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Renaissance Engineering

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

By Amy Guan and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

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.”


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.


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.

“We will graduate 45 Ph.D.’s. For us that’s a pretty healthy number,” says Dahleh. “But you know places like Purdue will be graduating a lot more.”

But many people see potential in Harvard’s small size. “It’s interesting in that it’s a much smaller program, much newer, much faster growing, more nimble,” says Matthew W. Yarri ’14, who is considering the engineering concentration.

Harvard’s Wyss Institute has made bold strides as a flexible, inter-disciplinary center in helping to define the field of biological engineering, according to George M. Church, a professor of genetics and member of the affiliated faculty of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST).

“There’s nothing really like it in the world,” he says.

Interdisciplinary work in research laboratories also parallels a growing emphasis on design-based curricula in undergraduate teaching laboratories.

“Historically [the curriculum] was very theoretical but now there’s a big shift to do the applied side of engineering,” says Daniel H. Nevius ’11, president of the Harvard College Engineering Society. He adds that a student “push for hands-on engineering” has met with enthusiasm from the faculty.

“We want students to be excited about what we have here,” says Anas Chalah, director of instructional laboratories at SEAS. “When [students] come to Harvard ... we want them to be pleasantly shocked. Our teaching labs are one little link in that big chain that will bring us to being number one in engineering.”

Chalah says that non-concentrators are also likely to benefit from the lab components in general education courses like ES1: “Introduction to Engineering Sciences” and ES50: “Introduction to Electrical Engineering.”

“Students from such divisions who didn’t care about engineering [now] become interested,” says Chalah, adding that this aspect of outreach makes the facilities part of SEAS’ educational mission to reach out to students from all disciplines.

“One of my goals is to have every student take an engineering course, something like [Computer Science 50] for example,” explains Murray. “It gets people aware of what engineering actually is. We have so much technology in our society it just gets an awareness that you too can write iPhone apps.”


Murray hopes to reach around 600 SEAS concentrators—ten to fifteen percent of the undergraduate population—within the next ten years. If finances allow, she would also like to hire 30 new faculty members in the same time frame.

But Harvard is still far from comparing itself to its neighbor down Mass. Ave.

In the 2009-2010 school year, SEAS—which includes applied math, computer sciences, and engineering—had 415 undergraduate concentrators. By contrast, MIT had 1,977 engineering majors—which includes engineering and computer science—this school year.

With these numbers, MIT is able to offer resources that Harvard cannot provide.

It is, for example, a leader in sustaining a resource that SEAS has recently made a priority: lab space.

“MIT lab space is fantastic,” says Rashid M. Yasin ’12, an engineering concentrator. “I took a course there last spring that had its own lab space ... almost wholly devoted to that one class.”

Nevius, the undergraduate president of the HCES, says that lab space at Harvard is often cramped. Pierce G12, a laboratory in the basement of Pierce Hall, was at one point housing nine senior thesis projects, one NASA competition project, and one hydrokinetic turbine project, he explains. “You could barely walk down in that space.”

Church, the affiliate of HST, also says that MIT can capitalize on its established position in the field of engineering to draw funding from spin-off companies and industry leaders alike.

But some faculty members at Harvard say that the University’s cross-disciplinary resources are an asset for SEAS.

Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Ali Khademhosseini, who is also affiliated with HST, says that SEAS can develop a “synergistic” relationship with other components of the University.

“Potentially engineering at Harvard already is bigger and more competitive than it appears,” he says. “It simply could be how we could present it.”

—Staff writer Amy Guan can be reached at

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at

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SEASYear in ReviewMITCommencement 2011