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We Can Build the Future

Our initiatives aimed at creating Societal Engineers have been tremendously well received by our students, our faculty, people in industry who hire engineers, and, I suspect, our applicant pool (applications to Engineering are up 35 percent). While this has been gratifying, success has presented us with the challenge of ensuring these programs’ long-term growth and viability. It has prompted us to ask several questions, answer them with initiatives and plans for the short and long term, and provide our alumni and friends with a concrete way to help make them reality.

First, the questions. How do we get children interested in becoming engineers and taking the necessary academic path to gain admission to an engineering school? Once they are enrolled, how do we keep them engaged as they navigate the most demanding curriculum of any discipline? Finally, how do we transform them into Societal Engineers and get them excited about the impact people with an engineering degree can have on our society, even if they do not remain engineers throughout their careers?

The first challenge is a national one and I believe we may have found one of the very few solution ideas that can provide a sustainable and scalable impact. Our Technology Innovation Scholars Program sends some of our most talented and engaging undergraduates into elementary, middle and high schools around the country to show kids the exciting ways that engineers can improve people’s lives and address society’s challenges. The response to this program has been tremendous among the young students and their teachers—and among our own students.

Retaining engineering students during the first and second year is a national challenge, and while our track record has long been well above average, we are improving it. Several innovative programs show students how the foundational courses they take early in their undergraduate careers relate to meeting the societal challenges they yearn to address.

Showing students what engineers do is one thing; creating Societal Engineers is another. We’re showing students how to use their technical skills to create real products, and marrying that with global awareness, a passion for innovation and an understanding of how technology products are deployed in the marketplace.

All of these efforts—and several emerging ones—have been seeded and grown with philanthropic support. Why? Because they are beyond what tuition alone can cover.

For example, Binoy Singh’s (BME ’89) gift made the Imagineering Laboratory possible and it is increasingly utilized by our students; keeping it staffed and stocked with supplies requires ongoing support. Initial construction funds for our Engineering Product Innovation Center, which promises to be a national model for undergraduate engineering education, were provided by the University, but the College must raise more to complete and operate it. The Technology Innovation Concentration, introduced and grown with support from the Annual Fund, needs more professors of practice and internships to meet rapidly growing student interest.

The College’s alumni and friends will play a critical role in these and other initiatives through our first capital campaign—Choose to be Great. Engineering has worked hard to make it clear to our alumni and friends what programs and long-term goals we hope to build, sustain and achieve. My hope is that every alumnus and friend feels compelled and excited to be part of the community of partners that will make us successful, and in a way create future generations of people dedicated to advancing society.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Engineer.