Celebrating 150 Years of Innovation at Columbia Engineering

In 1754 the original King’s College charter declared one of its missions to be teaching “everything useful for the comfort, the convenience and elegance of life.” It’s a goal that seems especially noteworthy as the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science celebrates its sesquicentennial by highlighting the ways it has fulfilled that mission in the past, its present day record of innovation and its plans for future growth.

Columbia News Team
February 13, 2014

“It’s very exciting to have arrived at Columbia Engineering just in time to celebrate the school’s 150th anniversary,” said Mary Cunningham Boyce, who became its 15th dean last July after more than 25 years at MIT. “Our sesquicentennial gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the many great discoveries made here and to also showcase the incredible research going on now.” Engineering faculty, students and alumni are pushing the frontiers of knowledge and technology with pioneering research that includes important work to reduce the cost of DNA sequencing on a chip; grow bone grafts for facial reconstruction that matches a patient’s original jawbone; uncover the physical mechanisms of climate and weather; train the next generation of data scientists; and even help children learn science by creating a build it-yourself digital camera kit.

“This 150th anniversary comes at a pivotal moment in the growing stature of Columbia Engineering,” said University President Lee C. Bollinger. “In a society that’s increasingly driven by new technology, the school’s academic leadership is more essential than ever to the University’s capacity to generate new knowledge and innovation. We see so many examples of this vital role in key in- terdisciplinary priorities ranging from neuroscience, data science and nanoscience to genetic medicine, biomedical engineering, sustainable energy and new media. It’s going to be an exciting year not only for Engineering and its dynamic new dean, but for the whole University.”

Established 150 years ago as the School of Mines—students were trained in mining, mineralogy and engineering—Columbia Engineering is kicking off its sesquicentennial on Feb. 16—the start of National Engineers Week—with a celebratory dinner. A series of more than 30 special events planned throughout the year will culminate on Nov. 15—the day the school first opened its doors to 20 students and three teachers in 1864—with a Founders Day Gala at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Columbia Engineering now has more than 4,300 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs as well as 175 faculty members.

To imagine a world without computers, X-rays, long-distance phone calls, FM radio, television or even the high-resolution displays that make the latest funny cat video that much better, is to imagine a world without Columbia Engineering. An incubator for ideas and innovation, the successes of Engineering faculty, students and alumni include some of the most recognizable developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Columbia engineers created the first computers, walked in space, flew the first helicopters, invented sonar, pioneered nuclear submarines and music synthesizers, and led the research that yielded Blu-Ray and DVD technologies.

Among the recent developments that are helping today’s Engineering students remain on the cutting edge of research and learning is an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration across the arts and sciences. The school also launched the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering to meet growing big data needs, facilitate its analysis, and support and encourage entrepreneurial ventures that emerge from the research underway at the Institute.

“Solutions to the great problems facing the world, such as poverty and access to health care, necessitate a deep commitment to the kind of data-driven empirical research that epitomizes the discipline of engineering,” said David Madigan, executive vice president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “As such, Columbia’s mark on the world is inextricably linked to the ongoing success of SEAS.”

Columbia Engineering is not just guiding and inspiring students on campus: This January, U.S. News and World Report named the school among the best online graduate engineering programs. “I find it amazing that this juncture in SEAS history is occurring at a time when the impact of engineering is so front and center in shaping our lives, and at a time when Columbia Engineering is actively expanding,” said Boyce. “The school is flourishing in the midst of a engineering renaissance, and we are even more enthusiastic about our future.”