A new design for engineering education

Amanda Burke/Staff

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On June 13, we had the great honor of hearing Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of the global semiconductor company Qualcomm, announce a $20 million gift to UC Berkeley during a live webcast of the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago.

Dr. Jacobs — who holds three degrees from our department of electrical engineering and computer sciences — chose to announce this gift before a global audience because he sees how critical Berkeley engineering and its graduates are for America’s future as an innovation economy.

“Today, it is not enough to provide our future engineering leaders with technical skills,” he said. “They must also learn how to combine art and engineering, how to work in interdisciplinary teams, how to iterate designs rapidly, how to manufacture sustainably and how to address global markets.”

What does this commitment mean for UC Berkeley students? First of all, it allows us to launch a new Institute for Design Innovation here at the College of Engineering. Drawing upon advanced 3-D printers and other prototyping equipment and software, our students will design and fabricate new devices and services for biomedicine, clean energy — wherever Berkeley engineers can improve people’s lives.

At the same time, we see this as a significant step toward the complete reinvention of engineering education at Berkeley. Undergraduates choose engineering because they want to build and make things. We will nurture this interest in experiential education by offering students multiple design experiences during their time at Berkeley, from the cornerstone (freshman year) and keystone (sophomore and junior years) to the capstone (junior and senior levels).

By providing our students, especially undergraduates, with design experiences early and often, along with opportunities to reflect with their peers on what worked and what did not, we will lay the foundations for a leadership education. The ability to articulate, design and innovate will be combined with the traditional technical rigor of a Berkeley engineering education.

Ask anyone to describe an engineer, and you’ll probably hear words like “logical” or “good at math” rather than “creative” or “artistic.” But we agree with Paul Jacobs that successful engineers must possess creative design skills and entrepreneurship skills on top of deep technical understanding.

Our students amaze us with their ability to come up with new and original solutions to problems. We want to give them forums to experiment, bake off various solutions against each other and learn from failures. Serial entrepreneurs will tell you that trying out new things and learning from failure is critical to successful innovation. Even if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you get started. You make some right turns and some wrong ones, and you learn more about the best direction as you go along.

We are taking our cue from the innovation playbook and from what our students love doing to rethink engineering education, to infuse it with a deeper emphasis on design and learning by doing. Visit any number of classes — EECS and new media professor Eric Paulos’ critical making course, a course on design thinking co-taught by mechanical engineering professor Alice Agogino and Haas professor Sara Beckman, or bioengineering professor Amy Herr’s senior capstone design course — and you will see our own maker movement taking shape at Berkeley.

Four students in Herr’s class, for example, teamed up this year with a practicing surgeon to invent a better laparoscope — one that does not need to be cleaned periodically during surgery. Their inspiration? A simple ballpoint pen.

We are also reshaping our prerequisite courses to focus more heavily on design. This year, students in professor Al Pisano’s introductory class on rapid prototyping designed automotive suspension struts by mastering concepts on finite element analysis — concepts that are typically taught in the senior year. Design is at heart an integrative experience, and we need to incorporate advanced concepts into instruction throughout the undergraduate sequence.

Our proposed Institute for Design Innovation will allow us to meet surging student demand for experiential learning. The institute’s offerings will go beyond mere skill development; they will also provide our undergraduates with opportunities to practice leadership. Many studies show that these kinds of opportunities, especially when they come early in engineering education, boost retention rates and keep more students in the pipeline toward rewarding engineering careers.

Paul Jacobs cites this as the real reason why he and his wife, Stacy, made their $20 million gift to UC Berkeley. “Students will get the satisfaction of doing actual designing and making — and the motivation to continue,” Jacobs said. “Berkeley graduates more than 1,200 engineers each year. And roughly a quarter of them are women. Diversity is critical for successful innovation, and Stacy and I see Berkeley as a place that embraces diversity.”


S. Shankar Sastry is the dean and Carlson professor of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. Fiona M. Doyle is the executive associate dean and McLaughlin professor of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]