communicate clearly because they work in teams. They have to understand how people think and what motivates users. And they have to make sure they are solving the right problem to begin with.

“Engineers serve the community, so they must be responsible and apply what they learned in classes like ethics; for example, they must consider what level of effort to put into the safety of a machine they design.

“The Hungarian engineer Theodore von Karman said ‘Scientists seek to understand what is; engineers seek to create what never was.’ They apply science to do useful things for society. The field is constantly changing, so methods of solving problems are very important; that makes being at a liberal arts school a good fit.”

Jalkio feels St. Thomas attracts students with broad interests; many like the fact that St. Thomas is a church-related school. “We have engineers who double major not just in math and physics but in Spanish and philosophy. They go on to work in patent law and other professions. Paul Ruttan ’98, for example, an engineering and theology major, is planning practical missionary work. It’s wonderful to see what happens to some of our students.”

On the technical side, the St. Thomas engineering programs are as challenging as those elsewhere, Jalkio said. “With smaller classes students get lots of practical, hands-on experience working in labs, and our faculty has substantial industrial experience. We cooperate with local companies and organizations and they often hire our students as interns. In addition, all seniors work in teams on design projects solving practical problems that are proposed by companies like Medtronic, Pump Works and 3M.”

The St. Thomas Engineering Industry Advisory Board is made up of area industry leaders who give expert leadership. Alumni also support engineering programs. For example, Dennis Leisz ’77, who was a philosophy major at St. Thomas, founded Wavecrest. His company generously donated to the department the SIA-3000 Signal Integrity Analyser – very sophisticated and expensive electronic measuring equipment.

Students appreciate many aspects of engineering, but Jalkio ranks high.

“Jeff Jalkio is a master of the material. He ties in problems from math, physics, chemistry, everyday life (the list goes on) and relates them to the subject at hand,” said Aaron Boesch, a double major in electrical engineering and computer science, who soon will be commissioned into the Air Force.

“Secondly, he answers questions with questions, forcing his students to think – one of his many devious ways to make sure his students understand the material!

“It is helpful to have a teacher with a great deal of experience in running his own company. Jeff is able to tie in problems from all angles, including those from the actual engineering environment. And it’s always fun to hear stories of engineers making really stupid mistakes, like gluing razor blades to rapidly rotating devices,” Boesch added.

“What Dr. Jalkio teaches is based on reality, not just theory. For example, he requires formal lab write-ups. I have used this same write-up at work and it worked beautifully,” said Jeff Turner, a major in electrical engineering who is working full time at Minnetronix Inc. while going to school.

“There is information you cannot explain unless you have personally witnessed it or better yet lived through a startup. Well, Dr. Jalkio has and can speak of things through life’s true lessons, not just in a book.

“Determining a raw design is more than just doing the latest technology. He ties in other classes and what we should be learning there and points out how all of this comes together. Even though it feels like each class is separate, they tie together in a larger picture and to be reminded of this is refreshing,” Turner concluded.

Commenting on how engineering influences the world, Jalkio reflected a bit on his past as a high school student at Cretin-Derham Hall who built his own computer at home and in 1978 attended a St. Thomas campus that had few computers.

“In the words of Yogi Berra, ‘nothing is harder to predict than the future.’ Instead of trying to predict specific inventions, think of the pervasive nature of engineering,” Jalkio said. “If I look around my office, it’s difficult to find something that is NOT the work of engineers. Ignoring the computer, the printer and other electronic paraphernalia of the job, the Venetian blinds, coffee cup, file folders, watering can, tape dispenser and stapler that I see are designed by engineers, fabricated via processes designed by engineers, and shipped via transports (ships, trucks, trains) designed by engineers.

“Joseph Ling of 3M said that ‘Environmental issues are emotional, environmental decisions are political, and environmental solutions are technical.’ That can probably be expanded to include many other issues facing society. Just as a liberal arts education produces citizens who can understand the broader context of problems, an engineering education produces professionals who can solve problems. The combination of the two seems very powerful to me.”