Preserve, Persevere, and Progress: The State of the College 2006

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Keys to Our Success

The choice of Complex Systems Analysis and Engineering as our "spire of excellence" and the creation of Curriculum 21 will be the keys to our college's success. In the spirit of 19th-century UVM President James Marsh, whose prescience is almost frightening, the complex systems focus recognizes, in the words of Marsh, "the priority of the complete act to any of its concepts." With a concentration in transportation, environment, and bio-engineering, and a curriculum that recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we aim to build leaders best suited to develop solutions to problems that plague humanity.

By many accounts, 80% of our economy is now information-based and not manufacturing-based. If today one were to peruse an undergraduate engineering curriculum from a typical state university, however, the courses and structure would not appear significantly different from those offered during the middle of the last century, when we were a heavily manufacturing-based society.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the solutions to the critical issues facing humanity, no matter how technologically laden, will require broad thinking beyond any one discipline.

When the city of Stockholm, which is built on numerous islands, was considering solutions to transport more people into and out of the city, adding one more bridge to the 57 in place would have been the natural engineering extension of past practices. Stockholm retained IBM, a company with a not insignificant number of engineers. IBM has already moved in a direction, however, that was designed to open the solution space beyond the traditional engineering thinking.

In the Stockholm case, IBM designed a "tax and drive" system in which autos were given transponders and a fee was levied based on the time of day the cars were in the city. In the first month of operation, the project yielded a 25 percent reduction in traffic, removing 100,000 vehicles from the roads during peak business hours, and a corresponding increase of 40,000 mass transit users per day. Of course, there were the major concomitant benefits of reduced pollution and energy conservation as well.

If, as many glossy college brochures say, engineers are problem solvers, we must open their eyes and minds to all the possible solutions. That is not to say that engineers must stay in school for 20 years to learn multiple disciplines in depth, but that they should experience the richness of a broad undergraduate education. Only 15 percent of the courses in a typical engineering curriculum in the United States are open electives. There is no question that our engineering graduates are well versed in the technical aspects of their profession. We must be equally sure, however, that they graduate with the breadth required to think through solutions to our increasingly complex problems.

By the end of the 1800s, law schools decided that they could no longer teach the vast accumulation of rules and regulations and decided instead to teach students how to "think like lawyers." So, too, at the beginning of the 21st century, undergraduate engineering schools should examine what it means to "think like engineers." An undergraduate education should focus on fundamental concepts, expose students to various modes of reasoning and ways of knowing, and ask them to integrate these modes in addressing various issues. Engineering undergraduates should remain unassailably strong in quantitative reasoning abilities, but these rigors should be complemented with the ability to think powerfully and critically in many other disciplines.

We are a college much different from the one that experienced such hardship over the last decade. We have set a high bar for this institution, but I have no doubt that, together, we will reach our goals and become an international leader in engineering and mathematical sciences education and scholarship. Our faculty is simply too talented, too knowledgeable, and too dedicated not to succeed.

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See also: State of the College: 2007