Looking Forward

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

In this issue, you will read about, among other things, two of the College of Engineering’s most recent exciting interdisciplinary successes: its rising Materials Science & Engineering program; and the Biological Design Center. The Materials program was created as a Division rather than a secluded department because the scientific and educational endeavor synthesizes virtually all engineering disciplines in the College, as well as chemistry, physics and dentistry, and the division includes faculty from all these department. Similar rationale was used when we created our Systems Engineering Division. The Biological Design Center will combine people from engineering, biology, physics and medicine to understand the design principles that impact cell-to-tissue function.

These initiatives did not spring up overnight. They were the envisioned years ago and created with an eye toward society’s challenges that would require interdisciplinary approaches in engineering and science, especially those crossing boundaries with other schools and colleges outside engineering. This forward-looking attitude has long been one of the College’s foremost strengths, an approach of constantly identifying educational and research areas critical to the future for our students and faculty impact, and aligning our priorities accordingly. So what do we see for the future?

We see an extraordinary economic sector growing for the application of big data, cybersecurity and robotics on society. These are not independent disciplines that either should reside in an existing department or should be created as a singular new department. They are inherently interdisciplinary with applications to medicine, urban-to-global function, defense, communication and media, and of course business. Hence, while other institutions are creating educational thrusts secluded in either an existing department or a new independent program, we chose a different route. We announced three new Master Degree Specializations, one in Data Analytics, one in Cybersecurity, and one in Robotics. None are owned by any department or division and each requires at least four courses of the eight needed for the Master’s. The requirements to complete these and officially have them acknowledged as part of the degree title are accessible from every one of our existing Master’s programs. Each has a core required course or two, and some restricted electives. So a graduate from ECE with specialization in Data Analytics might select electives in machine learning, for example, while one in BME might select an elective in analytics for medical informatics. They were immediately popular.

Several years ago, we also recognized the need to expose our undergraduates to the advanced product design and manufacturing process and learn to take ideas from concept to product, so we created the 12,000-square-foot Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC). Well over 1,000 students will pass through EPIC each year and we now have added a new required design/maker course for all sophomore engineers, regardless of discipline, in EPIC in partnership with five major corporations who sit on the advisory board of EPIC. This idea of a “maker space” is catching on. At the last meeting of the nation’s engineering deans, a half dozen were talking about creating such a space. We opened ours – one of the first in the nation – almost two years ago.

This past summer BU broke ground on the Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering, where engineers will collaborate with medical researchers and others on an array of health issues facing society, such as understanding neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and sensory system disorders. It will also house the Biological Design Center, where researchers will apply synthetic and systems biology as they search for treatments for a variety of diseases from the cellular level to regenerative tissue engineering.

We are widely recognized as one of the hottest engineering schools in the nation. In the last 10 years, no engineering school in the top 50 has risen faster in the rankings — we’re now 37th — and all of our graduate programs rank in the top 20 among private engineering schools. The amount of competitive external research funding we attract on a per-faculty basis is among the most in the nation – a key measure of the quality of our research programs. The quality of our student body rises every year, as does the proportion of admitted students who elect to enroll, even as we have dramatically reduced the number of applicants we admit.

By any measure, our forward-looking approach is paying off.

This essay first appeared in the fall 2015 issue of ENGineer, the College of Engineering’s alumni magazine.