A new era begins for the engineering school

By Davis Jones

USD engineering students won the lottery last fall upon hearing the news of philanthropist Darlene Shiley’s $20 million gift for a new school. As to how that money will be spent, Founding Dean Chell A. Roberts says the distribution needs the sort of careful thought as if they had won the real thing.

“Some people think that you get this big lump of $20 million and then you have to figure out how to spend it,” Roberts said. “And that’s not how it works at all. Usually donations work over time, so first you don’t have the money all up front, but it comes in. And even when it comes in, you usually work off the interest of it, so it founds something. Then you’re able to work on an operating basis.”

In his inaugural year as Dean of the new Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, Roberts hopes to use the $20 million to establish a foundation that carries USD to an even higher level of national recognition. He credits the building blocks of that foundation as a major attraction regarding his interest in the university.

“One of the fundamentals for an engineering student to come to USD is this: the $20 million came as a result of the things we’ve already done,” Roberts said.

“They’re the same reasons why I came to USD. One of the reasons I came here was because USD has the foundation to be a top ten school. One, because it’s private, and two, it’s already rated [by US News and World Report] as the No. 25 best undergraduate engineering program in the country, even though it’s a new school.”

“It’s achieved that reputation because of something the people here were doing right already,” he said.

University statistics show that many have taken notice. As of fall 2012, 363 students were enrolled in USD’s engineering program – triple the count since 2004. USD is also one of the few schools in the country that offer a dual BS / BA degree, combining personalized technical instruction with a liberal arts overview. The program has become so popular, in fact, that faculty members are scrambling to keep pace.

“The most pressing need across engineering is for more faculty,” professor of electrical engineering Kathleen Kramer said. “We have tripled in enrollments, but the faculty has not grown to keep up with the number of students.”

Coordinator and Professor of electrical engineering Susan Lord shares Kramer’s opinion.

“This [donation] was very exciting for us,” she said. “The mechanical department has had the most students and the most faculty. We actually have a record number of junior engineers this year, which is fantastic. It’s a good problem to have. We might even have to split into different lab sections.”

The school’s surge in popularity has led Roberts to consider not only new lab sections, but even new disciplines.

“Faculty will certainly be an area we invest in for this upcoming year,” Roberts said. “There are 15 faculty members beside myself in the new school. What we want to do is grow that, not only in our three current areas – mechanical, industrial and electrical. We will add at least one new disciplinary degree.”

He cited industries in biotech, in software, and in green and blue economy as disciplines in which he sees potential for USD students to thrive.

“I’ve met with many industry leaders to try to pick the areas that focus on regional needs,” Roberts said. “We want students to be able to connect with industry. We want them while they’re in school to have partnerships and internships and opportunities to work on realistic projects that are representative in this region, and there are a number of those areas that are very interesting.”

When addressing the size of his goals for the new school, Roberts recognizes the need for proper facilities in order to handle them.

“Number two, we will invest in state-of-the-art facilities,” he said. “I’ve had an architectural firm start to develop some ideas and conceptions from other universities that will be similar to what we’ll probably have here in Loma Hall. We are looking to expand Loma Hall where it will eventually be maybe three stories over here above the bookstore.
This is of course what I want to do. But part of the money is to help us build these facilities.”

Roberts then pointed out framed pictures lining the walls of his office. One was a replica patent of Edison’s light bulb. Another was a replica patent of the Wright Flyer, the aircraft flown by the Wright brothers in 1903.

“The idea of people creating and inventing, sort of this history of invention. We want to create engineers who are innovators who do this routinely, who see our studios and our labs as playgrounds to invent and create.”

The donation’s final investment, Roberts says, will go toward the ones who are turning that innovation into reality – the students.

“We’ll take some of that money and invest in scholarships,” he said. “I want to give students the ability to invent and to innovate and to create and to work with faculty on projects.”

Students can look to jumpstart their fall semester with the engineering career fair set to take place on Nov. 7. Those interested in full-time employment, part-time employment and internships might leave hitting the jackpot. According to Roberts, students have won it already by choosing USD.

“Regardless of the $20 million, this is a great place to come to go to school. You get a lot of personal attention, you get smaller classrooms, and you get to work with mentorship and with faculty who really care about the teaching aspect of our mission,” he said.

“But now what we’re able to do is up that. We’re going to make it better than it was before with our investments in faculty, in students and in facilities. So not only before you were able to come to a Top-25, now you can come to a Top-25 that’s getting better and better. This will continue to be a better and better place, and I’m excited. I came because I really believe this is such an up-and-coming place with such great opportunity.”