Faculty and students discuss factors that contribute to College of Engineering's success

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 - 10:10am

In fall 2015, private gifts to the University of Michigan College of Engineering totaled nearly $46.5 million.

Nearly all of the 12 College of Engineering’s departments ranked in the top ten engineering departments in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.

And while the University itself has an acceptance rate of 26.2 percent, the College of Engineering’s acceptance rate for fall 2015 was 24 percent — providing the 13,461 first-year applicants a less than one-in-four chance of acceptance.

These extensive private funds, consistent nationwide and international rankings, and low acceptance rates are the tip of the iceberg for the University's College of Engineering.

With 397 total tenured and tenure-track faculty, 6,351 undergraduate students and 1,742 graduate students, the College of Engineering has topped ranking lists since its establishment in 1854, including being ranked the sixth-best engineering school in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.

Twelve departments and 17 undergraduate programs of study — 14 of which have received specialized accreditation by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology — are clearly part of what distinguishes the engineering school from hundreds in the country. But what else helps it consistently maintain its spot in the top 10? 

Many aspects of College of Engineering's success

Engineering Dean David Munson said there are many aspects of the College of Engineering that allow it to maintain its rankings and consistently receive funding year after year.

“We have grown a little bit each year in my time as dean,” Munson said. “We’ve hired really exceptional faculty members and, especially during the time of the recession and those surrounding years, when other universities didn’t have the resources to hire very many, if any, new faculty members in engineering, we hired basically as many top-notch people as we could find, and we really have an exceptional junior faculty that goes along with a really fine senior faculty.”

However, a high-quality faculty is just one facet of the college’s success, Munson said. Since he moved to Ann Arbor in 2003, Munson has helped put many strategies into place to ensure students were receiving a top-notch engineering education, including improving the undergraduate experience through co-curricular and outside classroom experiences, such as the Center for Entrepreneurship, which encourages entrepreneurship among engineers, and expanded international programs.

“We’re working to get as many of our undergrads as possible to spend time overseas — whether it is in the form of a summer job, summer internship overseas or taking courses at a university or doing research overseas or perhaps offering volunteer service overseas,” Munson said. “We’ve tremendously ramped up the percentage of our students who are involved in those activities.”

Additionally, the Multidisciplinary Design Program — which involves students in large projects that are significant to modern industry and technological advances — has played a role in improving the College of Engineering alongside efforts to integrate engineering with the arts-related units on North Campus, like those in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Various programs, a minor track offering courses outside engineering and the recently implemented Living Arts section of the Bursley dorm — a learning community which brings together students from the different North Campus schools — are just some of the strategies to encourage creativity within the college.

Similarly, Munson said increased collaboration with the Ross Business School has allowed the college's entrepreneurship program to expand each year. Jointly with the University’s Office of Technology Transfer, faculty and students can file for patents, launch start-up companies and expand their research through a business perspective.

Aside from goals aimed at improving the undergraduate experience, Munson said research takes up a substantial part of the College of Engineering’s goals, with annual research expenditures reaching more than $225 million a year.

Munson said the College of Engineering frequently partners with the Medical School.

“Between Engineering and Medicine, we are one of only two universities in the nation that have both top-ranked engineering and medical schools on the same campus, and so that conditions us in this great way to work so intensely with medicine,” Munson said.

The College of Engineering also partners with certain departments in LSA, such as the natural sciences and mathematics departments, as well as the School of Public Health, which make the undergraduate experience in the college unique.

“I think the undergraduate program we offer really is noticeably different and better compared to most other universities,” Munson said.

Ultimately, Munson credits much of the success of the college to multiple goals he and other administrators have set in place, including searching for the best faculty, staff and students — which has become much more competitive over the years.

“Our student selectivity has just tremendously improved in the last 10 years,” Munson said. “It’s much, much harder to gain entrance in engineering than it was 10 years ago.”

Though Munson is retiring from his position as dean and will be replaced by Alec Gallimore, he said he is looking forward to taking an administrative leave, working on any project of his choosing and watching the college continue to advance, especially in areas such as precision medicine and intelligence systems.

Robotics Research 

Last month, Engineering Prof. Jessy Grizzle and his doctoral engineering students completed work on MARLO, one of the first robots of its kind that has the ability to stand alone and walk on two feet. This project, just one example of the thousands of research studies at the College of Engineering, is something Grizzle believes could not have been completed without the University’s emphasis on the quality of faculty publications and research, as well as its constant challenge to increase the level of difficulty of problems being solved.

