Renaissance Engineering

SEAS grows and adapts within the University’s liberal arts context

Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, leans forward, pounds the table, and raises his voice as he presents his core philosophy, the one that prompted him to fight for the creation of SEAS and that still gets him excited three years later.

“We will not be a great university without a great engineering school,” he declares. “Until we build a strong engineering school, Harvard as an institution will always get a grade of incomplete.”

In the four years since SEAS became its own school within the University, Harvard has come a long way towards addressing that “incomplete” on its report card. The School has invested in faculty expansion, student advising, and innovative design elements across introductory and advanced level courses. And with consistent growth trends that show no signs of slowing, Harvard’s engineering program is poised to become one of the best in the country.

But as the School comes into its own, administrators, professors, and students alike agree on a guiding principle to integrate engineering with Harvard’s liberal arts environment.

“SEAS often talks about educating renaissance engineers, engineers with a strong liberal arts understanding of what engineering is,” says University President Drew G. Faust. Engineering, she says, is “not simply execution of an instrumental project but rather intersects with ideas and thought processes that are very much at the heart of the liberal arts.”

NEW CURRICULUM, NEW STAFF

Much of the recent development within SEAS has focused on the undergraduate experience and expanding the options available to students.

The biomedical engineering concentration introduced last year marked SEAS’ first attempt to differentiate the umbrella engineering sciences degree program. Efforts to further diversify undergraduate offerings are underway, with pending approval for a new electrical engineering concentration for the fall of 2012. A mechanical engineering concentration is also being proposed.

“We are revamping the curriculum [and] taking a very hard look at the engineering and applied sciences curriculum across the entire School,” says SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray, adding that she plans to place “focus on a coherent curriculum for the 21st century.”

According to Marie D. Dahleh, SEAS assistant dean for academic programs, efforts to diversify graduate degree programs are also in progress. A new secondary field in computational science and engineering has been proposed—a development that Dahleh believes will strengthen SEAS overall.

After receiving feedback from senior concentrators, SEAS administrators have also taken steps to enhance the undergraduate advising structure. The responses gave engineering sciences one of the lowest rankings in concentrator satisfaction at the College. SEAS has since moved to hire more preceptors, directors of undergraduate studies, and assistant directors of undergraduate studies.

“I want the student experience to be number one,” Murray says.

THE LIBERAL ENGINEER

Murray is realistic about Harvard’s potential to get the sought-after number one ranking in the near future. “For Harvard—the near future being the next 100 years—yes. Definitely not in the next ten years,” she says.

Professors and administrators both agree that Harvard is still too small to compare with more iconic engineering institutions.

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