A Trademarked Education

Boston University Creating the Societal Engineer®. The ® indicates that the College applied for and was granted exclusive use of this phrase by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It represents our commitment to creating engineers with the skills and passion to improve society. In the time I have been dean, the College has undergone an evolution in how it prepares students. We aim to form Societal Engineers whose engineering foundations can position them to engage individuals from all disciplines to advance society and address its continuous challenges. So why did we go through the trouble to trademark this phrase? For the answer, read through to the end.

Back in 2007, we began by establishing two interdisciplinary research divisions – Systems Engineering, and Materials Science & Engineering – that bring together faculty and graduate students from all engineering departments and beyond to contribute to these rapidly emerging fields. Then, we spread the change to undergraduates, establishing a series of interdisciplinary concentrations in fields like Nanotechnology, Energy Technologies, and, most recently, Technology Innovation. Undergraduates can sample or even add a concentration to their traditional engineering degree programs, giving them the ability to use their quantitative problem-solving skills in a cutting-edge field.

But that wasn’t enough. In order for our graduates to be true innovation leaders in the 21st century, we need to expose them to experiences outside of engineering. They need to be able to communicate with professionals and citizens in other fields and see the world from other perspectives if they are to lead multi-disciplinary teams so common in today’s global workplace. And, in doing so, they help others understand the innovation process and how technology can help solve their problems. One way we do this is by forging relationships with other schools and colleges at BU.

Today, our materials researchers are working with faculty at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine and several Engineering faculty are working on important global health initiatives with colleagues at the School of Public health. Our undergraduates can now take courses in the College of Arts & Sciences that examine public policy and environmental issues, and get exposure to leadership principles and the technology commercialization process through the Questrom School of Business. As technology plays an increasingly larger role in the communications industry, we are discussing partnership opportunities with the College of Communication and the College of Fine Arts. We are nearly complete in working with colleagues in the School of Education to devise a program that will equip engineering majors to become “teacher-engineers” and address the nation’s challenge in STEM education.

As we broaden our students’ perspectives, we also need to provide them with hands-on learning that illustrates the connection between their coursework and what they really want to do: innovate and improve people’s live. Earlier this year, we opened the Binoy Singh Imagineering Laboratory, a place where students can work on extracurricular projects and possible find commercial uses for them. This fall, we are building the Engineering Product Innovation Center, which will allow our students to merge the engineer’s product design expertise with the business person’s commercialization abilities and take on an entrepreneurial mindset. You will hear more about this exciting center, which promises to transform the undergraduate experience for all our students, in the coming months.

I believe that the Societal Engineers of today and tomorrow need this sort of education, one that excites them about the many opportunities to improve our world that are available to someone with an engineering degree. In the last year or two, I’ve noticed that this concept is resonating with other leading engineering schools, which are beginning to speak to their students in similar terms.

Boston University Creating the Societal Engineer® may belong to us, but by trademarking it, our primary goal was, frankly, to draw attention to the idea and we would actually welcome and invite our colleagues to imitate it. The concept should be universal and ingrained in engineers everywhere.

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Engineer.