Sanjeev Kulkarni, an acclaimed teacher and engineer whose research ranges from signal processing to philosophy, has been appointed director of the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.
Kulkarni, whose appointment began Sept. 1, 2011, takes over from Sharad Malik, Princeton’s George Van Ness Lothrop Professor in Engineering, who will return to full-time teaching and research after completing a five-year term leading the Keller Center.
“Sharad has done a tremendous job as Keller Center director, greatly expanding opportunities for all Princeton students and bringing the center to the forefront of educational innovation,” said H. Vincent Poor, dean of engineering.
“I am greatly looking forward to working with Sanj in the years going forward,” continued Poor, who was the center’s founding director before Malik. “He already has a tremendous track record of the kinds of educational innovations that the Keller Center was founded to facilitate. I am confident that he will continue the momentum of the center’s first six years, building on the existing programs and moving the center forward into new initiatives as the additional resources become available from the foundational gift by Dennis and Connie Keller.”
The center was created in 2004 as an outgrowth of a year-long strategic planning effort at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. At the time, the school identified several existing courses that took a cross-disciplinary approach to engaging humanities and social science students in learning about technology and created the center to further strengthen and increase such offerings. The center also seeks to broaden the education of all Princeton students, including engineers, by creating more opportunities for hands-on experience, entrepreneurship, public service and cross-disciplinary teamwork.
Princeton alumnus Dennis Keller of the class of 1963 and his wife Constance created a $20 million endowment for the center in 2008. The center, which has the mission of “educating leaders for a technology-driven society,” now supports more than 20 courses, including a freshman engineering curriculum that integrates math, physics and hands-on engineering into a single course sequence. In conjunction with the Center for Information Technology and Policy, the center recently created a certificate program for undergraduates, the Program in Information Technology and Policy and Society.
The center also administers several funds for student projects conducted outside of the classroom and offers numerous internships, from positions with technology start-ups to international research assignments. It has become a hub of entrepreneurship on campus, hosting visiting faculty members, workshops, speakers and events including a yearly Innovation Forum.
Kulkarni said he is eager to build on this foundation and continue to expand partnerships with other departments and centers across campus, as well as the residential colleges.
“Engineering education is for everyone,” Kulkarni said. “Many of the most pressing global issues have technology at their heart, so in today’s world a broad liberal arts education has to include some understanding of technology and its role in society.”
Kulkarni, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1991, is a professor of electrical engineering and an affiliated faculty member with the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering. He is a seven-time winner of the Excellence in Teaching Award from the student-led Engineering Council, won the Distinguished Teaching Award from the engineering school in 2004, received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2007, and won the Phi Beta Kapp Teaching Award in 2009.
In recent years, Kulkarni has taught three undergraduate courses, which cross conventional academic boundaries in different ways. Since 1999, he has been teaching “Introduction to Electrical Signals and Systems,” a required sophomore-level course in electrical engineering, which he expanded to include broadly relevant examples such as JPEG and MPEG compression technologies, which are key to sharing pictures and video on the Internet. As a result, the course now attracts as many students from other departments as it does from electrical engineering.
Kulkarni also teaches “The Wireless Revolution,” a 300-level course that provides an overview of the technological, business, regulatory and social aspects of the explosion in wireless technology over the past 15 years. The course, started by Poor in 2000, typically attracts over 100 students from across the University.
In one of the most surprising intellectual connections, Kulkarni joined with Gilbert Harman, professor of philosophy, in 1997 to teach “Learning Theory and Epistemology,” a course that is jointly listed by their two departments and connects fundamentally related concepts from engineering and philosopy. The problems of learning and pattern recognition, Kulkarni said, are common to how both people and computers learn about their environments. “We address questions such as, What are good algorithms for learning? What does it mean to know something? What is the role of simplicity?” Kulkarni said. The course typically draws 40 to 50 students from all years and majors.
Since 2004 Kulkarni also has served as master of Butler College, one of Princeton University’s residential colleges, where he oversaw major construction and renovation in Butler’s facilities in addition to serving during the University’s transition to the four-year college system. His term as master will end in 2012.
From 2003 to 2005, Kulkarni served as associate dean in the engineering school, playing a key role in the strategic planning that led to the creation of the Keller Center. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to come full circle and become deeply involved in a vibrant center that was just an idea when we started,” Kulkarni said.