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Austin Business Journal: Five Minutes with Dean Fenves

Dean Gregory Fenves

In its April 1 issue, the Austin Business Journal featured a Q&A with Dean Gregory L. Fenves.

UT wants the engineering and business schools to collaborate more. What kinds of opportunities do you hope that will foster for engineering students?

Educational collaborations take place at three levels in our undergraduate engineering programs. The first is engineering students electing to take courses in business fundamentals.

The second is offering new courses where engineering students work with business students to create technologies that meet market needs. Finally, as an enrichment of the degree programs, many engineering and business students get involved in entrepreneurial competitions and activities.

What kinds of opportunities do you hope such efforts will foster for engineering faculty?

There are two broad areas. In engineering education, bringing entrepreneurship into the classroom is exciting for many engineering faculty in that it shows the relevance of scientific and engineering concepts. In research, faculty are interested in how the results of their investigations and experiments can translate to the marketplace and impact society in positive ways.

How important is it for students to graduate with an understanding of how the business of engineering works, such as how engineering firms compete for business?

Every engineer needs to understand how they contribute to the workplace. Just as companies have become more collaborative and team-oriented, so too have our classroom settings. No one works alone; everyone contributes to the bottom line. This is a common conversation I have with our UT engineering alumni.

Describe the ideal relationship between the engineering industry and engineering schools.

One of the strengths of the Cockrell School is its deep relationship with industry across all sectors. Industry leaders serve on the advisory councils for each of our seven departments and the school's Engineering Advisory Board. They provide essential feedback and validation of the engineering curricula and programs. Industry support for our research mission provides value to our sponsors and the university. In 2010, nearly 20 percent of our $150 million annual research funding came directly from industry. We are always seeking strategic alignments between industry and the research conducted by our faculty and students.

How does the Cockrell School prepare students for careers in engineering?

First and foremost, we teach at the undergraduate level the fundamentals of science and engineering. This is the knowledge that has the longest shelf life, and faculty combine it with the research results to teach rapidly changing technologies. Next we prepare students to be creative developers of new technology through their design experiences in courses. Also, students learn how to effectively communicate their ideas and develop leadership skills.

Which engineering disciplines do you see undergoing the most change? How so?

We are learning to engineer human biological systems the same way we have mastered mechanical, electrical and chemical systems to produce the amazing technologies of today. Biological systems are complex and offer exactly the type of challenges engineers are trained to tackle, in this case, solutions for the diagnosis and treatments of diseases.

How does the engineering research at UT affect economic growth in Texas?

Robert Solow, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, attributes a large portion of economic growth to human capital and intellectual capital. This is what UT engineering produces. In short, engineering is a job creator. A 2009 economic impact study of the Cockrell School shows more than 15,000 jobs in Texas are a result of the engineering school's education and research, and it translates to $3 billion annually in total expenditures and $1.3 billion in annual contributions to the state domestic product. The technologies developed at the Cockrell School fuel future economic growth in Texas. The discoveries we make today will become the industries of tomorrow.

What types of technologies are being created at UT?

UT engineering covers the full range of current technologies, and we are always looking to the future. The solutions developed by our faculty and students address grand challenges in energy, health care, sustainable infrastructure, advanced manufacturing and earth and space systems. A few examples are creating fuel out of algae, building advanced batteries, designing customized prosthetics, improving how our computer systems communicate with one another, analyzing complex satellite images for better forecasting of extreme weather.

What strategic initiatives do you have planned for the Cockrell School?

An absolute key to our future as a nationally top-ranked engineering school is our strategic master plan for facilities. Modern facilities are essential for us to teach engineering to nearly 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and to pursue leading-edge research needed for new technologies. Plans are under way to build the Engineering Education and Research Center, which will be a transformative building for The University of Texas at Austin, the city of Austin and the state. It will provide us with the tools to teach engineering to future generations of students and provide urgently needed space for research teams to solve new problems.

What does engineering education look like in the 21st century, and how has teaching evolved?

Engineering education will continue to have a primary focus on science and technology as it evolves, and at the same time nurture innovative thinking and leadership skills. Our teaching must combine the fundamentals with the creative side of engineering — inventing new products, systems and services through entrepreneurial thinking and action.

The Engineering Education and Research Center will include an impressive new teaching laboratory for students to learn hands-on through team and individual projects. This style of learning, collaboration among the engineering disciplines and teaching critical thinking will ready our students for the fast-paced and competitive world that awaits them.


Dean Fenves wrote an editorial that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on March 5 and The Dallas Morning News on March 4. Download a printer-friendly version of Fenves' editorial (PDF).