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Hitting a Stride

POSTED ON: December 13, 2021

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RoboMoth by Michelle Rosen

RoboMoth, an insect-scale, flapping-wing robot developed by Michelle Rosen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

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Solar Hinge render

Solar Hinge, a proposal developed by Cooper's Solar Decathlon VIP team for a New York State Homes and Community Renewal Vital Brooklyn site consisting of modular-constructed affordable housing.

When Barry L. Shoop took the reins as dean of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering in January of 2019, he described the school as being at an inflection point. College graduates were entering a world increasingly defined by technological change and complexity. Dean Shoop set his sights on reinvigorating Cooper’s “legacy of innovation,” as he calls it—a longstanding commitment to benefiting society through well-rounded, civically engaged education. The result was a six-year strategic plan aimed at preparing graduates to address emerging global challenges, from the implications of increased automation and artificial intelligence to breakthroughs in medicine to the urgent demands of the climate crisis.

Now midway through his 2025 strategic plan, Shoop reports that the school of engineering is making strides towards its goals and there are no intentions of slowing down. Helping Shoop usher in this progress are Lisa A. Shay, who joined in 2019 as the school’s associate dean for educational innovation, and Ruben Savizky ChE’98, who became associate dean for academic affairs last year after serving in a leadership role through the school’s period of administrative transition. Together, the deans have been looking to the future of engineering education, and the transformative work they are envisioning for Cooper is well underway.

New Faces on Cooper Square

One of the most notable changes has been the addition of seven full-time engineering faculty members over the last two years. With most of the lines opened as a result of retirements, the new hires constitute a 21 percent change in the school’s tenured and tenure-track faculty and “bring energy and excitement, currency of disciplinary expertise, and a breadth of pedagogical skills,” according to Dean Shoop. “A turnover of this scale in such a short time represents an exciting new beginning that can only contribute to our relentless pursuit of educational excellence.”

Growing the school’s faculty of accomplished researchers and professionals has helped advance several of Shoop’s strategic goals—particularly a focus on sustaining educational excellence by drawing upon diverse experiences. He notes that 33% of the school’s full-time faculty are now women, up from 18% just three years ago. The engineering student body has grown more diverse too, while the quality of students remains as high as ever: this year’s incoming Class of 2025 comes from 13 countries and is comprised of 15% underrepresented minorities, 40% women, and 21% first-generation college students.

“The literature is replete with studies confirming that students succeed at a higher level when their faculty represent the diversity of the students,” explains Shoop. It is also important for the school’s definition of diversity “to encompass all aspects of human differences, including a broad variety of personal circumstances, experiences, perspectives, and opinions.”

The Cooper Union’s historic emphasis on educating students from all walks of life was a compelling factor for many of the hires, including Fabiola Barrios-Landeros, who hopes to serve as a role model for women and students of color: “I have a deeply personal sense of duty to nurture an inclusive campus, to support underrepresented minorities, and to bridge the gender gap in STEM.” She says she was drawn to the school of engineering’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as core values: “As a Latina, these topics resonate with me. My number one passion is education of science, so I just knew this was my spot.”

Funding Innovation

Another major focus for the deans has been encouraging work at the intersection of disciplines. Dean Shoop introduced an Educational Innovation Grant in 2019 to support faculty-led efforts aimed at experimenting with leading-edge pedagogies and widening the scope of engineering curricula to address timely and socially significant issues.

For example, the grant funded a Spring 2021 course called Introduction to Sustainability and Alternative Energy Technologies, which drew students from all three of Cooper’s schools. Co-taught by Amanda Simson, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Benjamin Davis, professor of chemical engineering, it explored how sustainable technologies and alternatives to fossil-fuel-generated electricity relate to broader questions that cut across different fields and areas of expertise. As Davis explains: “The course taught students about environmentally and socially responsible technologies to give them perspective on how we must make things at scale for our growing and increasingly affluent global population in an equitable way, while still having minimal impact on our valuable ecosystems.”

Momentum has also been building for another area of societal importance: bioengineering. Last year, the school of engineering received a $1.6 million gift to unify and raise awareness of bioengineering and biomedical education, research, and project activities. This three-year grant provides funding for a Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering, summer salaries and research expenses for five faculty researchers, five graduate research fellowships, and five undergraduate research assistants. The grant will also support curricula as part of a new bioengineering minor officially approved last spring and opened to students this semester.

“It’s a really exciting time to be at Cooper if you’re interested in bioengineering,” says Shoop. “This large grant will allow us to bring together and solidify all of the diverse bioengineering and biomedical activities that have been going on here.”