“There are no barriers here,” Grizzle said. “Even though I’m in electrical engineering, it’s very easy for me to work with students from mechanical engineering, and I need a variety of skills. It’s very easy for me to write a grant with a colleague in another department … We don’t have to be islands of success … the College of Engineering is very supportive of collaboration, whereas if you go to other schools, faculty tend not to collaborate amongst themselves nearly as much.”

Grizzle, who has been at the University since 1987, said he started working with robots during his time overseas. When he returned to the United States, he was able to collaborate with colleagues across the country to bring a robot to the University. Grizzle, in collaboration with Jonathan Hurst, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, soon built MABEL (Michigan Anthropomorphic Biped with Electronic Legs), and eventually improved upon their work and created MARLO — a robot capable of moving in free space. 

As a part of the robot series called ATRIAS (Assume The Robot Is A Sphere), there are only three copies of this type of robot — one at Oregon State University, one at Carnegie Melon and MARLO at Michigan. 

“MARLO can walk in place, walk sideways, forwards, backwards, can be pushed extremely hard without falling over, can walk blindfolded over amazing amounts of rubble, walks indoors, outdoors, and pretty soon we’re going to take her over the Wave Field (on North Campus),” Grizzle said. “The reason we’re working on blindfolded walking is that we really want these robots to go into search and rescue situations in the long term … We make the robot blind and it has to keep itself upright without any knowledge of the terrain that we are throwing at it.”

Grizzle said he and his collaborators are testing the robot’s limitations and can program its reactions to be as efficient as humans'.

“That’s what we’re trying to build into our robot's mind, if you wish, the ability to react well to standard variations in terrain, and then we push it even farther to make it super extreme, such as variations that you’ll find at the Wave Field,” Grizzle said.

The ATRIAS series robots are some of the only bipedal robots nationwide, Grizzle said. Though other robots are more unique in that they are more humanlike, MARLO is particularly unique in that it is energetically efficient, meaning it can travel quite far on a single battery charge and is capable of dynamic maneuvers — which is ulitmately part of what contributes to MARLO’s success.

“What’s really, really the product that we produce are the mathematical algorithms that give these robots their innate ability to walk well,” Grizzle said. “The second product that we produce are fantastic students that take up positions as leaders in the area of robotics, either in industry or in academia. Thirdly, we do the experiments on robots because we learn a lot from touching the hardware, and we understand where the models are correct and where the models are deficient of these complicated machines. We prove to others in the field that we have algorithms that work on a broad class of machines by the methods we develop at Michigan.”

Grizzle said he credits much of his success with MARLO to the University’s encouragement, as prior to coming to Michigan, he did not plan on working much with robots at all, and certainly did not plan on setting up his own lab.

“Here, in the College of Engineering we are given tremendous freedom to work on essentially anything we want,” Grizzle said. “The main direction we are given is to challenge ourselves and to challenge the prevailing wisdom in a field whatever needs to be challenged … Here we have a very open spirit.”

Center for Entrepreneurship 

Much like how MARLO is unique, when the Center for Entrepreneurship was founded in 2007, it was rare for an entrepreneurship education to be offered outside of a university’s business school, Sarah Bachleda, communication and marketing maven for the CFE, wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily. Now, not yet a decade later, other universities wanting to create a similar program seek advice from the University.

Bachleda wrote that the CFE aims to provide students and faculty the comprehensive learning opportunities in entrepreneurship, and it has been successful due to its perspective on entrepreneurship from both an engineering and technology angle. Bachleda added that CFE's ability to change its program to accommodate a constantly changing society and needs of students also has contributed to its success. 

“Students…are increasingly demanding entrepreneurial education and experiences as part of their time here,” Bachleda wrote. “We focus on providing these students opportunities that will get them the most value for their time. That takes shape by connecting them in and outside of the classroom with mentors and teachers who can speak from true experience about what it takes to be entrepreneurial. It also involves providing actual, physical experiences where students go through the process themselves.” 

Students can get involved with CFE in many ways, such as through gateway courses, seminars, specialized classes, a year-long Entrepreneurs Leadership Program — which offers a cohort of students with the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs outside of the University —  or study abroad opportunities. Those who are interested in building a start-up company can apply for jump-start grants, seek advising and mentorship or participate in The Startup competition and TechArb, a program designed to help students with their business ideas. Faculty members are encouraged to bring their ideas forward as well. 

“Since CFE was established, our staff has made significant strides in shaping our center to support students and faculty from all backgrounds and ambitions in entrepreneurship,” Bachleda wrote. "We call that having a complete ‘pipeline’ of resources to support entrepreneurship here on campus. We help students/faculty with ventures, and students/faculty who can benefit in any career from learning about entrepreneurship. Particularly highly-technical students, such as engineers.” 

