Christine Nelson liked that her two-year, pre-engineering program at Itasca Community College was really hands-on.

When it came time to move on to a four-year program, Nelson perused plenty of schools, including the University of North Dakota, where her older sister had completed her engineering degree.

Her sister didn't have the option of staying at Itasca. But Nelson did.

Last week, Nelson was a part of the first class of students to graduate from the school's Iron Range Engineering program. The four-year degree offering started in 2009, as a way for students to complete their engineering studies without having to transfer to a university in the Twin Cities, or elsewhere.

"In rural areas, a lot of times, once they leave, they don't come back," said Mike Johnson, provost at Itasca. "We have that brain drain."

The four-year program, like the two-year one, is based on real-world assignments. Students still learn lots of calculus and physics -- but through projects rather than books.

Run by Itasca Community College, in partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato, the program is partly funded through taxes levied on the region's taconite mining companies. But it's not just "engineering for iron mining," said Ron Ulseth, the program's director. "We are teaching engineering in the broadest sense."

About a third of students' projects are for iron mines. But the rest are in other industries, including manufacturing, paper and power.

"We're providing a workforce for the region, but we're not so tailored to that that students can't go elsewhere," he said.

Of the dozen students who graduated last week, five have jobs, five are interviewing and two are going straight to graduate school. Four of the five graduates with jobs are working in northeastern Minnesota.

Nelson is one of them. The 23-year-old began at United Taconite as a student. Now she's a project engineer. The transition, she said, was "completely seamless."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168