Looking to a Powerful Future, Dean Presents State of the College

 Sharon Walker

Drexel Engineering Dean Sharon Walker, PhD, presented her annual State of the College address on Wednesday, recapping a year of progress and setting a vision for the college for the years to come.

Central to the address was the unveiling of the college’s new strategic plan, Building on Tradition for Tomorrow: Engineering our Future Together. The plan is the result of more than a year of conversations, planning and collaborative effort among faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the college and sets core values and principles that will guide the college for the next five years.

“This is a time to reflect on the foundations we have laid, and the new visions we are just beginning to build,” Walker said.

The plan aligns around four overarching goals: resource stewardship and sustainability; health, wellness and medicine; renewable energy and power; and smart cities and integration. For each goal, Walker pointed to efforts that are already underway at the college:

  • In resource stewardship and sustainability, Franco Montalto, P.E., PhD, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering (CAEE), led a team of researchers and city officials to design and build cooling structures that helped some residents of the underresourced Hunting Park neighborhood escape from the summer heat. Simi Hoque, PhD, associate profess of CAEE, recently gave a presentation on sustainable urban infrastructure at an NSF-funded workshop, “How does infrastructure shape equity and well-being across the urban-rural gradient?
  • In the area of health, wellness and medicine, Christopher Li, PhD, professor of material science and engineering, has made progress in his research of crystalline materials and engineering polymer structures for special applications, showing that it’s now possible to control how crystals grow – including interrupting the symmetrical growth of flat crystals and inducing them to form hollow crystal spheres. The discovery is part of a broader design effort focused on the encapsulation of medicine for targeted drug treatments. The new development was recently reported in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Alexander Fridman, PhD, John A. Nyheim Chair Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics and Director of the C. & J. Nyheim Plasma Institute, has received a National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Program RAPID grant. Drexel University, along with the University of Michigan and George Washington University, will pursue a project on the fast adaptive plasma abatement of coronavirus.
  • In renewable energy and power, Maureen Tang, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, is working on a project that could greatly improve the efficiency of manufacturing processes, such as nylon production, while providing a method for storing intermittent renewable electricity from wind or solar power. Fei Lu, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working on a Department of Energy-funded project to design a significantly more efficient, fast, low-cost, compact, and reliable circuit breaker for the medium-voltage direct-current power system.
  • Work around smart cities and integration includes a project from Jason Baxter, PhD, profess of CBE to develop new measurement tools to identify performance-limiting phenomena and provide critical feedback to improve the efficiency of thin-film solar cells. Additionally, Antonios Kontsos, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, is developing a business-to-business software tool that allows non-specialists to expertly analyze their drone images of buildings, crops, bridges and storm-damaged resorts, among other things.

“It is our strengths that make this plan possible,” Walker said. “The fact that we are already doing good work in these areas affirms that it’s where our future lies.”

The full strategic plan is available to review online.

A virtual recreation of a building lobby, with a desk and windows.
Dean Walker delivered the address in front of a background previewing a virtual reality learning environment that is being developed as a collaboration between Drexel Engineering and Westphal College of Media Arts & Design experts.

Walker also used the address to recognize the rapid transitions the college made to virtual learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. She previewed a virtual reality learning environment, created by Drexel Engineering faculty in collaboration with the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

“Using these immersive spaces, students will be able to interact virtually with equipment and scenarios they may not even have seen in a real lab, while experiencing exceptional experiential, hands-on learning using Virtual Reality,” she said. “As we prepare for a future where more instruction is done away from the physical classroom, Drexel is once again using a unique collaboration between world-class colleges to imagine how best to serve our students.”

The college has worked nimbly to address issues raised by the pandemic, Walker said. Grants were awarded through Drexel’s COVID-19 Rapid Research & Development Fund to develop more effective fabric face masks, design and manufacture face shields for frontline workers, and the creation of a biocontamination intubation unit for hospital workers to use to further protect themselves.

Walker also noted grants and research achievements from across the college, and pointed to announcements of faculty tenure and promotions, the hiring of new faculty and the retirement of four longtime educators.

Looking forward, Walker provided information on the makeup of the incoming first-year class. The new undergraduate class includes more than 500 students from 21 states and the District of Columbia and 19 countries, including Nigeria, Vietnam and Kazakhstan. Approximately one quarter of the class identify as female and 20% as first-generation students. The class includes a two-time bronze medalist in artistic roller skating, a student who deferred to train for Olympic luge, the top STEM student in Pakistan, a licensed pilot and two Peace Corps volunteers.

“As competition to recruit students increases, it’s encouraging that we are able to attract a diverse, talented group of students who will continue to enrich our student body and the culture of Drexel Engineering,” Walker said.

Among other successes highlighted was the fact that the college more than doubled its yearly fundraising commitments over the last seven years and led all schools and colleges in fundraising in 2020. Walker also announced the formation of a Dean’s Student Leadership Council, which is already helping to shape the college around the goals of the strategic plan.

“If there is anything you take away from today, remember the interconnectedness of our people, our programs and our goals,” Walker said. “We have already made great strides during an incredibly challenging year. I am confident we have what it takes to change our future for the better.”

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