Reengineering the graduate engineering curriculum

A student controls a roving robot with remote control

A student on the NYU RoboMaster Team UltraViolet, a Vertically Integrated Project, demonstrates a rover as NYU President Andrew Hamilton looks on at last year's Research Excellence Exhibit

At NYU Tandon, students are encouraged from day one to think of how they will eventually use the knowledge they acquire to solve real-world problems and forge a viable career path. 

That means incorporating more hands-on, experiential learning opportunities, such as Vertically Integrated Projects; stressing sustainable engineering practices, and ethics and responsibility when developing algorithms and other new technologies; and encouraging multidisciplinary teamwork — all elements that will allow students to excel in dynamic, fulfilling jobs. It also means ensuring that they know how to go about finding and winning one of those jobs, which is why their very first Introduction to Engineering course includes sections on preparing a professional portfolio, making presentations, and other necessary skills.

This type of curricular shift — expanding on foundational technical knowledge to encompass instruction on professional skills and ethics — is something that even seasoned graduate students can leverage for a leg up. So Tandon has made several innovative enhancements to its graduate offerings, including a new Master of Science in Emerging Technologies program, which allows students to enroll in one of nine interdisciplinary concentrations — including in-demand fields like robotics, cybersecurity, and data science — all delivered fully online and offering an unprecedented level of flexibility for an advanced engineering degree. (Students choose 12 credits from their chosen concentration, including a final capstone course geared towards solving a specific concentration-related challenge. The remaining 18 credits are composed of electives from more than 50 courses offered across the entire Emerging Technologies program.)


On the right track

Also on tap is a new doctoral track in urban science, run under the auspices of Tandon’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). The 16 students in the first cohort hail from departments across the school, including mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and biomedical engineering. 

“Everyone is welcome to apply,” explains CUSP director Maurizio Porfiri, an institute professor whose Dynamical Systems Lab conducts research in the general area of complex systems, from animal behavior and mechanics to human-machine interactions and modern cities. “Students pursue doctoral degrees in their individual disciplines but focus some of their training on urban science. By pursuing part of their research on urban science, they join our community-building weekly colloquium and take electives at CUSP in complexity, informatics, and sensing.”

Broadening their academic focus in this way means that a biomedical engineer might ultimately decide to work to increase access to telehealth in underserved urban areas, for example, or that a mechanical engineer might aim to build new sensors to predict and mitigate environmental contamination.

“CUSP is committed to conducting translational research that goes from the lab into practical application in urban settings; in fact, we consider all of New York City a living lab,” Porfiri says. “Students here get a chance to interact with a variety of community members and government agencies and see the results of their work firsthand.”


A One-Stop Shop

Although doctoral students spend a great deal of time in their labs, pursuing a Ph.D. does not mean sequestering yourself there. That’s true whether their aim is to remain in the ranks of academia or to obtain a position in industry, where their subject expertise can catapult them to the C-suite and beyond.

Excelling in any of those environments takes a host of skills, and Tandon’s newly inaugurated Ph.D. Hub is dedicated to ensuring that doctoral candidates have every resource needed to succeed.

students watching a panel presentation
New Ph.D. students get information and advice  from seasoned Ph.D. candidates at an orientation event

The Hub’s director, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Vikram Kapila, explains, “We wanted to develop a place that would function as something of a one-stop shop for any concerns our graduate students may have, whether those relate to academic issues, professional development, effective communication, or building and participating in the school-wide doctoral-student community.”

With the tireless efforts of Hub manager Jamie Lloyd and input from faculty colleagues and doctoral students, Kapila has created a suite of offerings that include:

  • A writing course that stresses fundamentals vital not just to doctoral dissertations but to journal articles and conference papers. Because students get to read and give feedback on their peers’ work, the course also fosters a sense of community and support.
  • The opportunity to work with a local troupe of actors and improv performers to boost confidence, hone presentation skills, and increase comfort with public speaking
  • A special topics course open to seniors, master’s students, and early Ph.D. candidates, aimed at demystifying the application process for National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Lloyd and Kapila stress that this is not just a workshop, but a formal, for-credit course.
  • Multiple workshops per semester on topics ranging from financial literacy to mental health and from mentoring to leadership skills

We want every Ph.D. student who walks through the doors of Tandon to know we are here,” adds Lloyd, “and to know that we are intent on providing them with everything they need to thrive in what is probably one of the most challenging but dynamic academic environments they have ever experienced.”