Penn State merges disciplines, creates new school to be part of elite group of universities

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A small picture printed from the Internet hanging outside Raj Acharya’s door shows a decorated cake with five words: “All science is computer science.”

It’s more than just frosting, though. It’s why he has a new temporary job, helming the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Penn State.

It seemed like a small move by the university’s board of trustees in March, taking two departments under the College of Engineering and pushing them together to create a new school.

However, it puts Penn State in an elite group of universities, among the first in the country to merge the two disciplines into a school with one focus. Penn State joins a club that includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley.

“Penn State is a major engineering university, and engineering is the biggest college at Penn State. This is a significant step,” Acharya said.

But what does it really mean when the university already has more than 1,300 students between the two departments?

A lot, according to a statement put out by Amr Elnashai, dean of the college of engineering.

“A formal association between the two departments as part of a school will create additional opportunities, including more effective integration of the curricula, better coordination of graduate student recruitment, more strategic hiring at the interface between electrical engineering and computer science, improved collaboration in interdisciplinary research and greater student access to the expanded curricula offered by the other department.”

The university has had an electrical engineering department since 1893 and has 748 undergraduate and graduate students. The computer science and engineering department was created 100 years later and has 609 students.

Acharya said the two departments actually have a lot of crossover already, but can be hampered when an electrical engineering student wants to take a computer science class or vice versa. Putting them under one umbrella makes for better cooperation by putting all the students on the same footing for access to the things they need.

The move was recommended by business and industry advisers to both departments.

Alumni Ken Huntsman, co-founder of AOL, and Christopher Kelly, retired from management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, said it was a move they had advocated for years, but bringing it to fruition was all about timing.

“As we saw a new president and a new dean coming in, we saw an opportunity to pitch it and leverage what was happening,” Huntsman said.

President Eric Barron, who came on board in 2014, has been aggressively talking about entrepreneurship and innovation at the university and its important role in developing the economy of the commonwealth. A new school seemed to dovetail with those goals.

“It just made a lot of sense,” Kelly said.

“If you look at Silicon Valley, where a lot of our modern industrial growth and job creation is, and what we want to emulate in the state of Pennsylvania, this is the intersection of electrical engineering and computer science,” Acharya said.

They say that an EECS school will draw more students interested in the field and more faculty with innovative ideas.

It could also draw more interest from business and industry or grants to work on cutting-edge projects, like the $10 million, five-year National Science Foundation Expeditions in Computing award in which a Penn State team is working on a “Visual Cortex in Silicon.”