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Engineering a new curriculum

UC Berkeley is remaking its engineering program to attract new students. On the agenda: nanotech, biology, social engineering.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Engineering and social sciences--it sounds like a bad mix for a dinner party. But S. Shankar Sastry, the dean of the college of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, says it's the wave of the future.

Sastry, who became dean in July, is out to change the curriculum at the university, both to make engineering more attractive to students and to make engineering education more attuned to the demands of the working world.

A major thrust of that effort will be mixing courses from the oft-derided "soft sciences" like sociology and economics, as well as law and design, into engineering students' academic load.

"That is the big, new thing that I'd like to do," Sastry said during a lunch meeting last week. "The time has come for us in engineering to look outwards. The stereotype has always been a quadrangle looking inward."

Other changes are afoot, too. This year, UC Berkeley changed the course lineup for incoming freshman, he said. Nanotechnology and material science are now more emphasized than in the past. Biology also will be more tightly integrated into the traditional engineering curriculum.

Some engineering departments have added a fifth year; participants who chose the five-year plan will come out with an undergraduate degree and a master's of science.

Introducing social science and other disciplines into engineering could, ideally, help bridge the rift that exists between producers and consumers of technology. In the past, engineers have often given too short attention to the "ities," Sastry said: usability, security, manageability. In turn, this has led to support problems, higher costs, uneven adoption and lingering security issues.

S. Shankar Sastry
Credit: UC Berkeley
S. Shankar Sastry

To illustrate his point, Sastry mentioned how three years ago a team of researchers trained a digital camera on Sproul Plaza, the main plaza on campus. The resolution was high enough to allow individuals to read a book of a person sitting on the plaza. But, because of the unintended security issues, the resolution had to be dialed down.

Health care could become a testing ground for some of these ideas. For one thing, it's a huge industry; nearly $2 trillion is spent on health care a year worldwide, and that figure grows by 10 percent a year, Sastry said.

The health care sector is often overlooked by the technology industry, and industrialized nations face a growing population of the elderly. At Berkeley, researchers are working--in conjunction with private companies--on sensor systems that will monitor the activities of older people at home.

"The more you can get out of big care facilities, the cheaper it will be," Sastry said. "We've got to teach our students how to build services and build them into the fabric of society."

Integrating more real-world concerns also can potentially reverse the declining interest in engineering.

"It is a serious problem," Sastry said. "You've got to make (the curriculum) more attractive to them. It will be richer if you make it more connected to the world at large...Students vote with their feet, and they will go to something that is more attractive."

Berkeley isn't alone in trying to mix in these types of subjects. Stanford University has opened its own design school. Chipmaker Intel, meanwhile, has hired anthropologists in recent years to get a better handle on how people, particularly in emerging nations, interact with technology.

So how will Berkeley accomplish this? Engineering courses will focus more on underlying principles and place less emphasis on conducting what can be repetitive exercises.

"We need to teach (students) how to reason about things," Sastry said. "Engineering education needs to be more Socratic and less didactic."

The university, he added, will continue to try to pursue a relatively open research model with corporate partners. In this model, companies such as , Siemens or Cadence provide grants to the university or set up their own labs nearby. However, the university tries to persuade them to use these labs to conduct their nonproprietary research.

"This way the students are free to talk to each other and publish at will," Sastry said.

Despite reports from some universities that it is becoming more difficult for to get visas, the same has not happened yet at Berkeley. The university said it is seeing a slowdown in students from and Taiwan, two traditional hot spots. The downturn, though, is likely because of the improving stature of local universities and hiring bonuses that lure away would-be Ph.D. candidates.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story misstated the month in which S. Shankar Sastry became the dean of the college of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He became dean in July.