Powering the New Engineer

Powering the New Engineer

There's a brighter future. One where a new kind of engineer takes on the biggest problems. Curiosity breeds ingenuity. Every morning wakes to the latest spectacular. And UF will lead the charge.
By David Finnerty

Like all evolutions this one started with a need: the notion that UF’s engineering college needed to step forward in this moment to be able to unflinchingly meet the moments ahead. “Powering the New Engineer” the movement was called.

With that, Dean Cammy Abernathy and her team — colleagues and donors and lawmakers — went to work on a plan to reimagine the college’s mission and to draw a roadmap to get there. So big was their dream Dr. Herbert Wertheim, the college’s namesake, predicted UF would eventually have the “premier engineering college.” Health care, preventive medicine, communications, the environment — almost nothing, he said, would be out of its scope.

“Engineering is the future for us as a society,” Wertheim explained in 2016. “When we think of all the good things that have happened in our lives — whether it’s airplanes or automobiles or harvests or the video camera we’re using — it all comes from engineering.”

That in mind, “Powering the New Engineer” became the most ambitious undertaking in the engineering college’s 100-plus-year history: a $300 million public-private partnership to, as it was touted then, “lead the next era of technological revolution by preparing a generation of engineers capable of solving global problems and creating and commercializing the discoveries that will transform the way we live our lives.”

Abernathy described it this way: “If we really want to change the world it starts with educating the new engineer — an engineer who’s technically competent, but [also] one who is capable of leading and innovating in a world that is increasingly global and virtual.”

Dozens of new hires, a flurry of strategic donor investments during the university’s Go Greater campaign, and a focus on complex problems — things like “big data,” biomedical informatics, autonomous systems, a sustainable environment, cybersecurity, workforce development, human-centered computing, neuroscience and renewable energy — have quickly placed the college squarely on the fast track. Since 2014, it has moved at breakneck speed to produce the leaders and problem-solvers that Abernathy has promised.

Numbers from 2019 offer a hint as to where the college is headed and how fast it’s getting there:

  • Two new buildings under construction or in design;
  • Nine of the college’s degree programs (agricultural and biological, biomedical, civil, computer, environmental, electrical, industrial and systems, materials science, and mechanical) jumped in national rankings — three more (aerospace, chemical, and nuclear) moved up in 2020;
  • 70 full-time teaching faculty;
  • 76 new faculty hired since 2018 alone;
  • 11 student startups;
  • 42 innovation-related licenses or options;
  • 225 patent applications;
  • $74.4 million in research expenditures.

“We’re the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering,” Abernathy declared a few years ago, “and we’re ready to power the new engineer.”

An Idea Takes Root

Talk of “Powering the New Engineer” goes back at least a decade. Back then, though, it was more a clever way to describe the engineering college’s ambition than it was an actual edict.

That changed in 2013.

The Florida Legislature designated UF a “preeminent” university that year. The proclamation came with the pledge for additional state funding to hire and retain the nation’s best professors and researchers and to jump start key programs. As it so happened, a number of those programs were in the engineering college. That same year, alumni John (BSIE ’66, MBA ’70, JD ’73) and Mary Lou (JD ’80) Dasburg gave the college $1.5 million to establish a professorship.

Then, a few months later, another boost came when alumnus Andrew Banks (BA ’76) and his wife, Pamela, created an endowed chair position — a post that helped convince world-renowned computer scientist Juan Gilbert to join the engineering college.

The evolution suddenly had wings.

And in 2015 — as UF entered the silent phase of its Go Greater campaign — it learned to run.

That’s when Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim made their $50 million investment to supercharge the college’s trajectory. Their gift became the cornerstone in the $300 million initiative to remake the college into a 21st century powerhouse.

“The transformation made possible by the Wertheim investment signals UF engineering’s remarkable determination to become one of the leading programs in the world,” UF President Kent Fuchs, himself an engineering professor once, said at the time. “It raises the stature of both the engineering college and the university. This transformation will further accelerate social and economic development in the state of Florida and the nation.”

