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A vision for the future of Stanford Engineering

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January 2016

I am pleased to share with you a vision for the future of Stanford Engineering.

As you know, in early 2015, Stanford Engineering formed a committee of faculty, staff, and students to help determine what we wanted the School to look like in the decades to come and how we should configure the School to address the challenges and opportunities of the future.

The first output is a set of 10 aspirational questions that identify key areas in which the School of Engineering can make significant world-changing impact. Among them: How can we ensure that humanity flourishes in the cities of the future? How do we secure everything? How good can we get at engineering living matter? How can we use autonomy to enable future engineering systems?

These are not questions that can be answered by Engineering alone, but Engineering is core to finding the solutions. You can view the 10 questions here, linked to a series of related white papers that describe the grand challenges and how Stanford can play a leadership role in finding the solutions.

The second output is a series of recommendations, again backed up by a set of white papers, that articulate how we need to evolve the culture, deploy resources, and create the conditions that will allow our faculty and students to have impact on those grand challenges. Those recommendations focus on elements of how we educate our students, how we conduct research, and the culture in which we do both.

In the area of education, the question we face is how to educate the 21st-century engineer. Although technical depth will always be important, we increasingly expect engineers to have the skills and knowledge required to define the relevant problem and work toward solutions that can be implemented and are culturally appropriate and sustainable.

Given the importance of educating what we call the humanist engineer, and the opportunity we have at Stanford to do so, we have decided it is time to take all the experiments from which we have learned over the last few years and begin to rethink the engineering core curriculum. That process is underway in collaboration with our colleagues in the School of Humanities & Sciences and we will update you as we move forward.

We will also plan to continue the process of bringing more experiential learning and hands-on experience into the early years of an undergraduate’s education. We can build upon what we have accomplished at the Product Realization Lab and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the, and in more recent experiments in teaching and learning.

In the area of research, our young mid-career faculty have grown up in an interdisciplinary world. They have collaboration in their DNA. The committee suggested an ambitious vision for how we can advance interdisciplinary collaboration going forward, and how we can engage on the 10 questions they identified in a dynamic and flexible way.

At the core of our plan is what we are calling the “Accelerator for Collaborative Engineering,” which will allow us to build teams of top scholars and thinkers from a variety of fields and backgrounds to collaborate and find solutions to some of these critical global challenges.

Culture, the third focus of the recommendations, will, perhaps, be the hardest to fix. It will take institutional will and sustained effort. Top of the list will be a commitment to increasing the diversity of our faculty and our students. The issue is complex and there is no single solution, but we are moving forward on many fronts. Early efforts include a focus on STEM companion courses for undergraduates and need-based financial aid for engineering co-terms. Keeping students who want to be engineers in the pipeline is the goal.

This autumn, I shared these key ideas with the Stanford Board of Trustees, with the Faculty Senate, at a Dean’s Circle event, and with our faculty and staff. They have been greeted with lots of enthusiasm. There is broad recognition that many of the committee’s recommendations will require new resources, as well as new ways of thinking, but the ideas and recommendations lay the foundation for the faculty and students from Stanford Engineering to have an impact on the world’s most urgent challenges in the future.

I look forward to sharing more with you as we move forward and to your continued engagement and collaboration.

Persis Drell

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering 
James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering
​Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Physics, Stanford University