Engineering with a Mission

There’s something wonderfully appropriate—at least in terms of metaphor—about the fact that the first engineering lab at Santa Clara opened in 1912 in an old seed warehouse. Plans and ideas and ambitions planted and nurtured have yielded remarkable fruit in their first hundred years—including work today in fields such as bioengineering and nanotechnology that were entirely the stuff of imagination a century ago.

The president of Santa Clara at the time, James P. Morrissey, S.J., saw the opening of a college of engineering as instrumental to building “a great Catholic University.” Indeed, the same year the program in engineering was inaugurated, Santa Clara College officially became a university.

The first dean of engineering, George L. Sullivan, guided programs for 43 years and, in 1936, earned it accreditation for programs in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering—making it the first Catholic university west of the Mississippi with accredited engineering programs. After World War II, those programs put seasoned veterans who were coming back to school on the GI Bill in the classroom alongside fresh-faced 18-year-olds. And, as the Santa Clara Valley was transformed from the Valley of Heart’s Delight to Silicon Valley, new programs and technology and a spirit of entrepreneurship kept Santa Clara abreast of the changes. The arrival of a 7-foot-tall, 200-square-foot mainframe computer in 1960 was big news for the local press.

But the grounding of engineering at a Jesuit university means that more than know-how comes into play in teaching and learning. For example, the 1970s saw the creation of the Department of Engineering Management and Mission Leadership, and amid the energy crisis Professor Dick Pefleyled groundbreaking research in alternative fuels.

In recent years, Santa Clara has found itself on the world stage through programs that include graduate studies in sustainable energy and projects like the Department of Energy’s International Solar Decathlon, in which teams from Santa Clara competed in 2007 and 2009—and, with two third-place finishes to date, are at it again for 2013—to build and operate an energy-efficient, functional, and livable solar-powered house.

Recently the school has also teamed up with the Center for Science, Technology, and Society on the Frugal Innovation initiative, which focuses on designing and building projects to help the developing world. That certainly fits with the engineering school’s declared mission: “Be known and treasured, in Silicon Valley and beyond, for the impact of its graduates and faculty on improving the human condition through engineering education, practice, and scholarship.”

The past several years, Santa Clara’s engineering program has earned a few special distinctions. Among them: In terms of the percentage of women on its engineering faculty, it’s tops in the nation. And this past February, Dean Godfrey Mungal was invited to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama. The occasion, which included a handful of deans from other engineering schools: recognition for Santa Clara’s commitment to retain and graduate more engineering students, since this serves not just the community but the nation and the world at large. The four-year graduation rate for engineering students at SCU is about 66 percent, compared with 22 percent nationally at public schools, and 45 percent at private institutions.

Where do we go from here? On the pages that follow, explore a few fields that illuminate some of the trajectories of where engineering is headed—with a couple glances of where it’s been: soaring over California fields with an early pioneer of heavier-than-air flight, carrying men to the Moon in a Saturn V rocket, and landing the heaviest, most complex interplanetary robot ever built by NASA on the surface of Mars.

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