Last spring, Dean Shoop moderated a symposium on the intersection of healthcare and engineering to highlight ongoing biomedical research by Cooper faculty and students, including five mechanical engineering seniors working on their capstone project under Eric Lima ME’02, professor of mechanical engineering. The group’s project builds on Professor Lima’s research related to medical devices by designing a catheter meant to increase collateral blood circulation to people who have suffered an acute ischemic stroke.

Over the summer, Lima was named the inaugural Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering. He is co-directing a new program with collaborators at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) designed to introduce engineering students to nephrology, a branch of medicine concerned with the physiology and diseases of the kidneys. “I expect really great things to evolve over the next few years,” Lima says. “We have the minor, we have the faculty, we have the funding for research, and we have the avenues for students to continue to graduate work or clinical work after they graduate.”

Support for innovation has also come from the IDC Foundation, a charitable organization that provides grants to institutions in the New York City area to advance research and education in fields related to architectural design, engineering, and building construction. In 2018, The Cooper Union received $2 million to develop the IDC Foundation Art, Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (AACE) Lab, which officially launched operations last December and provides a space for students to collaborate with their peers in other disciplines. This past spring, the organization granted Cooper an additional $400,000 for a three-year IDC Foundation Innovation Initiative.

The initiative will provide opportunities to expand and integrate work across Cooper on two different fronts: an AACE Lab Advancement Fund, which supports faculty and students who are incorporating the lab into curricula or using the lab’s resources for projects, and an Innovation Fund reserved for deans to launch new courses. This fall inaugurates the first full year of funding, initially supporting several team-taught courses that involve engineering faculty, including a course on machine learning and the built environment and a course on health and design.

“The additional three-year grant will enhance curricula and embrace opportunities for innovation,” says Raymond R. Savino, president of the board of directors of the IDC Foundation. “The Foundation looks forward to seeing the exciting advances that Cooper’s faculty and students will achieve.”

Project-based Learning

Dean Shoop’s goal of elevating a culture of collaboration and innovation in the school of engineering has also led to reevaluating students’ first-semester experience—in particular, the required project course Engineering Design and Problem Solving (EID101). In the lead-up to the Fall 2020 semester, a group of faculty members along with Associate Dean Shay reimagined EID101 to incorporate participatory design and to see if the course could serve as a space for engineering first-years to form social connections. The faculty members drew inspiration from the 2020 Olin College Summer Institute, a weeklong virtual workshop dedicated to helping educators design student-centered learning experiences.

“Participation in pedagogy workshops and engaging in research in engineering pedagogy directly support the strategic goals of student success and educational excellence,” explains Shay. “Not only is this good for our students, but through collaboration our faculty also gains a new appreciation for each other’s gifts.”

The reimagined EID101 course, built around topics under the theme of “Engineering for Social Good,” includes small project teams and a new undergraduate student mentorship model. Giving first-years the chance to learn from upper-level classmates proved especially important in the last year of online learning, supplementing the work of Associate Dean Savizky who has been advising new students and leading a seminar series to help them get acclimated to Cooper.

Multi-year collaboration is also the centerpiece of a course structure known as Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP), a concept pioneered by professors at Purdue University and being spearheaded at Cooper by Neveen Shlayan, associate professor of electrical engineering. VIP courses allow students to participate in long-term projects with peers from other disciplines while solving real-world problems. The initiative launched last year and now includes several team projects, including Smart Cities, Solar Decathlon, Cooper Motorsports, and Bioengineering.

Melody Baglione, professor and the George Clark Chair of Mechanical Engineering, is co-teaching and leading the development of the VIP Solar Decathlon course alongside David Wootton, professor of mechanical engineering, and Cosmas Tzavelis, professor of civil engineering. The course is organized around a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored competition and is among those that received support from the IDC Innovation Fund, which allowed for the addition of Julián Palacio, a practicing architect and adjunct faculty member from The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, as a co-instructor. “In the real world, architects and engineers work together all the time,” says Baglione. “So, this is new in that it’s a systematic way to collaborate. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn from each other.”

She says last year’s Solar Decathlon VIP experience drew students from all four engineering disciplines to work virtually with architecture students on responding to the theme of the 2021 Solar Decathlon, which challenged teams from colleges across the country to design and build low-carbon buildings that mitigate climate change while improving quality of life. Cooper’s design submission was a proposal for a New York State Homes and Community Renewal Vital Brooklyn site and consisted of modular-constructed affordable housing for at-risk homeless populations and a community-based health clinic.

