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Updated: 08/13/2014 08:00:02AM

Not your daddy’s STEM program

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Florida Polytechnic University's new president Dr. Randy K. Avent, spends time with parents and students at the school's student orientation.


Dr. Randy K. Avent, the new president of Florida Polytechnic University, talks with students at the July 12 student orientation session.


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• Lofty goals for new Florida Polytechnic University, Page 13

It was a chance of a lifetime that Florida Polytechnic University’s new president couldn’t pass up.

“To open a new university that’s going to have a different culture and mindset is just amazing,” said Dr. Randy K. Avent, who took over the helm of the north Polk County university barely a month ago. In a whirlwind of activity as the new university gets ready to open its classrooms this month, Avent said he took the job “because they just aren’t building new universities anymore and the opportunity to start one from scratch is just too good to be true.”

Avent left his job as the Associate Vice Chancellor of Research and Computer Science at North Carolina State University to lead the 30-member faculty and guide the inaugural class of 566 students through the state’s 12th state university.

“This is going to be like no other university in the country,” Avent said. “We’re going to take science, technology, engineering and math to new levels.”

He explained that the new curriculum will give STEM a new and innovative approach.

“We’ll have a different culture and use hands-on learning,” he said. “We’re going to put small classes to work not just learning by rote, but by practical application. We’ll be in the labs coming up with practical and applicable solutions, not just learning methodology.”

The new leader said he has long been a proponent of applied research and hands-on experience.

“We’re sending graduates out into the workforce with little applied knowledge, so they have a learning curve when they start a job,” he said. “Our graduates are going to be able to bypass that learning curve because they will already know how to put what they’ve learned into practice right here.”

Avent said he studied the FPU strategic plan before applying for the job.

“The plan lays out what seems to be a great growth plan, and now we’re going to tweak it to fill the needs of Florida’s technical business community,” he said. “This isn’t going to be your daddy’s STEM program. We know the world’s new oil is data and analysis and we’re going to be leading that field.”

Avent’s background may give him the edge to provide that leadership. He grew NCSU’s research program and was a led investigator in its applied science labs. He also served as the U.S. Department of Defense’s chief scientist, where he led science programs, developed plans for basic research investments and led a national program on large-scale analytics for massive data sets. He has led studies on environmental issues, neurophysiology and defense. He has also been a leader in the field in machine learning, signal processing and dynamic probabilistic systems analysis.

Some of Florida Poly’s focal studies will be on fiber security, nanotechnology and adaptive manufacturing, Avent said. “We’re also looking at our relationships with industry. We’re going to take basic research and translate it to solve problems our partners need help with,” he says.

“Our vision is to be the leader in the ways and means that STEM can help our business and industries grow, not just in Florida but globally,” he adds.

His plans call for the construction of an infrastructure that inspires technology rich environment for innovation; a campus environment that nurtures collaborative research, learning and economic outreach; innovative teaching methods and discovery-based research courses that address real-world, industry-driven problems; the development of a flat operational structure with minimal overhead and establish sound financial growth, stability and administrative practices.

Avent said he hoped to see enrollment multiply annually with a total enrollment of 5,000 full-time students within 10 years. This year, admissions were limited to students with high SAT and grade point averages.

“We’re starting off with the cream of the crop,” he said. “We’re going to keep these students performing at the highest possible levels.”

The campus’ signature building, the Center for Innovation and Technology, will house the initial classrooms and student labs and will be followed by the construction of an applied research center and adjacent research development labs. He had no timetable for additional campus construction to begin.

Avent has a doctorate degree in biomedical mathematics and engineering, a master’s degree in both electrical engineering and biomedical mathematics and engineering. His undergraduate degree is in zoology. Avent and his wife, Terri, have been married for 29 years and have three sons.

The high-tech school, located just off Interstate 4 at the Polk Parkway, opens its doors to the public at a launch event on Aug. 16 and is hosting a private gala event for donors and sponsors on Aug. 15. Classes officially start on Aug. 25.

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