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The Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering is the newest department in the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University. | Image: Getty Images

Highlights

The College of Engineering at Texas A&M University is known for its excellence in engineering education. But it's not just standing still. With the establishment of the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering, the college is preparing students for a trailblazing future.

Dr. Timothy Jacobs, interim department head for multidisciplinary engineering and professor in the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, joined the SoundBytes podcast team to discuss the new department and what it has to offer.

“I think the most exciting thing about the department and about all of our degree programs that we have within the department is that we are literally writing our own future,” Jacobs said.

The department was established in fall 2020 and gives students a new path toward an engineering degree at Texas A&M.

“For multidisciplinary engineering, probably the simplest way to think about it is that it is an opportunity to have your study of interest or your research of interest — whatever it might be — necessarily cross your traditional engineering boundaries or your traditional engineering domains,” he said. “Engineering is by nature actually very multidisciplinary.”

This information was part of a larger conversation found in the SoundBytes episode. A full transcript of the episode is located below.

Episode Transcript

Steve Kuhlmann: The College of Engineering at Texas A&M is known for its excellence in engineering education. But it's not just standing still. With the establishment of the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering, the college is preparing students for a trailblazing future.

I'm Steve Kuhlmann and SoundBytes student host Ritika Bhattacharjee and I are joined by Dr. Timothy Jacobs, interim department head for multidisciplinary engineering, to discuss the new department and what it has to offer.

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: For multidisciplinary engineering, probably the simplest way to think about it is that it is an opportunity to have your study of interest or your research of interest — whatever it might be — necessarily cross your traditional engineering boundaries or your traditional engineering domains. Engineering is by nature actually very multidisciplinary. Even it's even its origins, where we rely heavily on basic sciences and mathematics and economics and business and liberal arts, right, to be able to ultimately do what engineers do, which is to, you know, use science and mathematics to create and invent technology that makes lives better for humanity, right, to make society better, and humanity better. But within engineering itself, in spite of its natural, multidisciplinary nature, you of course, have these disciplines that focus you technically in certain areas like mechanical engineering and civil engineering and aerospace and biomedical and all of the programs that we have, say, here specifically at Texas A&M. But even in spite of having all of those various technical disciplines, you still have students and researchers and engineers in general that have interests that don't necessarily confine to one of those specific programs, to one of those specific disciplines. And so in order to accommodate their needs and, you know, to satiate their interest to be able to improve the world in their specific ways, the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering is there for them. That's essentially what multidisciplinary engineering is meant to do is, is to make it easy for students and researchers and engineers to be able to cross those discipline lines and integrate the necessary components from the individual disciplines of engineering into something that we can't necessarily even imagine and this conversation that exists right now, right? Because that's just part of the nature of what comes out of a multidisciplinary adventure.

Ritika Bhattacharjee: Could you provide an example of what this might look like educationally for students within the program?

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: Absolutely. So probably our premier undergraduate degree that we offer in multidisciplinary engineering is what we call the Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Engineering. And really, the keystone feature of this degree is that it doesn't have a prescribed curriculum in the same way that other engineering degrees have. And what I mean by that is, certainly the student is going to be required to take certain amounts of mathematics and basic sciences and you know, all of the other university requirements that are expected of not just an engineering degree, but a Texas A&M University degree. But that only really describes about half of the degree. The other half of the degree is actually very much open ended. So you can get a degree in mechanical engineering, you can get a degree in computer science, you can get a degree in civil engineering, but to be able to pull that full interest stream together into a single degree, you're only able to do that in the Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Engineering, because we don't, we don't confine that other half of the degree to specific courses, right. It's open ended to the type of study that the student wants to have to be able to develop the skill set that they need to achieve their end goal of the type of career that they'd like to have.

Ritika Bhattacharjee: So a follow up question to that: Many engineering students usually pivot from what they originally thought they wanted to do when they first came into the College of Engineering, which is why we do have the general engineering program. So would you suggest only students with a super clear defined career path apply to the multidisciplinary engineering program?

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: Certainly students will sometimes have very clear ideas on what they'd like to do. When I was an engineering student, I actually did not have a clear path as to what I wanted to do. If you were to tell me when I was a first year engineering student, which wasn't that long ago, that I would be a professor of mechanical engineering someday, I would have said, 'Well, I wasn't expecting that at all,' right. And part of the reason why I actually struggled a little bit as a student, in terms of eventually landing in mechanical engineering, was that I had a lot of different interests, right. And there were actually a few disciplines that were attractive to me because of their ability to offer me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do with my career. And it just so happened that, you know, mechanical engineering, for me was the one that personally spoke to me. We didn't have a multidisciplinary engineering degree option when I was a student. If we had, I think I would have very strongly looked at it and probably, you know, I mean, I think it's very possible that I would have pursued a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Engineering, if that had been a degree option for me. And so what this is to say is that when we say that the student needs to have clarity, you want some idea as to what you want your career to look like, right, and you have to have some idea of the disciplines that you're interested in, to be able to support that career. And so, you know, I think — and again, this is always sometimes something that students and I know, again, just drawing on personal experience was something that I myself was nervous about as a student, was that we have this notion that you have to know exactly what it is that you're going to do in order to pursue something like an interdisciplinary engineering degree, because you're sort of locking yourself into that path. And the reality is, is that, you know, at the end of the day, you are getting an engineering degree from one of the best engineering schools, not just in the country, but in the world. And so you're going to have a skill set that is, yeah, perhaps unique in terms of its program of study. But you're going to be very marketable as an engineer and you throw in that mix of being able to say that you've had multiple experiences, by the nature of your degree plan, your program of study, in getting that engineering degree, that's going to be very marketable to for any graduate of the program.

