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 LAST WORD

BY STAN A. NAPPER

TO INNOVATE, INTEGRATE

Science and engineering make a good fit.


The National Academy of Engineering has focused considerable effort on engineering education, from The Engineer of 2020 project to creation of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education. These studies, as well as the academy’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, all point to the growing need for collaboration between engineers and scientists. Unfortunately, traditional academic administrative structures have not responded. Most still separate science and engineering, often in entirely different colleges of the university.

Of the more than 300 engineering colleges in the United States, only about 10 percent include two or more basic science academic programs, and only a dozen universities have a college of engineering that includes traditional science programs such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Examples include Clemson University, Tulane University, and Louisiana Tech University.

Louisiana Tech University’s College of Engineering and Science has over 12 years’ experience operating under a multidisciplinary administrative structure, which has created a supportive environment for numerous educational reform initiatives. The science programs were moved from the College of Arts and Sciences into the College of Engineering in 1995. This merger positioned the university to respond to national calls to improve engineering education and resulted in new integrated curricula.

Along with the merger, the traditional departmental structure was dismantled in favor of an approach that removed barriers and promoted collaboration between engineering and science programs. The new structure relies on multidisciplinary teams and was a key factor in the successful establishment of Louisiana Tech’s Integrated Engineering Curriculum in 1997 and the Integrated Science Curriculum in 2002. In this college of 2,000 students, there are no departments, no department heads, and no department budgets. Academic programs oversee traditional and innovative bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Academic program administration is provided by chairs, who oversee student-related matters, and directors, who oversee faculty and resource matters. Directors are selected for their leadership and management abilities, not their discipline. College budget processes were reorganized to support the goals of integration and innovation. Program budgets were merged into a single account managed by a staff team, while programs retained control of gift accounts, and research center budgets remained separate.

The college currently has six interdisciplinary research centers, each led by a center director reporting to the dean. Faculty members from a variety of programs within, as well as outside, the college participate in each center. Faculty members are rewarded for their individual accomplishments and for their participation in team efforts. Overall external research expenditures per faculty member are approximately four times the number that existed before the changes.

This approach was successful in breaking down traditional “silos” and resolving “turf” issues that often exist in university environments. Resulting educational innovations include the first undergraduate nanosystems engineering degree program in the United States; multidisciplinary design courses that include engineering, business, and technical writing students; a freshman enrichment program; the Living With the Lab curriculum (the most recent version of our Integrated Engineering Curriculum); and a Master of Arts in Teaching that enables engineering and science majors to become certified K-12 teachers. The college currently has $3.5 million in National Science Foundation funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects.

Restructuring yields less bureaucracy and fewer turf battles.

In order for an administrative restructuring of this magnitude to work, a cultural transformation had to occur. College leaders held workshops to help faculty understand the need for an innovative administrative structure. The college leadership team made budgets and decision-making processes as transparent as possible. Faculty teams were empowered with real budgets and decision-making authority. But the cultural transformation succeeded largely because of the success of the integrated educational efforts and interdisciplinary research projects.

Educating the engineer of the 21st century will require innovation and interdisciplinary cooperation among engineers, scientists, and others. A multidisciplinary collaborative approach to academic administration holds promise for rising to this challenge.

Stan A. Napper is dean of the College of Engineering and Science at Louisiana Tech University..

 

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