University of Vermont

cems
College of
ENGINEERING AND MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES

Predicting the Future: The State of the College 2007

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Unity of Knowledge and Our Curriculum

Many thoughtfully constructed versions of core curricula, sometimes referred to as general education requirements, attempt to teach multiple modes of reasoning or ways of knowing. However, it is rare that universities take the next step and encourage students to understand why certain groups of courses were selected for this purpose and integrate or "unify" their learning.

In an education that purports to consider humanity and improve quality of life, unity of knowledge should be a sine qua non that asks our students and graduates to look outward, beyond the narrow fields of math, science and technology in search of solutions to entire problems. To better serve humanity, one must at least attempt to understand the human condition in all of its complexity. Educating our students more broadly will not only make them better professionals, it will also allow them a more prominent role in problem definition, policy decisions and overall direction to help build a sustainable and equitable future.

Curriculum 21 — passed by the School of Engineering last semester — is a major step in this direction and is leading the way in the United States and in the world in innovative holistic engineering education. This promise of a different type of engineering education not doubt played a major role in a year that saw a record number of applications to the College and a significantly increased yield with an entering class 49% larger than it was in 2004.

Unity of Knowledge and Complex Systems Analysis

This new perspective on holistic education should not be needlessly restricted to the undergraduate curriculum. The educational philosophy embodied in the unity of knowledge approach also has significant research promise in one of the most exciting areas of investigation being pursued today, complex systems analysis — a holistic approach to addressing the vexing problems of our times. We, in the College, can proudly lay claim to having identified complex systems analysis as our spire of research excellence well before the National Science Foundation named it in their strategic plan.

E.O Wilson notes in Consilience that "the greatest challenge today ... is the accurate and complete description of complex systems. Scientists have broken down many kinds of systems. They think they know most of the elements and forces. The next task is to reassemble them, at least in mathematical models that capture the key properties of the entire ensembles." And the great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkins predicted that the 21st century would be the century of complexity.

Complex Systems CenterIn the two years since we selected complex systems as our spire of excellence, we have established a nascent center for complex systems in the College, and complex systems has been adopted as a university-wide research focus area. The university was just awarded over $2 million from NSF EPSCoR grants to study complex systems in the environment, which involve several of our faculty members. And we have received major funding through the UVM Transportation Center that focuses on transportation and complex systems, to name only a few accomplishments.

We, in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, are fortunate to be part of a great university that is undergoing a major metamorphosis. For our College, this transformation also provides vast opportunities that will help us to realize our objective of becoming a great center of learning and discovery.

The people in this room today have the power — built upon a foundation of wisdom, knowledge and dedication to our art — to help society realize the true power of engineering thought. Ultimately, that will be the measure of our success.

Indeed, our vision — passed unanimously — eloquently captures our dedication to a holistic philosophy of education and research.

Strategies

To realize our vision that the College hold a unique and highly respected reputation in the arenas of Undergraduate education and Graduate education and research, we have developed these overarching strategies:

  • In Undergraduate education, we will focus on the holistic approach to knowledge pioneered by University of Vermont President James Marsh and will expose our students to various modes of reasoning and ways of knowing — with an emphasis on preparing tomorrow's leaders.
  • In Graduate education and research, we will focus on complex systems analysis and engineering (essentially a research analog to the undergraduate holistic approach) to help us solve society's most pressing problems.

As with any objectives, there are measures and metrics that will help us to evaluate our progress toward our goals. But first, I would like to recognize and thank some of individuals who have been instrumental in the successes of the past year.

Next page: Successes and Challenges
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See also: State of the College: 2006