Transforming Engineering Education for a New Era of Product Innovation

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

This year, the College of Engineering marks its 50th anniversary, having been created as a small undergraduate engineering college in 1964. In 1992 we expanded and added graduate Ph.D. programs in every discipline. I’ve had a front row seat for past 30 years, having joined the faculty when we were focused on quality undergraduate education. I watched as we complemented that with world-class research and graduate programs aimed at addressing society’s problems and at improving our quality of life. Indeed, after only 22 years our graduate research programs attract over $70 million per year in extramural research and are ranked among the top 40 of all engineering schools.

In January 2014, we came full circle when we opened an extraordinary facility that invokes our undergraduate roots. The Engineering Product Innovation Center – EPIC – promises to transform undergraduate engineering education and prepare students for a changing design and manufacturing landscape.

Just a few years ago – while we were discussing updating our undergraduate laboratory facilities – new technologies began to emerge that would radically advance the innovation and manufacturing of products in a way that could greatly advance the economy of the United States and the world. The extraordinary capabilities of this new hardware and software ranged from computer-aided design, 3D printing and so-called additive manufacturing, to the use of lasers for product fabrication and assessment, and even to supply chain management and product recycling for sustainability. In short, product innovation and manufacturing now requires the integration of multiple engineering disciplines, as well as other fields, such as business. Since the College had already been reorganized to lower the barriers to interdisciplinary education, and since we had already committed to creating Societal Engineers ready to impact our quality of life, we saw an extraordinary opportunity to train our students for the advanced manufacturing environment. The idea for EPIC was born.

Through EPIC, we can transform our engineering curriculum so that all of our students will learn the entire innovation-to-product-deployment process. They will put their ideas through the design process, and understand how products need to be manufactured economically in order to be viable in the marketplace and add value to society. Our students will graduate not only with a solid foundation in their chosen major, but also an understanding of other disciplines and of the modern manufacturing process.

We are already piloting a sophomore course, Introduction to Engineering Design, which is centered in EPIC and gives student teams of blended majors a basic understanding of how products are developed from concept to design to manufacturing to market deployment.

I believe EPIC adds unique value to the engineering degree and makes our students highly attractive to employers. Many of those employers agree. Since the early planning stages, we have reached out and engaged industry with EPIC and the companies have responded enthusiastically. Several have not only made significant financial commitments to EPIC, but have agreed to serve on the EPIC Industrial Advisory Board to help advise us going forward to ensure our graduates have the skills the modern workplace demands.

In many ways, EPIC epitomizes 50 years of excellence. Its highly visible location on Commonwealth Avenue – the College’s first address on the University’s main thoroughfare – helps brand us as a major amplifier of excellence for the whole institution. Moreover, I see EPIC being used not just across engineering disciplines, but by a wider swath of the university community. Already students from the College of Fine Arts and the Questrom School of Business have inquired about access and we embrace their interest in design.

As we look forward to the College’s 50th anniversary celebration in a few months, EPIC is a shining example of how engineering adds value to society.

This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2014 issue of The Engineer.