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From the summer 2003 edition of Purdue Engineering Extrapolations

Comprehending the Whole

Purdue engineering pushes interdisciplinary education as a strategic imperative

From its earliest days–when engineering meant mechanical, electrical, or civil–Purdue has built a record of excellence in the traditional engineering disciplines, consistently ranking in the top 10 in contemporary national surveys of engineering programs. The 2003 U.S. News & World Report survey ranked Purdue engineering graduate programs ninth overall, with seven individual schools ranked in the top 10. The undergraduate engineering programs ranked 10th overall in U.S. News’ September 2002 survey.

This tradition of excellence in the engineering disciplines sets the stage for aggressively developing new cross-disciplinary engineering graduate educational programs that align with the Schools of Engineering’s eight research-intensive signature areas, which are themselves inherently–and highly–interdisciplinary.

Purdue engineering’s signature areas:

• Advanced materials and manufacturing

• Global sustainable industrial systems

• Information, communications, and
perception technologies

• Intelligent infrastructure systems

• Nanotechnologies and nanophotonics

• Renewable energy and power systems

• System of systems (the analysis and synthesis of very large systems)

• Tissue and cellular engineering

"The important challenges that we face as engineers call increasingly for an interdisciplinary approach, both within engineering and between engineering and other disciplines," says Linda P. B. Katehi, the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. "We have to prepare our students accordingly."

Emphasizing graduate education is only natural, says Suresh Rao, associate dean for graduate and interdisciplinary programs and the Lee A. Reith Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering: "Graduate students–our future engineering researchers–and their faculty mentors–who lead Purdue’s new research efforts–form the core of the university’s research and graduate education enterprises."

Some of the desired growth in graduate enrollments in engineering, and Purdue engineering’s strategic goal of doubling the number of doctoral degrees awarded, will be realized in part through the success of these interdisciplinary educational programs, Rao says.

Purdue has long recognized the need for interdisciplinary engineering education. Since 1969 the Division of Interdisciplinary Engineering (IDE) has offered a BSE to students whose interests and abilities lie at the interface between engineering disciplines or between engineering and other disciplines. Acoustical engineering, inventive design engineering, engineering management, and theater engineering are just a few of the custom-designed IDE plans of study. "Our graduates have gone on to work as accountants, managers of computer systems, marketing managers, CEOs, physicians, dentists, attorneys, pilots, professors, architects, and bankers," says Phil Wankat, head of IDE and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering. Current enrollment is held to less than 100, and to date 1,400 degrees have been awarded.

At the graduate level, a combined PhD/MD program offered through the Indiana University School of Medicine and Purdue’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is training physician engineers, with clinical rotations required. A second program, in computational science and engineering, offers MS and PhD degrees to Purdue students studying a specific science or engineering discipline, along with computing (see sidebar below). Within the Schools of Engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineering participate. Several other initiatives are being considered, including ecological science and engineering.

The planned growth in such interdisciplinary programs will require new courses, perhaps team-taught; innovations in teaching techniques; and collaborations with colleagues in other schools at Purdue and other universities. A Purdue Graduate School task force will investigate ways to develop these kinds of programs across the university.

And the result for students in the Schools of Engineering? "An ability," says Katehi, "to comprehend the whole."

Writer: Lisa Hunt Tally