The students and faculty met regularly with design partners from Magnusson Architecture and Planning and BrightPower as well as NYCHA urban designers and a mechanical engineering alumnus from Arup. The team produced a design they call the Solar Hinge, so named because it consists of two “hinged” building volumes, one aligned with Brooklyn’s street grid and the other rotated according to the path of the sun. The project landed them among the finalists in the multi-use, multifamily design division of last spring’s national competition.

Research and Teaching Partnerships

The goal of boosting collaboration, which Shoop sees as “the heart of innovation,” is also being realized through research that extends beyond the walls of Cooper. “Deliberative and selective strategic partnerships bring complementary strengths that can provide students with diverse and rich opportunities,” says Shoop, citing the school’s partnerships with Memorial Sloan Kettering and with the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at ISMMS.

Having access to world-class facilities and researchers has especially benefited work related to bioengineering, including a fruitful research exchange between Jennifer Weiser, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Dr. James Iatridis, professor and vice chair for research in the department of orthopaedics at Mount Sinai. In September, Weiser and her graduate student, Keti Vaso ChE’19 M.Eng’21, co-authored a publication with Dr. Iatridis and his students—among them recently graduated doctoral student and Cooper alumnus, Tyler DiStefano ME’15. Their research looks at the use of injectable biomaterials to help treat patients with back pain due to degeneration of discs between vertebrae.

The Weiser–Iatridis team also works on a project involving undergraduate and master’s students from Cooper who are studying air flow in operating rooms using computational fluid dynamic models. Alumnus Christopher Panebianco ChE’16, now a Ph.D. candidate at ISMMS, has been collaborating with Iatridis and Weiser as well. The three of them presented at the 2021 American Society for Engineering Education conference on designing outreach opportunities with experiments that could be performed safely at home during the pandemic.

Cooper’s newest external partnership has come in the form of a joint tenure-track appointment with the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) of the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute. Alice Pisani, assistant professor of physics, was hired into this three-year joint appointment and will divide her time evenly between teaching at Cooper and conducting research in cosmology at CCA.

Pisani foresees multiple opportunities for Cooper students to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects at CCA, a boon to both institutions—and to Pisani herself who values working with a host of researchers, both students and professionals. “If you always just work on the same team, there’s not a lot new that comes out after a while. Now we have a chance to connect with other experiences and expertise on different projects. And this is really how new ideas come out in science.”

Building a Computer Science Program

Reflecting on all that the school of engineering has already accomplished, Dean Shoop remains no less ambitious about the next three years, noting that the school is positioned to continue moving in directions that will enrich academic offerings across the board. He is particularly enthusiastic about launching a new degree program in computer science (CS), which has become one of the fastest-growing areas of higher education.

“The fact that computing and software is absolutely integral to all engineering disciplines is one element of the need for a computer science program,” he says. The conspicuous absence of a CS major is something Shoop has wanted to remedy since his arrival at Cooper. “No longer can engineers practice their discipline without computing skills.”

Last year, the dean and several engineering faculty members formed a committee to plan a CS program offering degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Drawing on the best aspects of similar programs across the country, the group developed a curriculum that would uniquely reflect Cooper’s values and academic strengths, including an emphasis on disciplinary rigor, peer mentorship, and small class sizes conducive to collaboration and project-based learning. The latter focus would require students to take project-oriented courses during all four years, including a junior-level course called Software Design Studio in a nod to the schools of art and architecture.

Naturally, interdisciplinarity was essential to the curriculum design. “Computer science will elevate all of the other engineering programs,” says Shoop. Fred Fontaine EE’86 M.Eng’87, chair of the electrical engineering department and a member of the CS planning committee, agrees: “It’s this T structure. You need the breadth, including this interaction with the engineering students and taking some engineering courses. There’s also the depth where they can really focus on the computer science.”

The new CS curriculum was officially approved by the full faculty in April, with the eventual goal of achieving ABET accreditation. But making the program a reality will require financial support. The school is now seeking the funding to launch it while vowing that none of the cost would be offset by tuition increases.

“The goal is to offer a world-class computer science program that lives up to The Cooper Union’s historic mission and reputation for rigor and innovation,” says Dean Shoop. “This curriculum will provide opportunities in the coming years not only in engineering but across the entire institution. It will bring important skills and abilities in mathematics and natural science and modernize our existing engineering majors. Similarly, advances in computing are transforming every aspect of contemporary life, including art and architecture. Computer science enables new paradigms for the experiences of making and appreciating art and new concepts and methods that are revolutionizing architectural design and building processes.” In short, says the dean, “Exciting things are still to come.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.