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While the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has almost doubled in undergraduate enrollment since 2008, the rapidly growing school has nevertheless maintained a firm commitment to intimate, faculty-led advising.
The growth that has defined the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences since its creation in 2007 has inspired new concentrations, expanded infrastructure, and changed pedagogical styles. As the department has grown from 299 undergraduate concentrators in 2008 to 578 in 2012, the increased number of concentrators has posed concerns regarding the extent to which SEAS can maintain a sustainable advising framework. But SEAS remains boldly confident that it can handle its popularity.
“More concentrators are certainly welcome,” computer science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 says. “We’re going to work to maintain the strength of our advising.”
CATERING TO THE INDIVIDUAL
Over the years, engineering concentrators have stressed the value of personal advising experiences including one-on-one interactions with professors, tours of labs, and research opportunities. At SEAS, many of these perks have traditionally been facilitated by the smaller size of the school’s concentrations.
“The small size is a great advantage,” says biomedical engineering concentrator Jermaine B. Heath ’14. “The ability to engage with the faculty on a personal level...motivates students to think critically about concepts presented in class.”
Carolina I. Ragolta ’13 says she chose Harvard over other schools with bigger engineering programs specifically because of SEAS’ more intimate size.
“I immediately felt a sense of community that was not present at colleges with much larger engineering departments, or even in other larger concentrations here at Harvard,” she says.
Students say that this size, even as the school grows, helps them as they focus in very specialized areas within the broader framework of their concentrations. They still remark on the highly personalized guidance they receive in those areas.
Maura D. Church ’14, an applied mathematics concentrator focusing in music, says that sitting down with applied mathematics advisers who were familiar with course offerings at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was crucial in establishing her plan of study.
“Not only must advisers have a good sense of the applied mathematics discipline, but they must also be very familiar with offerings in other disciplines to help students figure out exactly what they want to do with their concentrations,” Church says.
Every undergraduate receives a faculty adviser. Moreover, because of the attention that a number of SEAS professors have focused on student design within their courses, the department has reinforced the advising structure within courses as well—a microcosm of the concentration guidance system. In classes such as Engineering Sciences 50: “Introduction to Electrical Engineering” and Engineering Sciences 227: “Medical Device Design,” for instance, students have looked to professors and outside specialists for help on their own research projects.
“They made sure that there were always experts there in whatever area you were interested in pursuing,” says Kayla M. Shelton ’13, who took ES50 this semester. “You’re never all by yourself.”
Many concentrations have introduced social initiatives to strengthen the sense of community amongst students. Applied mathematics, for example, holds weekly thesis meeting sessions, presents weekly cake social hours, and is discussing the possibility of creating smaller community structures based on student application area.
“These are informal social events that brings together concentrators and advisers,” says Margo S. Levine, the assistant director of undergraduate studies in applied mathematics. “I often overhear advising conversations going on at these socials.”
SEAS’ expansion, however, has challenged the school to adapt its programs and advising structures to maintain its personal connection with students. The school hired two assistant directors of undergraduate studies in the last year and, according to SEAS Assistant Dean for Academic Programs Marie D. Dahleh, is prepared to hire additional faculty to allow students to “conduct undergraduate research, pursue design experiences, and ultimately to make the most of their opportunities.”
“As we get a lot more concentrators, it gets harder and harder for a single individual director of undergraduate studies to take on the role of advising concentrators to a close level,” Dahleh says, “That’s where the increased personnel comes in.”
The high number of requirements in some SEAS concentrations—the school offers an ABET-accredited bachelors of science degree which requires 20 half courses—has also highlighted the role of advising in making sure students can graduate on time with an idea of their post-college plans.
“Advising plays an important role in all concentrations, but when you have a large number of courses to fulfill, it becomes all the more important to have a program that can advise students effectively,” Dahleh says.
“WE’RE NICE PEOPLE”
Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering Sujata K. Bhatia says that, through her advising relationships, she has come to think of her students “like family.”
“It’s absolutely a goal that every student feels that they can get a personal tour of the teaching labs, knows that they are welcome to sit down and chat with faculty about whatever’s on their mind, and believes that their success is very important to us,” Bhatia says. “So it’s absolutely a goal to make sure that growth doesn’t stand in the way of good advising.”
Lewis mentions initiatives to welcome students to SEAS, such as phoning admitted freshman to introduce them to a faculty contact even before they arrive on campus.
“We develop a certain level of interest and respect for our students,” he says. “Everybody knows how interesting our undergrads are and how much work we can get out of them. God knows what’s going to happen to them after they get through sleeping in your course. They may wind up starting things like Microsoft and Facebook.”
“We’re nice people. Most of us like students. We remember when we were students and we liked it when people were nice to us.,” he adds.
Despite this outreach, however, students and faculty alike highlight the students’ role in shaping their own advising relationships.
“I’ve never needed any real advising before. I usually have my courses planned out long before I’d need to talk to an adviser,” computer science concentrator Dan B. Bradley ’14 writes in an email. “To have a good advising experience, you have to put in as much or more effort than your adviser to make it work,”
“Every person can make their advising experience as great or bad as they want it to be,” Amy Z. Chen ’14 adds. “It’s an interactive process.”
—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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