At 150, engineering earns limelight

The Faculty of Engineering — an umbrella for four modest majors and two special programs, headquartered behind a bright orange sesquicentennial banner in room 222 of Davies Hall — is finally having its moment in the spotlight. Or more accurately, its month.

For any department, and particularly for one with such a tumultous history at Yale, this would not be a bad October. On Oct. 8, John Fenn GRD ’40, a graduate and longtime member of the faculty won a Nobel Prize for research done primarily at Yale; ten days later, hundreds of graduates returned to campus for the first alumni weekend since the 1980s to celebrate the program’s 150 years of existence and ambitious plans for the future.

Yale began offering a single course in civil engineering in 1852. Eleven years later, the University vaulted to the forefront of engineering education, making history by awarding the nation’s first doctorate in the discipline. One professor turned into a full faculty and the Sheffield Scientific School; one course turned into a curriculum, taught where some Silliman students sleep today. But destabilizing structural changes over the past 50 years turned the school into the precarious conglomerate it was until recently — small but distinguished, liberal, theoretical and waiting for some attention.

This month’s publicity caps a triumphant year for engineering outside the University and one that has given a much-needed boost to the Faculty’s profile within it:

In February, the National Academy of Engineering added two more Yale professors to its roster. In April, the Program in Biomedical Engineering received a $7.1 million National Institute of Health grant to research new treatments for epilepsy. In September, the American Chemical Society declared a Yale professor of chemical engineering a “luminary”; an environmental engineering professor won accolades for a paper on colloidal molecules; and two junior faculty members were listed among the 100 top young engineers in the country.

An electrical engineering professor won the National Medal of Technology. And then there was Fenn.

This would be an impressive resume at a top-ranked engineering school, including the ones housed in imposing buildings at major technical universities. For decades, Yale’s Faculty of Engineering has built robots and observed neutrinos beneath the radar, in offices scattered around Science Hill.

But the University has committed $500 million to updating and expanding the physical structure of engineering and the sciences, so hopefully by the end of this decade, the conglomerate will find a permanent home. Faculty of Engineering Dean Paul Fleury has made recruitment a priority, both of outstanding faculty members and potential undergraduate majors. Whether it becomes a school again one day or just finds a building of its own, the engineering program at Yale warrants recognition; it has accomplished great things in near-constant flux, all the while remaining integrated with the liberal arts at Yale.

And after 150 years, the Faculty of Engineering — idiosyncratic but stable — has earned its 15 minutes.

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