In a time of growing complexity and emerging opportunities, the world needs more engineers who can serve as technical leaders and innovators to address dynamic global challenges. Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has a unique role to play in meeting this need, guided by a mission and vision focused on attracting and educating aspiring engineers who are prepared to make a difference in the commonwealth and the world. 

Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering, recently shared an update with Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors on the college’s progress toward several key initiatives in support of that mission. Bolstered by engineering’s strategic plan implementation process, Ross reflected on important accomplishments while outlining priorities for the next several years.

As the university’s largest college, with programs spanning 12 departments and two schools, engineering’s total number of enrolled students grew to approximately 11,500 in 2020. The college’s rising profile and size has led its leadership to consider how to approach effective methods of scale that include increasing access to important learning opportunities for all students, said Ross.

“Experiential learning serves as the bridge between foundational concepts and applied knowledge,” she said. “For engineering students, these experiences might take the shape of internships, co-ops, undergraduate research, study abroad, industry-sponsored design projects, or other programs. In order for more students to benefit from these experiences, we need to support increased offerings while lowering the barrier for participation.”

This past year the college participated in Virginia Tech’s pilot program for career bridge experiential learning, a new university initiative focused on providing all students with equitable access to experiences that help them bridge academic learning and professional practice. Parsing these connections between curriculum and career preparation will continue to be an area of ongoing focus for the college, said Ross, and dovetails with recent internal efforts to support, recognize, and reward instructional excellence.

The college also continues to align its educational mission with its research enterprise, focusing on identifying research areas of distinction for strategic investment as well as the possibility of establishing interdisciplinary curricular spines. These initiatives leverage the college’s broad research portfolio, which totaled more than $263.7 million in external research expenditures during fiscal year 2020, to increase undergraduate and graduate student opportunity in expanding fields like data-driven technologies and the health sciences.

While graduate education will continue to be a focus for the college, said Ross, the Innovation Campus will fuel growth in programs that align with the state’s Tech Talent Investment initiative. These computer science and computer engineering graduate degree tracks will span both the Blacksburg campus and the Innovation Campus’s Alexandria location, where the university will break ground on the first academic building this month. The college has recently hired faculty members in both Blacksburg and the greater Washington, D.C., metro area to support growth associated with the Tech Talent Investment initiative.

As the Innovation Campus, led by Inaugural Vice President and Executive Director Lance Collins, sets a bold goal to become the most diverse graduate tech program in the country, so too is engineering moving ahead with programs and partnerships to increase the representational diversity of the college.

“Inclusiveness is one of our core values,” said Ross. “It enables us to foster collaboration while learning from the unique experiences and perspectives of others. It’s imperative that our college – and the engineering discipline – look more like the commonwealth and the global communities we serve. What starts here in our classrooms and labs helps to advance the boundaries of engineering in ways that benefit all of us.”

As part of these efforts, the college has developed several programs, Mastering Your Future and Step to the Doctorate, that focus on helping students successfully navigate graduate school application processes and professional development opportunities. Hosted through the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, these programs complement the college’s growing relationships with partner institutions like Virginia State University and Norfolk State University. The college has also restructured undergraduate scholarship awards to focus on multiyear commitments, which assist with recruitment and retention.

Perhaps the most visible signs of engineering’s progress, said Ross, can be seen in the college’s expanding footprint and physical presence on campus.  With eight capital projects currently in the works, the capacity and potential offered by the college’s expanding – and improving – physical infrastructure are set to increase dramatically over the next several years.

Notable projects include a renovated and expanded Holden Hall, home of the materials science and engineering and mining and minerals engineering programs, which is set to open to students in fall 2022. Space in the new Data and Decision Sciences Building, as well as several other facilities, will welcome computer science programs and faculty. And Randolph Hall, which currently houses multiple engineering departments and programs, will see a full replacement that boasts 284,000 square feet of space.

“When we started the strategic planning process several years ago, our strategic planning committee identified a lack of appropriate physical infrastructure as one of the college’s largest weaknesses,” said Ross. “These capital projects are laying a strong foundation for impactful programs and research activity for the next generation of Hokie engineers.”

Just as the college’s physical infrastructure is benefitting from improvements, its support infrastructure has also been an important focus, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on feedback from faculty and staff, the college will seek to maintain positive flexibility in work schedules and arrangements that arose due to the pandemic while addressing concerns about overall work-life balance.  

“Though we’ve had a challenging year in many respects, engineering is moving forward with its strategic plan, and we’re making significant progress,” said Ross. “Through this intentional and sustainable work, I’m confident our college will continue to be a leader for positive change in our discipline, at Virginia Tech, and across higher education.” 

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