By the time the waves of freshmen settled under a giant tent on the Friend Center green for the 2011 orientation program Monday afternoon, the strength and diversity of the record-size class of engineers was clear. The opening freshman enrollment for the School of Engineering and Applied Science is 333, nearly 25 percent more than the previous record in the fall of 2009.
The class includes 127, or 38 percent, women. The students come from 38 states and the District of Columbia as well as 22 other countries, from Bolivia to Uganda.
Dean of engineering H. Vincent Poor welcomed the students and congratulated them on choosing engineering, an increasingly popular course of study among Princeton undergraduates.
“Engineering is really about taking scientific knowledge and bridging it to human aspirations,” Poor said. “A great thing about Princeton Engineering and Princeton University in general is that it is a world-class liberal arts university. You are at a place where not only can you acquire the scientific knowledge you need but you can also learn something about those human aspirations.”
“I encourage you to spend some of your time at Princeton studying whatever it is you’re passionate about beyond engineering,” Poor said.
Although the freshman engineers won’t choose their specific majors for another year, the orientation provided an opportunity for representatives of each of the six engineering departments to pitch their course and research offerings. Students heard about a research project in civil and environmental engineering that could take them around the world in a flying laboratory to study the role of water vapor in climate change. They heard about a senior thesis last year in operations research and financial engineering that used advanced mathematical optimization techniques to create a model to decide whether it is advantageous or not for a basketball player to purposefully foul an opponent in the last moments of a game.
As for mechanical and aerospace engineering? “If it moves, we own it,” said Professor Michael Littman, noting that research in his department ranges from land, air, space and water vehicles to the movements of insects, fish and human cells and fluids.
Richard Register, chair of chemical and biological engineering, summed up his department’s work as harnessing chemistry and biology in the service of “making useful things” – ranging from advanced materials for solar energy conversion to synthetic biological tissue to treat disease and injury.
Representatives of electrical engineering and computer science offered collegially dueling views of how their work drives the ongoing computer and information revolution. “Just think back five to 10 years — there was no smart phone, there was no iphone,” said Antoine Kahn, professor of electrical engineering. “Most of the electronic things that you use in your everyday life” today did not exist back then. “That means electrical engineering has advanced in an incredible way over the last 10 years and we have no idea what will happen in the next 10 or 15 years. Some of you who sign up for electrical engineering will be part of the teams who design these new devices and invent these new concepts.”
David Walker, associate professor of computer science, responded that Kahn had done a great job convincing people to study computers and advocated for students either to major in computer science or to take as many computer science courses as possible.
“Computer science is the new power tool that everyone under this tent is going to use no matter what discipline of engineering you are in,” Walker said, noting that his department has close ties with biology, art, music and mathematics.
The event concluded with a presentation by Professor Sanjeev Kulkarni, director of the Keller Center for Engineering Education, who encouraged students to take advantage of the center’s cross-disciplinary courses, including an alternative freshman curriculum that integrates math, physics and engineering in a unified sequence. Kulkarni also emphasized the center’s many extra-curricular offerings, from internship assistance to programs that foster entrepreneurship.