Dean’s word: Made-to-order engineering education

May 1, 2014
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Spring 2014

Paul Jacobs and student speakers at Jacobs Hall groundbreakingPaul Jacobs, whose lead gift helped launch the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, joined student speakers Eric Mica, Kate Rakelly and Lavanya Jawaharlal for the April 12 groundbreaking celebration for Jacobs Hall, to open Fall 2015. (Photo by Noah Berger)“I’m not an engineer because I like following procedures. I’m an engineer because of those moments of stuckness, and because of the creativity and imagination it takes to become unstuck.”

Kate Rakelly’s words, spoken at the Jacobs Hall groundbreaking celebration on April 12, show us another side of engineering education—one that embraces open-ended thinking as well as logic. As Kate, an EECS undergraduate, puts it, “Sometimes after a very long time, the ‘aha’ moment comes, usually when you least expect it—when you realize which assumption was wrong, or how to frame the problem in a different way.”

Students choose engineering to design and build solutions for the big problems confronting society: mobile devices to permit better and cheaper health care; data analytics for more efficient energy use; resilient cyber-physical infrastructure for improved public safety. When they choose Berkeley, the world’s best public engineering school, we owe it to them to provide them with a deep understanding of people, technology and society.

We offer our students integrative design experiences throughout their time here at Berkeley—projects that begin with studying end-user needs and lead to harvesting emerging technologies to design, build and launch new products and services.

By tackling complex design challenges early on, our students become motivated to seek out the fundamentals of theory, technology and tools..

By tackling complex design challenges early on, our students become motivated to seek out the fundamentals of theory, technology and tools. This is the core premise of our new Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. In Jacobs Hall, the institute’s future home, our students will immerse themselves in the entire design ecosystem. They’ll do this in multi-disciplinary teams, thus benefiting from various perspectives and becoming better communicators and leaders.

At the same time, our professors are doing more coaching and mentoring in small groups, thereby providing a more customized and student-centric learning experience.

As Sally Thompson of CEE illustrates, “Students in my hydrology class were really struggling. So I modified the class using a blog platform. One team, for example,
explored how seasonal variations in rainfall posed challenges to California water management. Students shared their work with each other and offered peer feedback. Their blogs were vibrant, visually appealing and fun—and great résumé material.”

In this context-based approach, we are matching the traditional depth and rigor of a Berkeley Engineering education with experiential and collaborative problem-solving, relying on real-world scenarios. We think this is the best leadership education we can offer our students as they master the integrated set of skills they will need to design and build our future.

— S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Roy W. Carlson Profesor of Engineering
Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies