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May 22, 2006

Engineering school must innovate to stay atop rising competition

By David Orenstein

Will a top engineering student in China or India still dream of coming to Stanford 10 years from now? In an era of increasing global parity, the Stanford School of Engineering must offer innovative and compelling research and teaching to remain a pre-eminent destination for the world's best faculty and students, says Dean James D. Plummer.

"We cannot presume that we can just rest on our laurels," Plummer told an audience that packed the Clark Center auditorium for his annual State of the School address May 11. In the talk, titled "Innovation in Engineering Education," he outlined a strategy designed to ensure Stanford Engineering's leading position even as India and China develop strong graduate engineering programs. "We are, or we soon will be, in a much more competitive global environment than we have been in the past."

The increasing stature of overseas programs is not an immediate crisis for Stanford or the United States, Plummer said. He pointed to a recent Duke University study of statistics ostensibly showing an overwhelming number of engineering graduates in India and China. Those figures are inflated, the study found, while U.S. numbers are discounted. But a plan to remain ahead of the pack, while a long-term need, is crucial nonetheless, he said.

Plummer's three-pronged approach focuses on developing innovative teaching models, attacking globally important research problems and lowering barriers for students to attend Stanford.

Innovative teaching will prepare students to be leaders, to excel in multidisciplinary teams and to be creative. The school has been developing several programs to begin providing this extra layer of preparation on top of teaching the fundamentals of specific disciplines. One example is the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, which teaches students principles of entrepreneurship. Additionally, at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, students collaborate in multidisciplinary teams to design products, experiences or services to meet human needs ranging from clean water to financial planning.

A program, Research Experience for Undergraduates, offers students the chance to experience cutting-edge engineering research by spending the summer in a professor's research group. By exposing students to research, the program encourages many to consider continuing their engineering education.

Research can inspire undergraduates, top graduate students and faculty alike to come to Stanford, so Plummer is emphasizing four major research initiatives that address the most compelling global issues where engineering has a key role: human health, environment and energy, information technology and nanotechnology.

"People want to work on things that are going to make a difference," Plummer said. "If we're taking on the really big problems, then we're going to attract really smart people to come here and work with us."

In some cases research is bolstered by multidisciplinary ventures such as the Bioengineering Department (run jointly by the schools of Medicine and Engineering) and the Global Climate and Energy Project. New buildings planned as part of the Science and Engineering Quad II and renovations elsewhere also will advance the research agenda.

"Every single one of our departments, within five or six years, is going to be in 21st-century facilities," Plummer said.

The final element of Plummer's vision is to lower the various hurdles that can prevent the best students from attending Stanford.

One of these hurdles, the traditionally low diversity of engineering schools including Stanford, is all the more important to overcome in the current environment of global competition. As the school faces stiffer competition for international students, Plummer said, it will be especially crucial for the school to attract the brightest minds in the United States. By recruiting more top female students, for example, the school could engage more of a population that remains grossly underrepresented.

The school is deeply committed to attracting more women and underrepresented minority students, Plummer said. The dean's office works with the departments to identify talented students and to provide funding through the school's graduate fellowship program.

Increasing the number of graduate fellowships also will be vital to maintaining Stanford's competitiveness in attracting international students, most of whom require financial support. Another key step for recruiting these students is easing the visa process.

Amid increasing competition on the global stage, Plummer said, Stanford Engineering is positioning itself to stay on top. "I think our goal should be to be the leading engineering school in the world," he said.

David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager at the Stanford School of Engineering.

Editor Note:

A photo of Dean James D. Plummer is available on the web at



David Orenstein, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,


James D. Plummer, School of Engineering: (650) 723-3938,

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