Ritika Bhattacharjee: So I know that many students inquire a lot about the programs that we have in conjunction with other parts of the college such as the EnMed program or the law program. Could you elaborate a little bit more on those programs?

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And we have essentially what we call prescribed curricula that a student can follow that will give them a certain technical skill set depending on what their interests are. So one example of that is the engineering law program. So we've partnered with our law school in Fort Worth. They have a tremendous expertise and skill set in the area of intellectual property, which of course, necessarily includes patents, right, which is right in the bailiwick of engineering. And so what would ordinarily take seven years, right, and, you know, lots of uncertainty in terms of applying to law schools and you know, having to go through those types of decision making processes, a student can essentially shorten a year on that process. And within six years, get two degrees, two very powerful degrees, right — an engineering degree in the J.D. — and right out the gate, be able to sit for the bar and eventually become a patent attorney. And so that's definitely one of our really exciting programs that we have. We also have another combination degree between interdisciplinary engineering and the School of Public Health, where in a similar fashion — it's a five year program, rather than being a six year program — a student can get a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Engineering and then also a (Master's Degree) in Public Health. Public Health is one of the most urgent issues that we have in society today. And so we need more people that are skilled in the area of public health. And one of the key areas of public health that's needed is developing technology that assists public health workers, particularly in rural communities. And so coupling that engineering degree with the master’s in public health is a great combination to give students that toolbox that they need to be able to move and solve those societal challenges. Now, if we turn our attention and focus specifically on degrees that are just the graduate degrees within the department of multidisciplinary engineering. One of our featured graduate degrees is associated with the EnMed program. EnMed, of course, stands for engineering medicine. And what students earn that are part of the EnMed program is both a Doctor of Medicine, the M.D. degree, as well as a Master of Engineering in Engineering, simultaneously, within a four year period. And so the EnMed program has been structured very creatively. And it's been a tremendous effort. I mean, you can imagine that, you know, we're literally redesigning four years’ worth of medical school curriculum, to integrate engineering concepts into that curriculum. But there's a team of dedicated faculty and, you know, all the way up to Chancellor (John) Sharp, but he is a huge proponent of this activity and Vice Chancellor (M. Katherine) Banks, she has really been able to see the clear vision for EnMed and make sure that it moves forward. And a tremendous number of excellent colleagues who have designed this program to make something which is really unique and exciting for students to consider. And so when you graduate from the EnMed program, not only are you ready to sit for your boards and become a practicing medical doctor, but you also have a graduate level engineering degree, which, you know, gives you that additional skill set to be able to take problems that you see as you practice medicine, and be able to think of the technology that needs to be invented and designed that can solve those problems, those health related problems. And so I think we're gonna see some very exciting things come from our EnMed graduates real soon.

Steve Kuhlmann: This is decidedly not your average program. What's the precedent that's here for a multidisciplinary engineering program like this?

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: Even here at Texas A&M, we have had interdisciplinary engineering, you know, formally part of the College of Engineering since about the mid 70s. And, you know, so for several decades now, engineering schools have realized that there is a need in industry and there is a need in student interest and, in some cases, faculty research, for there to be interdisciplinary interactions, right. Several universities around the country, have, you know, in some fashion or another some flavor of an interdisciplinary engineering program. But there is not a lot of interdisciplinary engineering activity among your top engineering schools around the country. It's growing. But, you know, it's — I wouldn't say it's growing as quickly as it has at Texas A&M. And we were able to shepherd this process of now making it what I understand to be the first department of multidisciplinary engineering in the nation, right. It's right here at Texas A&M. So we're very excited about it. And we feel in many ways, as far as we know, we have set a precedent here by saying we're very serious about supporting and making multidisciplinary engineering happen. So it's exciting to see what's going to happen next.

Steve Kuhlmann: So when you're explaining the department to people, what is it excites you most about its potential?

Dr. Timothy Jacobs: I think the most exciting thing about the department and about all of our degree programs that we have within the department is that we are literally writing our own future. And so we have the opportunity to be the leader of that to — we can be the visionary we can be the person, the people that that set the future direction for this and for us to be able to write that future, for us to be able to say okay, it's very clear that we have an emerging technology in this area and this emerging technology doesn't reside or belong to a single discipline, students really need to have skill sets from disciplines X, Y and Z. How are they going to integrate those skill sets and be the leaders in that emerging technology? Well, they'll be able to do it in the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering and it's the student that writes that future, right. And I think that that is absolutely exciting.

Steve Kuhlmann: Learn more about the Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering at Texas A&M by visiting engineering.tamu.edu/MTDE.

Disclaimer: Thanks for listening to the Texas A&M Engineering SoundBytes podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the hosts and guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Texas A&M University System. SoundBytes is a part of the Texas A&M Podcast Network. To find more official Texas A&M podcasts go to podcast.tamu.edu