Bachleda wrote being a part of the University has opened doors and contributed to the program’s success.

“The biggest benefit for us has been the incredible interest, involvement and support from U-M alumni in developing our programs and in being available to connect with students as mentors. They are our students biggest fans and closest advisors, which is an experience for our students that is uniquely Michigan.” 

Baja Racing

Justin Lopas, a recent mechanical engineering graduate, said he feels prepared to enter the engineering industry after attending the University. He credits much of his success not only to the College of Engineering, but also to the experience he received through being the team captain of the Society of Automotive Engineers Baja Racing team, which every year competes in a competition in which they race an entirely new off-road vehicle.

“We apply the theory we learn in the classroom in a hands-on, real-world application,” Lopas said. “The team is the hands-on approach to learning — we learn about things like fluid dynamics or materials science type things in our mechanical engineering classes, and then we go and design a part of the car.”

Inside the Wilson Student Team Project Center on North Campus, students can work on their own projects for extracurricular and educational purposes, Lopas said. The center supplies many of the tools, materials and machines needed for the competition-winning Baja Racing team and Solar Car team, among others, and allows for these teams to run ideas by each other.

“There’s a lot of cross-collaboration in that sense, and it’s very rare to see a college that has something like the Wilson Center,” Lopas said. “The Wilson Center is a great resource to our team as well as the other teams.”

He attributes the team’s wins — most recently, finishing first overall in the nation after their three annual competitions — to the convenience of the center and the independence those on the team are able to exhibit.

“We have basically no faculty involvement,” Lopas said. “That’s kind of cool because we really can control the direction of the team. The one thing we do have from outside involvement, though, is sponsorship.”

Lopas said it is beneficial to the team to be able to take control of the project without much faculty guidance. With a $75,000 cash budget, however, Lopas said the team is able to partner with local companies and other automotive supply companies to receive funding, alumni guidance and design reviews. In turn, many of the members of the team were recruited following graduation.

“Most of our students get internships and full-time jobs, including me, at the companies that sponsor the team,” Lopas said. “They like to hire students that have the hands-on approach to learning … It’s really looked upon as a great engineering learning experience, being on a team like that.”

Lopas said the best aspect to the Baja Racing team — and the College of Engineering in general — is the ability to work in teams.

“They try to include a lot of team-based, project-based type classes, especially in mechanical engineering,” Lopas said. “It forced you to really understand how important teamwork was. From my internships, and, of course, from people telling me, I know it’s very important in the working world — working in groups and teams, and Michigan really stresses that in the engineering college, which is great.”

Nuclear Engineering

Ronald Gilgenbach, chair of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Department, said he started as an assistant professor at the University in 1980. Prior to coming to Ann Arbor, however, Gilgenbach worked on the gyrotron at the Naval Research Lab, indicative of the high-quality faculty the College of Engineering has acquired.

“What makes our department excellent is the high quality of the faculty and the graduate students and the fact that we have top facilities and laboratories that our faculty and students use to do great science and engineering,” Gilgenbach said.

Gilgenbach said many different projects, including work done by Sara Pozzi, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, running work running a Consortium for Verification Technology, contribute to ranking number one in the nation for top engineering graduate schools, according to U.S. News and World Report. This $25 million project on nuclear nonproliferation technology is in collaboration with 12 other universities — including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Princeton University, Duke University and Columbia University — and nine national labs over a five year span.

Another project, as part of the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, is a $120 million effort working with several national laboratories and about half a dozen universities to develop virtual nuclear reactors in computer simulations.

Gilgenbach said the department is one of the oldest nuclear engineering departments nationwide, training top-notch nuclear engineers for 50 years. 

“We’ve been essentially the pioneers in training the top scientists in nuclear engineering for many, many years,” Gilgenbach said.

Additionally, Gilgenbach has been working toward restarting a medical physics program in partnership with the radiation oncology department and, for the past six years, has spear-headed the $12.5 million project to reconstruct and improve the department’s former nuclear reactor.

Ultimately, Gilgenbach said the College of Engineering, and the University as a whole, has contributed to the success of the department and continuously encourages the department to remain a top competitor in the nation.

“The College of Engineering historically has cultivated a culture of excellence among the faculty, which gets transmitted to the students, and the College of Engineering is very supportive of that culture of excellence and basically can find ways to access the resources that we need to achieve excellence," Gilgenbach said.