Engineering To Broaden Focus

Harvard’s push to expand its Division of Engineering and Applied Science (DEAS), begun in 2001, falls directly in line with recommendations released this past June by the National Academy of Engineering.

In their report, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) called for engineering departments to widen their focus and to include more interdisciplinary work, both in research and the curriculum if they want to keep pace with an increasingly globalized world.

The report, entitled “Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century,” states that the United States must “prepare for [a] new wave of change” if it wants to maintain “its economic leadership” and “sustain its share of high technology jobs.”

Harvard is not alone, however, in its push towards interdisciplinary study. In many ways, the National Academy report is following the tack of top engineering schools, rather than leading them in a new direction.

The new approach recommended by the report—which calls for engineering to be integrated with other fields including the sciences, finance, and applied math—is already “Harvard’s hallmark,” according to DEAS Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti.

Narayanamurti, who will step down as Dean at the end of this academic year, said that Harvard’s engineering is already ahead of the curve in terms of implementing the recommendations.

He said that he was looking to create a new undergraduate track or concentration that focused on the interdisciplinary interplay of engineering and society.

“Technology is not a niche activity,” he said. “Everything has a strong engineering and technology component because engineering is a connecting discipline. We can’t abandon it—we would not be a great university without it.”

With the support of University President Lawrence H. Summers, Narayanamurti set into motion a 10-year, half-billion dollar plan to overhaul DEAS, expanding the full-time equivalent faculty from 60 to about 100.

DEAS is currently awaiting the report of a visiting committee, appointed by the Board of Overseers, that was charged with helping plot the precise course of this expansion.

Narayanamurti also said that improving the undergraduate curriculum by broadening course material to attract concentrators from other disciplines will be one of DEAS’ most pressing priorities over the next year.

He specifically mentioned as examples two Core courses related to engineering have been designed to appeal widely to undergraduates. The courses, which focus on the interplay of engineering and society, are Quantitative Reasoning 48, “Bits,” taught by McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68, and Science A-52, “Energy, Environment and Industrial Development,” co-taught by McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering Frederick H. Abernathy and Butler Professor of Environmental Studies Michael B. McElroy.

Although Harvard’s engineering department is quickly shifting its focus towards interdisciplinary study, it is not alone among the nation’s top universities.

According to David Orenstein, a public relations manager at Stanford’s School of Engineering, Stanford’s interest in interdisciplinary study has also predated the NAE report.

“We believe this is a good idea and we did so before any report,” he said.

And Peter I. Bogucki, an associate dean at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, said that an interdisciplinary approach to engineering, rooted in the University’s liberal arts foundations, has long been apart of engineering at Princeton.

“We believe that this type of undergraduate education yields graduates who will make a broad impact on society through leadership in engineering, commerce, education, government, and whatever else they set their mind to doing,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Narayanamurti said the report should be seen as a guide rather than a rigid prescription.

“The Academy’s report is an important guidepost,” he said. “Harvard is already doing many of the recommendations.”

Bogucki agreed that at many top schools, the report will not dramatically change the engineering curriculum.

“What will increase, however, will be the formalization of interdisciplinary affiliations, in the form of faculty joint appointments and institutes that bring together people from different fields,” Bogucki wrote in an e-mail.

The report also included a number of other recommendations for engineering schools.

In particular, the report recommended that the B.S. degree—which is, at Harvard, a small program that graduated only 17 of the 1590 students in the class of 2005—become a pre-engineering degree. By contrast, MIT grants exclusively B.S. degrees to its engineering students.

The report also recommended that schools do more to recruit undergraduates to the study of engineering and encourage them to continue their studies into graduate school.

Finally, the report called on the engineering community to improve general public understanding of the science, particularly through the development of pre-college curricula.

—Staff writer Adam M. Guren can be reached at guren@fas.harvard.edu.