Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harvard Attracts More Potential Engineers

Though aspiring Harvard students may spend this week mired in uncertainty as they wait for admission decisions on April 1, one thing is almost certain: more admitted students than ever before will come to Harvard with the hope of pursuing engineering and applied science.

Cited by Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 as one of three central trends driving an increase in applications to Harvard, the rise in applicants interested in these fields has been all but meteoric since the establishment of an independent School of Engineering and Applied Sciences almost three years ago.

Previously, when SEAS was still the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the number of applicants interested in engineering held steady at about 2,500 each year. But over the course of the next three years, the admissions committee has seen a 68 percent surge in applicants who list their primary interest as engineering sciences, during a period in which the total number of applicants to Harvard has risen by about only 11 percent.

The increase, while significant, is not wholly unexpected. The College admissions staff has maintained a concerted effort to publicize the creation of SEAS, striving to dispel the notion that Harvard is primarily a school for the liberal arts, according to Fitzsimmons. This undertaking—coming at a time when national interest in science and technology is rising—appears to have been successful.

But the increase in applicants—and thus, potential concentrators—will challenge SEAS in new ways. While SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray detailed plans to expand the engineering school during an “All-Hands” Meeting earlier this month, she also noted that the school’s space was already “severely constrained.”

“Any future growth will be done in such a way to ensure we can support the increase in the number of students,” Murray said in an e-mailed statement. ‘We plan to grow without growing apart.”


Harvard has aggressively advertised the new opportunities offered by the creation of SEAS in its on-campus information sessions and in its outreach efforts to high schools in dozens of cities across the country, according to Fitzsimmons.

“Basically any time we saw students, we talked about the new school,” Fitzsimmons says. He adds that the recent creation of majors in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology and Biomedical Engineering gave admissions officers additional talking points to entice students interested in applied science.

“There are lots of people who have this outdated stereotype of Harvard as pretty much humanities and social science,” Fitzsimmons says. “It obviously attracts everybody to have strong engineering. It’s a huge asset.”

Prior to the creation of SEAS, engineering concentrators studied within the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 describes as “halfway between a department and a school.”

As Lewis explains, the 2008 chartering of SEAS broadly increased awareness of engineering at Harvard. And because Harvard does not consider engineering applicants separately—unlike other colleges including Cornell and Columbia—the creation of SEAS allowed Harvard to offer the unique opportunity to study engineering within an independent school without having to make a decisive career choice as a high school senior.

“Harvard has the advantage that to be an engineer here, you simply apply to be a student at Harvard College, with all of the other resources that Harvard College students have,” Lewis says.

At the same that the admissions office has been advertising SEAS, individuals within the school itself have worked to increase the visibility of Harvard engineering and the various research projects undertaken in the field.

According to former Dean of SEAS Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, the establishment of the school allowed for greater outreach efforts to potential students through the SEAS Communications Office. These efforts included redesigning the official Web site, hosting Web chats, and calling high school seniors.

SEAS also makes additional recruiting efforts once students are admitted to Harvard. According to Lewis, the school attempts to have a faculty member call or e-mail every admitted student who has listed engineering as his or her primary interest.


Some part of the success of Harvard’s outreach efforts may be attributed to the increased national interest in engineering and applied science in recent years.

According to annual surveys of students entering four-year colleges conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, interest in engineering began rising again in 2008 following a multi-year decline. Overall interest in science, engineering, and technology also remains significantly elevated from levels in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“I suspect shifting socioeconomic trends (the economy, the exposure of today’s student to technology) and the greater interest in students who really want to make a difference in the world solving societal problems is attracting more concentrators in engineering,” Murray wrote.

MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill echoes this sentiment, noting a rising awareness of the value of an engineering education.

“I think that there is broad recognition in the country, particularly, among high school students, about the importance of having a strong background in science and technology to do anything in the future,” Schmill says.

But the dynamic growth in engineering at Harvard may be exceptional even compared to other institutions. According to Schmill, the proportion of MIT applicants who express an interest in engineering has remained relatively constant over the past few years, while Harvard admissions statistics reveal that the proportion of Harvard applicants interested in the field has soared.


Yet with potential continued growth among concentrators within SEAS, the school faces the possibility that facilities might run short.

But both Venky and Murray dismiss notions that the increase in the size of the student body would be allowed to strain the resources of the faculty.

Venky says that it is important to have space for teaching labs, and that he sees the availability of physical space as the biggest limitation.

“We will have to add more faculty and more space, or stop the growth,” Venky says.

Murray wrote that as of yet, SEAS has “been able to handle the increase in concentrators without a dramatic drop in the faculty to student ratio.”

As she signaled in her “All-Hands” meeting on Mar. 1, SEAS plans to add an additional 50 full-time equivalent faculty members over the next 10 years to support continued expansion.

And as President of the Harvard College Engineering Society Evelyn J. Park ’11 says, the growth in engineering interest may improve the overall experience of undergraduate engineering concentrators beyond expanding their academic opportunities.

“Right now, we’re one of the smaller concentrations on campus, and you get a lot of questions like, “Why are you doing engineering at Harvard when MIT is just down the street?’” Park says. “The Engineering Society has been trying to build up more spirit and a sense of community among the engineers, and I think having more people will definitely help with that.”

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at

—Staff writer Evan T. R. Rosenman can be reached at

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