In August, The US News and World Report released their rankings for America’s Best Colleges 2009. The report has Tech ranked as the seventh best public school in the nation, tied with the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the University of California – San Diego, and as the fourth best undergraduate engineering program in the nation, tied with the California Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois – Urbana, Champain.
This year, six of the undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering (COE) were ranked in the top five in their respective fields. The Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) program was ranked first in the nation. Aerospace Engineering ranked second in the nation. Tech’s Biomedical Engineering program was ranked third in the nation. Mechanical Engineering (ME) claimed the fourth spot in the national rankings. Electrical Engineering (EE) and Civil Engineering (CE) programs both came in at fifth in their respective categories.
“We believe these rankings show us how good our faculty are,” said John Leonard, Associate Dean for Finance and Administration. “[However], we still have the goal in the [COE] to get more than just one school in the number one spot.”
The US News and World Report compiles the college rankings by gathering data on universities in 15 areas related to academics. College administrators are also given peer assessments, and these forms are also incorporated into the judging criteria.
With regards to the rankings, the school chairs and associate chairs expressed a cautious optimism, explaining that the rankings were a positive reflection of Tech’s current degree programs.
“The politically correct answer would be that the rankings don’t really matter, but in reality, they do help. The rankings are really some of the best kind of advertisement,” said Chen Zhou, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies for the School of ISyE.
Zhou compared the competition between universities to the practice before a game and explained that games are won in practice. The preparation and attention that goes into improving the opportunities for students and providing them more chances to demonstrate their abilities was the practice. Being ranked is like playing the game.
“If we can generate successful students, that’s the [primary goal]. If we’re successful in that, then there’s nothing more we can say. The rankings will come if we can do this,” Zhou said.
The other university units shared these sentiments with Zhou. Widely, the rankings were viewed as a benchmark for progress.
“We were pleased that our rankings are slowly but steadily moving in the right direction. The rankings are not everything, but they are a good indication of what we are doing,” said Gary May, Chair for the School Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).
Both the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the School of Aerospace Engineering (AE) pointed out that the rankings demonstrated the continued quality in their students.
“I think that the overall quality of students at Tech has been rising over the last ten years, and [the School of CEE] has been in lockstep with that trend,” said Don Webster, Associate Chair for the School of CEE.
A couple of the school’s rankings have risen over the past year, with the EE program jumping one spot up to fifth, and the ME program jumping up two spots to fourth. These steady improvements were attributed to new approaches or the development of a new focus in the different schools.
In recent years, the AE program has emphasized the entry of their students into design competitions in order to expand the horizon of their students’ experience. This change also coincided with the AE department encouraging their undergraduates to develop a portfolio of their projects, on top of their normal resume.
Lakshmi Sankar, associate chair for undergraduate programs for the School of AE, said that the administration felt that these actions would help to both provide students the opportunity to work in fields that were desired by future employers and to allow them to more easily show off their work.
An improvement to the senior design program has been one of the main goals in the ISyE department. According to Zhou, a real effort was made to reorganize the senior design program. The whole school has begun to take on the challenge of providing students with as quality set of projects.
Similar changes to the undergraduate curriculum are also being felt in the ECE program. Gradually, the concept of problem-based learning has been integrated over time, with the emphasis being to mix together the teaching of ECE theory and practical application.
Before, students would have a long wait between classes that taught theory and classes that applied the theory. By developing classes based around solving problems and teaching the theory related to those problems in the same class, students would have a context for the material that they learned.
However, the area that all schools under the COE are trying to improve is the ratio between the students and faculty. The COE has currently about 26 students for a single faculty member. This number is higher than the desired and some engineering schools are unsure if they will be able to support more students with their current faculty.
Pushing down the student to faculty ratio is generally believed by the schools to improve the quality of education provided at Tech. However, tight budgets have been preventing the acquisition of new desired faculty.