What does the great engineering school of the future look like?

Stanford School of Engineering charts a vision for the future across three critical areas: research, education and culture.

Stanford Engineering building with palm trees

Asked to imagine Stanford Engineering’s future, faculty cited collaborative research and hands-on education as the keys to solving society’s biggest challenges. (Image credit: Drew Kelly)

When Persis Drell became dean of Stanford School of Engineering in 2014, she quickly saw that the school was in extraordinary shape: It boasted young, imaginative faculty, burgeoning enrollment and state-of-the-art-facilities. She also knew that the great engineering school of the future would look very different from what Stanford Engineering looks like today – but how? Equally important, what would the school need to do to prepare for that future?

To address those questions, the school launched the SOE-Future process. In what is believed to be the first school-wide strategic planning process, the school brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including mid-career faculty, students and staff. After six months, they emerged with recommendations and ideas, which were shared this fall with the Board of Trustees, the Faculty Senate and School of Engineering faculty and staff, and are this week being made public.

One key output of the process is a set of 10 broad, aspirational questions on areas where the School of Engineering would like to have an impact in 20 years. Among them: How can we ensure that humanity flourishes in the cities of the future? How do we secure everything? How good we can get at engineering living matter? How can we use autonomy to enable future engineering systems?

“They are not questions that can be answered by engineering alone,” Drell says, “but engineering is core to the solutions.”

The committee also returned with a series of recommendations that outlined actions across three key areas – research, education and culture – for how the school can deploy resources and create the conditions so that faculty and students can have impact on those grand challenges.

All of the recommendations point to even greater engagement with the rest of the Stanford community. Committee co-chair Arun Majumdar, the Jay Precourt Professor of Mechanical Engineering, says the committee recognized that the school needs to increase the number and strength of collaborations with scholars in other units of the university, including in the sciences and humanities, medicine and business, law and the liberal arts.

“Then we took that idea one step further,” Majumdar says. “We need a way to reach outside Stanford, perhaps outside of academia, to bring the brightest minds together in teams to focus on the toughest challenges.”

To accomplish this, Stanford Engineering will create the Accelerator for Collaborative Engineering. The Accelerator will provide new resources for interdisciplinary research. It will help bring together, through a competitive fellowships program, teams of faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds – from Stanford and beyond – to work together to find solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges.

“We call it Interdisciplinary 2.0,” Drell says.

Committee co-chair Jennifer Widom, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, sees the Accelerator as a bold way to address the SoE-Future 10 questions and help fulfill the school’s overarching mission.

“If you want to sum up our committee’s work in two words, they would be ‘enabling impact,'” she says, noting that finding new sources of energy and water and dealing with rapid urbanization in developing countries “are areas where policy is very important and engineers are not necessarily well versed.”

As a result, she says, it is critical to bring in non-engineers, who have the kind of expertise that will be required to find solutions to these complex, multifaceted challenges.

Another strong tenet of SoE-Future is how to best educate the next generation of students.

Committee member Philip Levis, an associate professor of computer science and of electrical engineering, says his most memorable moment of the SoE-Future process was sharing teaching experiences during a group retreat.

“As we went around the room, each of us talking about how education has changed, we realized that it wasn’t just in our disciplines,” Levis says. “Things are shifting across the entire school. And there’s a common theme with these changes: Students want to make things.”

Stanford Engineering will address that challenge by finding ways to create “maker spaces” throughout the school, similar to those already in place at its Product Realization Lab. It is also rethinking the engineering core curriculum in collaboration with colleagues in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

SoE-Future also encouraged the School of Engineering to renew its commitment toward increasing both faculty and student diversity, with a focus on diversifying the pipeline of students into the field. In the engineering core and in partnership with the physics, math and chemistry departments and the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, the school is investing in programs to ensure that any student who comes to Stanford who wants to major in a STEM field but might not have had access to the prerequisite classes in high school can still accomplish that.

In addition, the school will expand a program that provides financial aid for students who want to begin a graduate degree while completing their undergraduate requirements through Stanford’s co-term program.

Creating this roadmap in less than a year testifies to the dedication of the mid-career faculty who formed the core of the committee, aided by non-engineering colleagues, staff and student representatives.

Committee member Sarah Billington, the Milligan Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, says SoE-Future cast a wide net in seeking ideas from faculty and staff, and members were gratified – and a bit overwhelmed – to receive almost 90 written proposals, many with multiple authors.

“About half of the proposals were around research; the other half around culture or education,” Billington says. “What I really loved was that about 80 percent of the proposals involved interacting with people outside engineering.”

Drell says the inclusiveness of the process is what helps guarantee success.

“SoE-Future is not my plan,” she says. “It draws on ideas from our faculty, students and staff, on suggestions from colleagues across and off campus. As a result, the faculty and students see their work and their priorities reflected in the plan.”

This summer, the school began to move forward on some of the initiatives that did not require new resources. For example, it began to look at how to implement recommendations to ensure the success of non-tenure-line faculty, who teach some of the school’s largest courses and are a key part of the undergraduate experience.

Now, the school is beginning to move forward on the recommendations that will require new resources, as well as new ways of thinking. Drell says that taken together, the ideas and recommendations across research, education and culture will lay the groundwork – the foundation – for Stanford Engineering’s ability to have significant impact on the world’s most urgent challenges.

“The engineering school of the future does not need to wait for 20 years to be achieved,” she says. “We can start doing that now, and we’re going to.”

Learn more about the future of Stanford Engineering.