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The Committee

What does the engineering school of the future look like?

Two scholars explain how they tackled this complex question — and share what they learned.

When Dean Persis Drell came to Stanford Engineering in fall 2014, she found the school in terrific shape. That freed her to formulate an ambitious question: What should a great engineering school look like 20 years hence? Drell set a timetable as ambitious as the question: Get ideas within the year. The only Stanford way to pursue such an undertaking was though a bottom-up, faculty-led effort.

So Drell formed a committee dominated by mid-career faculty who had the greatest stake in the future. She added some students, staff and non-engineering faculty to the mix. The committee makeup promised energy and enthusiasm. To add focus Drell tapped two senior faculty: Arun Majumdar, the Jay Precourt Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and Jennifer Widom, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs.

Majumdar and Widom sat down to discuss the process that began in October 2014 and culminated a year later in a presentation to the Board of Trustees. Here is a synthesis of their hour-long recollection of the playful, imaginative, disciplined and productive process known as Stanford Engineering Future.

Jennifer Widom

Widom: Persis didn’t waste any time. Practically as soon as she arrived she convened an exploratory committee of five mid-career faculty and asked me to oversee it. It was this group that helped determine the structure and composition of the larger committee.

Majumdar: As I recall we spent quite a bit of time at first thinking about the purpose of engineering and where the world was going. We also thought about the origins of Stanford University and how Stanford’s mission fits into this changing world.

Widom: That’s right. We didn’t start with assumptions. We set a baseline. We defined engineering as problem solving. It could be inventing new things or putting existing things together in new ways. It could be translating basic science into problem-solving tools.

Majumdar: Precisely. There is no one-way street between science and engineering. There are feedback loops. Some engineering problems require new science to solve and sometimes scientific discoveries require new engineering to utilize them for creating value for society. We drew inspiration from a speech that Mrs. Jane Stanford gave in 1902 in which she saw the university in service to humankind. She says it quite clearly: A Stanford education would not merely benefit students. Their service would benefit the rest of the world. That vision fit very well with the purpose of engineering, and her statement became one of our guiding thoughts.

Widom: This helped focus the committee on impact. We thought about how the school could be better and how we could have more impact, as researchers, as educators, as problem solvers. Some people equate engineering with making things smaller and faster and cheaper. Of course that’s part of it and we’re good at teaching that. But engineers really want to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Our committee was pretty unanimous in wanting to augment our undergraduate curriculum to include an even greater emphasis on the ethical and human concerns and the societal impact we can have as engineers. If you want to sum up our committee’s work in two words, they would be “enabling impact.”

Arun Majumdar

Majumdar: This is why setting the baseline was so essential. In the past, science and engineering tended to create a technology push. Our committee suggests a curriculum that also emphasizes the pull. What do people need and how do we deliver solutions? Because how we deliver solutions can be as important as developing solutions. When we met with members of the Board of Trustees, they recommended that students be encouraged to think about issues on a global basis and perhaps spend time overseas. And all of these educational refinements are possible when you are an engineering school that lives on a great humanities campus like Stanford.

Widom: There is no question that we want to build stronger ties with social sciences and humanities as well as the sciences. And these will also be two-way streets. The humanities and social sciences have huge needs for data collection and analysis. Engineers are specialists in such fields. We could partner with political scientists, economists, experts in literary analysis and so on. But in the other direction we need experts to help identify and solve problems on the horizon, such as finding new sources of energy and water and dealing with the challenges arising from trends like rapid urbanization in developing countries. These are areas where policy is very important and engineers are not necessarily well versed.

Majumdar: So we had this realization that the great engineering school of the future must be humble enough to reach outside its faculty to the broader university and the larger external ecosystem. Then we took that idea one step further. We needed a way to reach outside Stanford, perhaps outside of academe, to bring the brightest minds together in teams to focus on the toughest challenges. Our working name is the Accelerator for Collaborative Engineering. Let me offer an example from the time I spent at the Department of Energy. We will have to reorganize the electric grid around renewable sources like solar and wind. Customers will become producers as well as consumers. There are many technical aspects to this shift that are the traditional province of engineering. But this shift will require a regulatory framework and price signals to make markets fair and functional. That’s what we mean when we talk about putting people in the loop. We have to develop technology in a way that informs policy and helps to shape policy that pulls technology into the market. Otherwise your various actors are operating at cross-purposes and we run the risk that nothing happens.

Widom: We hope this seems obvious in retrospect but it wasn’t obvious when we first sat down to work, and it’s important to understand how we arrived at our conclusions. Our committee framed two simple yet profound questions:

  • How should Stanford Engineering be configured to address the major opportunities and challenges of the future?
  • In what areas can Stanford Engineering make significant world‐changing impact?

Then we cast a wide net for answers. We solicited ideas from tenured and non-tenured faculty, from students and staff in the School of Engineering, from our colleagues across Stanford, and from friends and peers in business and academe. Our process was open. What we heard is that we shouldn’t just do research as usual. It wasn’t enough for us to collaborate among ourselves. We are already good at that. To tackle the challenges looming on the horizon, Stanford Engineering will have to increase diversity in every way: in students, in faculty, in knowledge, in ideas.

Majumdar: Among the things our committee did was to ask for written proposals on what we called “Big Ideas.” We expected to get 20 or 30 submissions. We got 90.

Widom: And most of those were multi-faculty. Something on the order of half our faculty were involved in one or more proposals. People really thought out these ideas.

Majumdar: That level of engagement was our greatest source of pride because our job was to distill and represent the interests of staff, students and faculty. And all that input came in a bottom-up fashion.

Widom: The hardest job we had was trying to organize these 90 proposals. There were so many ideas and they were so broad in scope that it was tough to get a grip on what we had and come up with a reasonable set of themes.

Majumdar: The big turn came when we decided to frame the major themes as questions. Because as every PhD student knows, the most important thing is to ask the right question. Once you do that the research you need to do falls into place. So we came up with 10 questions that we believe Stanford Engineering is positioned to make progress on.

Widom: As Persis says, everybody can see themselves and their work in these 10 questions, like, How do we educate in the future? How can we ensure that humanity flourishes in the cities of the future? And so on.

Majumdar: You should tell them about the T-shirt.

Widom: During the pre-planning process our group of five talked to top university officials including President John Hennessy. And his advice was: no peanut-butter plan. By that he meant don’t just spread resources evenly across everything. Think strategically. Pick the spots where we can have big impact and focus on those.

Majumdar: So we all got these shirts with our names on them. And the picture on the back is a peanut butter jar with a big X, to remind us not to spread the peanut butter too thin.

Widom: We had fun, but it was a big commitment and a lot of work.

Majumdar: Yes, it was a bonding experience and that’s one of the reasons the process worked. The dedication was amazing.