Finally, embracing engineering

To many engineering students, the sight of a newly completed engineering building on the corner of Prospect and Trumbull in recent days was a reassuring reminder of the Levin administration’s commitment to a continued revamping of Yale’s sciences and engineering. After about a year’s construction, the Malone Center will serve as home to the newly established Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Consistently ranked among the very best in the humanities and social sciences, Yale’s intellectual milieu over the years has, unfortunately, borne the mark of a rather odd incongruity when compared with those of peer institutions like Stanford, Columbia and perhaps even Harvard. While Yale’s natural science departments continue to lead the way in several key areas of their respective disciplines, their counterparts in engineering seem to have fallen a step too far behind. After serious talk about a decade ago of dissolving engineering altogether as part of a controversial restructuring program proposed by Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale at the time, the department, I’d say, is still recovering from decades of neglect.

The situation with engineering at Yale surely presents interesting questions. Does engineering really have a place in a school like Yale? If so, what exactly is it? The issue, I believe, hasn’t quite been given the direct attention it deserves over the years, resulting in the terribly equivocal position the University seems to have had on it, perhaps until now. The essentially nuts-and-bolts approach to academia so characteristic of engineering really does form an essential aspect of higher learning. Perhaps more than any other discipline, it is engineering that bridges the gap between academia and industry. As most engineers love to put it: scientists create knowledge; engineers apply it. The application of knowledge not only serves as a testing ground for the cerebral abstractions of theory, it also provides the nurturing that brings ideas to life.

That’s not to say there exists no intrinsic value to learning. But in a society that increasingly turns to technology for solutions to its most basic problems, the importance of the practical simply cannot be overemphasized if Yale is to remain a breeding ground for leaders at multiple levels of society.

Few would deny that the rapid technological advancements of the past three decades were due largely to breakthroughs in engineering. Yahoo started out as a personal hub for favorite Web sites on the laptops of two Stanford engineering grad students. Names like Google, Sun and Microsoft all had similar beginnings. Does the prize of distinction in the humanities necessarily come at the cost of underachievement in other fields like engineering? I’d hardly say so. Schools like Stanford have probably demonstrated this in ways Yale could be humble enough to learn from.

Yale boasts of having awarded the first engineering Ph.D. in the United States to Josiah Willard Gibbs, a contemporary of Maxwell and leading thermodynamicist of the 19th century. The fact of Gibbs’ legacy, however, seems to have lost its pizazz after over a century of equivocations. Nonetheless, the move to start building on strengths is definitely a step in the right direction. Given its uniquely interdisciplinary bent, biomedical engineering will very likely remain at the helm of things as new winds of change sweep across Yale Engineering.

Ever since the days of the Sheffield Scientific School, the question of engineering and its place in the University has lingered unanswered. Thankfully, the Levin administration seems to have taken on the challenge with a renewed commitment to the arduous task of rebuilding. It will be a long road to recovery, but the end is definitely worth the start.

Michael Nkansah is a junior in Calhoun College.