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For immediate release: May 28, 2004
Media contact: Steven Schultz, (609) 258-5729, sschultz@princeton.edu

Engineering plan calls for greater focus on societal needs
Engineering school unveils strategic vision

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) today announced its new strategic plan, describing a bold agenda for reshaping engineering teaching and research to better address the needs of society.

Recognizing the profound effect that technology has on nearly every aspect of life, the Princeton vision for engineering calls for greater integration between the traditional pursuit of technological innovation and broader considerations of public policy and social, economic and environmental concerns. The plan builds on the core strengths of the engineering school while fostering a greater interplay between scientific disciplines and a closer connection with the rest of the University and its strengths in the humanities and social sciences.

"Our vision is to create a school of engineering that will meet the needs of the world today and for the coming decades in a way that would be hard for any other school of engineering to achieve," said Maria Klawe, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Klawe gave the first public presentation of the plan, titled "Engineering for a Better World: The Princeton Vision," to Princeton alumni on May 28.

"We have much to be proud of at SEAS," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "Now is the time to build on our past success to lead engineering research and teaching for the 21st century. This is one of the top priorities for Princeton."

The vision statement, available online at www.princeton.edu/~seasweb/, grew out of a year-long strategic planning process that involved more than 750 faculty members, students and staff as well as alumni and leaders from other institutions and industry. The school held 11 workshops on topics ranging from issues of graduate and undergraduate education to specific research areas such as nanotechnology and information technology. The resulting plan was presented to Tilghman, the Board of Trustees and the faculty earlier this year.

A common theme of the strategic planning process was the need for a multidisciplinary approach to solving problems. The most challenging problems demand not only a variety of technical expertise, but also a range of non-technical perspectives, said Klawe. "If you want to have an impact on the world, you have to understand policy and commerce and economic implications," she said. "You have to understand human beings."

This vision counters the conventional view of engineering as a narrowly focused, exclusively technical endeavor that has limited interaction with other areas of research or society. Engineering at Princeton has never entirely conformed to this model; students are well rounded and the small size of the school facilitates cross-disciplinary initiatives, Klawe said. Princeton will build on these advantages to transform engineering into a field that is closely connected to many other disciplines and is better equipped to tackle real-world problems.

The strategic plan outlines two foundational initiatives concerning teaching and research. It then proposes a number of focused research initiatives that address societal needs and build on the strengths of the engineering school and the larger University.

The first foundational initiative focuses on setting a new standard for excellence in engineering education by integrating real-world problem solving into the basic curriculum and exposing students to more interdisciplinary opportunities. At the same time, the engineering school will expand its already successful efforts to engage non-engineers in learning about technology. Currently nearly two-thirds of all Princeton students take at least one engineering course; the school's goal is to increase that number to 95 percent in 10 years.

"Whether students are studying English, history, public policy or psychology, we want virtually every one of them to take courses that will equip them to understand technology of the future, how it is created and how it interacts with society," said Klawe.

The second foundational initiative is "to create an environment in which high-impact interdisciplinary research germinates and thrives," according to the vision statement. The plan advocates the creation of a school-wide hiring process to recruit faculty members who bridge the six engineering departments: chemical engineering; civil and environmental engineering; computer science; electrical engineering; mechanical and aerospace engineering; and operations research and financial engineering. These faculty members are expected to help jump-start initiatives that might not have arisen within conventional departmental boundaries and have great potential to address real-world problems.

The plan also calls for the construction of new laboratory space, including open, multi-user facilities that will attract visitors from industry and other institutions and spawn collaborations.

In addition to these initiatives, the strategic planning process identified nine specific research areas in which Princeton has substantial strengths and that have great potential to address real-world problems. These areas range from technology specific subjects such as bioengineering, information technology and nanotechnology to subjects framed by societal needs such as electronic privacy and security and engineering for the developing world.

In all these initiatives, the strategic plan emphasizes the importance of achieving a broad diversity among engineering faculty and students regarding gender as well as cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds. "If engineering is to become truly engaged in understanding and solving societal problems, its practitioners must reflect society," the statement says. "Increasing diversity will facilitate new approaches and ways of thinking about engineering, while strengthening the link between technology and society."

The combination of initiatives described in the plan will not only yield benefits to society but will establish SEAS as one of the nation's leading engineering schools, said Klawe. "I believe that if we do what we are setting out to accomplish, we will attract the best students, the best faculty, and we will have an enormous impact," she said. "I believe that other engineering schools will look to us and cheer us on and use what we do as leverage to push their own schools forward."

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