Five Questions With: Jay Coogan

Jay Coogan is the president of IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport. He joined IYRS in October after nine years with Minneapolis College of Art & Design. Prior to his time with MCAD, Coogan served as a faculty member, dean and ultimately provost at Rhode Island School of Design. As a faculty member at RISD, his teaching experience included classes in welding, casting, woodworking and public art.  

A Massachusetts native, Coogan has a broad academic and artistic experience as a maker and holds a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in sculpture from Hunter College. His art has been shown in numerous galleries and museums across the country, including Boston, Cambridge, Mass., Green Bay, Wis., and Providence.

PBN: This position marks a return to Rhode Island for you. Why did you choose to come back to the Ocean State?

COOGAN: Of course, the primary reason I came back is to lead IYRS – one of the most progressive, hands-on learning educational programs in the state.

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I have spent most of my adult life in Rhode Island, so I am thrilled to be back in this deep community of friends and professional colleagues. I also came back to Rhode Island after nine years of lakes in Minnesota to be on the ocean.

In my career as a sculptor, I learned by making and from makers. I believe the experiential learning environment that we offer at IYRS meets a very clear educational need. It also matches employer interests, as nearly all our students are employed shortly after graduation. I am thrilled to be leading this school as we develop our future plans.

PBN: You previously worked at RISD and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. How will your tenure at those art schools aid in your leadership of IYRS?

COOGAN: Those two institutions are focused on many of the same educational principles which inform IYRS: active learning and problem-solving. The three learning domains described by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom – knowledge, skills and attitudes – are the goals of the learning process that art and design schools, and IYRS, strive to develop in their students.

In addition, coming from two schools where creativity is vital, I see the same [drive] employed by IYRS students in wooden-boat restoration, marine systems, composites technology, and digital modeling and fabrication courses. At IYRS, we bring creativity together with a strong focus on practical applications.

The outcomes are often tested by whether what a student has made, repaired or restored works in the challenging marine environment.

PBN: This is your first position at a secondary school. How will you approach this work after operating in the college sphere for so long?

COOGAN: Many of the basic business characteristics are the same, but there are differences in the programs. One of the biggest is the time required to go from being a student to an employee.

IYRS offers shorter, six-month, nine-month and two-year certificate programs. These are intensive, full-day immersion programs designed to prepare students to be job-ready in a shorter time. Our students also tend to be older with the average age closer to 30 than 20.

Another difference I see is the stronger connection to employers and to workforce-development needs in Rhode Island, the region and beyond. All our students do externships regardless of their program, and many of those lead directly to jobs. Most of our students come here with the express purpose of getting skills to develop a career and we are very successful in placing them in work directly connected to their program of study.

PBN: Under your tenure, how would you like to see the school evolve?

COOGAN: IYRS was started as a wooden-boat building and restoration program and this legacy is a strong underpinning of who we are and will be [in the future]. Boat-building is an amazing field of heritage combined with innovation. Like space exploration – another field requiring innovation – boat designers have always sought the latest technologies to go faster and farther and safer.

The tools of the trade have continuously evolved from ones held directly in one’s hands to portable, electric and large stationary tools, to ones programmed by computers linked to machines. Our newest program, digital modeling and fabrication, is an extension of that legacy but is also charting new territory. I see the development of projects that will bring the digital training together with the older craft traditions, defining a hybrid approach to boat-building, restoration and more.

As IYRS evolves, I see it expanding beyond the marine trades to serve selective areas of the broader Rhode Island manufacturing community. We will continue to explore other career opportunities for our students in aerospace and wind technologies, for example. We are also in discussion about offering incumbent employees in the marine and other industries shorter-term, custom training programs and workshops.

PBN: Rhode Island is a bastion for boat design and manufacture, where do you see its role in the industry moving forward?

COOGAN: Rhode Island and boats are synonymous. The history of boat design and manufacturing in Rhode Island is unrivaled, whether you look at the history [Herreshoff Marine Museum] or the present dynamic range of large [General Dynamics Electric Boat] and smaller-scale boat-building and -design shops and boatyards throughout the state. Rhode Island needs to work to keep its pre-eminence in the industry, as there are also many other boat-building centers across the globe.

One factor I have heard from people involved in many parts of the business is the need for well-trained people to replace those who are retiring. IYRS is a school that is helping to supply that need. A good current example is that eight IYRS graduates are working on the next America’s Cup challenger, American Magic, in Bristol. This is an incredible project at the cutting edge of boat design.

The future of boat-building, like any industry, is economically sensitive. In some cases, it may be possible to adapt those skills to meet other industry needs as the business climate dictates. The same is true for training our students to have practical skills and an understanding of the learning process that are very adaptable to a fast-changing world.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email,