Becoming an equal among giants
As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln joins the Big Ten conference, Husker fans await new competitive athletic matchups and Nebraska Engineering eagerly pursues academic distinction and collaborative opportunities with UNL’s participation in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC).
When the move (effective July 1, 2011) was announced in June 2010, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said, “The Big Ten, known for its athletic prowess, is highly regarded in academe for its academic and research enterprises. There is nothing but upside for UNL to join the Big Ten.”
According to its website, CIC “members save money, share assets, and increase teaching, learning and research opportunities” with a key strength in leveraging investments and ideas. News stories point to collaboration in libraries, technology, cheaper purchasing, leadership development, study abroad and access to courses available at member schools.
What does this mean for the UNL College of Engineering?
Timothy Wei, arriving this summer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to be Nebraska Engineering’s dean, described the opportunities and challenges.
“Eight of the top 20 to 25 engineering schools in the country are Big Ten schools,” Wei said. “In joining the Big Ten, we will be partnering with an elite community in training future generations of engineers, in solving multidisciplinary problems of global importance, and in bringing new technologies to the marketplace.”
“Our challenge is to assume our share of leadership roles across the spectrum of engineering education, research and development. In so doing, we will become an equal among giants,” said Wei. “UNL has outstanding faculty, staff and students with unique skills and facilities that will enrich the Big Ten from the outset. We are all looking forward to the growth and new friendships that will come with membership in the Big Ten.”
More than a dozen Nebraska Engineering faculty graduated from, or have taught at, Big Ten institutions. Josephine Lau, assistant professor of architectural engineering with UNL’s Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, earned her M.S. in mechanical engineering at Purdue University and gained her Ph.D. in architectural engineering from Penn State University.
“My Purdue and Penn State colleagues have told me ‘welcome back to the Big Ten,’” Lau said; when their conversations turn (inevitably) to the topic of football, they admit they are excited for UNL’s arrival.
Lau said being in the Big Ten makes it easier for others to know a school’s level of competence, and it also increases connections.
“With students, this move will enhance our visibility; bring recognition of our school’s brand; and make them more willing to consider and try us,” said Lau. “People from other states should now better recognize and remember Nebraska.” Plus, UNL is ranked most affordable among Big Ten schools.
Knowing Penn State and UNL AE programs, Lau said “the work level is similar.” However, when Lau interviewed to teach with The Durham School in Omaha, she was very impressed by its industry connection. “The level of support is much higher here, and students can locally obtain quality internships very readily. A college town doesn’t often have that level of industry. For career preparation, our Durham students have great opportunities.”
In some cases, collegial involvement has already begun. In Spring 2011, Durham School Director Eddy Rojas initiated a Ph.D. Symposium and invited 16 current Ph.D. students from relevant Big Ten and other highly regarded institutions. Lau praised this outreach for sharing the newest research and engaging people who might join the DSAEC faculty or at least likely spread good reviews in their circles. She said Rojas has received emails from several attendees, expressing interest in further interaction with UNL’s Durham School.
Since 2009 Yuris Dzenis, R. Vernon McBroom Professor of Engineering Mechanics at UNL, has been working on a team for the U.S. Army Research Office developing stronger, tougher fibers for improved defense materials such as lightweight flexible armor. Horacio Espinosa, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, leads this project with a $6.5 million grant through the Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program. The highly interdisciplinary research team, including several other professors from Northwestern and a professor from MIT, develops ways to design and fabricate next-generation disruptive fibers—from the nanometer scale upward—utilizing materials science, chemistry, modeling, and experimentation. Dzenis has brought to the team his expertise in advanced continuous nanofibers, nano- and multiscale mechanics, and precision nanomanufacturing.
In terms of Big Ten impact and access for our students, Lori Straatmann in the UNL College of Engineering Dean’s Office said she imagines instances of Nebraska Engineering students from Big Ten locations taking summer courses at one of those peer institutions, especially ones with engineering programs, as a way to earn credit and get exposure to another learning environment—and vice versa. Big Ten status for UNL may open new doors for summer research experiences, and Nebraska Engineering’s strong set of study abroad trips could attract Big Ten engineering students as well.
As part of Nebraska Engineering’s flag team that waves the section-wide Go Big Red banner at Husker Football home games, Sean Carney—a sophomore from Omaha who studies computer engineering—predicts just as much excitement inside Memorial Stadium for Big Ten opponents. “I know some of the other Big Ten schools have really good engineering programs, and I believe our programs are just as good—that’s why I came here,” said Carney, a lifelong Husker fan. Citing both academic and athletic quality, Carney said, “One of the reasons UNL is joining the Big Ten is that we bring that same standard, if not better.”