Said Abernathy: “What Herbie really wanted to accomplish was providing a place where the world’s best and brightest could come together and really make a difference in the future of society.”

Mission accomplished, some observers might insist.

Wertheim and Abernathy, however, would argue that their college’s work is just getting started.

A Brave New World

The engineering college’s feats since those early days of “Powering the New Engineer” and through the Go Greater campaign is impressive: an inline ticketing system to lower health risk when voting, a home test for COVID-19, the Smart Traffic System, a collaboration to monitor pollution and natural events threatening Florida’s coastlines, a student team’s award-winning project to simultaneously reduce hunger and food waste, No. 1 in the nation in Black women faculty members and the number of master’s degrees awarded to Hispanics, No. 2 in doctoral degrees for Black students, the renowned Internet of Things initiative and Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research, and the list goes on.

But the chart-topper is a new plan to turn UF into “America’s A.I. university.”

To do that, UF and its engineering college are investing $70 million in artificial intelligence training and development. Alumnus Chris Malachowsky (BSEE ’80) contributed $25 million to the initiative. Another $25 million in hardware, software, training and services came from NVIDIA, the Silicon Valley-based technology company he cofounded. The university is also hiring an additional 100 faculty specifically in AI-related positions that span academic disciplines, and intends to offer an undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence as well as a graduate certificate.

Those moves together will make UF and the state of Florida a hotbed for all things A.I.—whether in education, entertainment, health care, agricultural, finance or any other industry, President Fuchs believes.

“Artificial intelligence is poised to transform the way we all work with information, helping us address challenges and make discoveries that once seemed unattainable,” he said. “By immersing this powerful technology in the curriculum across UF we are positioning Florida as a global leader in a technological revolution that — similar to the smartphone — will transform the way we live, work and interact with the world around us.”

And that, Abernathy insists, is really what “Powering the New Engineer” is all about.

Powering the New Engineer: 2014-2020

  • 13 professors are hired as part of the state’s new Florida Preeminence plan.
  • Juan Gilbert is recruited from Clemson University to be the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Chair.
  • UF enlists some of Gilbert’s Clemson University colleagues in a “cluster hire” to create an elite human-centered computing team. The hires include biometrics expert Damon Woodard, virtual spatial audio specialist Kyla McMullen and computer science education researcher Christina Gardner-McCune.
  • Cybersecurity expert Patrick Traynor is named the John H. and Mary Lou Dasburg Preeminent Chair in Engineering.
  • The university begins the quiet phase of its Go Greater campaign to raise $3 billion.
  • Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim make a $50 million investment in the engineering college; in recognition, it’s renamed the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.
  • The college uses the Wertheim gift as the catalyst to embark on a $300 million private-public partnership to transform the college.
  • UF establishes the Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research.
  • Alumna Linda Parker Hudson (BSSE ’72) gives UF $1 million to launch the Leader in Residence program in engineering college.
  • The George Kirkland Professorship, the first endowed faculty position with a component dedicated to leadership education, is created with a joint $1 million gift from alumnus George Kirkland (BSCE ’72, ME ’74) and Chevron Corp.
  • 9 more Florida Preeminence professors are hired. Among them are Mark Tehranipoor (the Intel Charles E. Young Preeminence Chair Professor in Cybersecurity) and Swarup Bhunia, the eventual director of the Warren B. Nelms Institute for the Connected World.
  • Ground is broken on the Herbert Wertheim Laboratory for Engineering Excellence, an 84,000-square-feet state-of-the-art research hub.
  • UF’s first engineering innovation station is launched in Sarasota County to support area businesses and entrepreneurs.
  • The Go Greater campaign’s public phase begins.
  • The Warren B. Nelms Institute for the Connected World is created with a $5 million gift from alumnus David Nelms (BSME ’83). The institute — named for Nelms’ father, a 1959 UF graduate — designs, develops and tests “Internet of Things” systems.
  • Alumnus Sachio Semmoto (MSEE ’68, PHD ’71) gives UF $1.5 million to establish an endowment supporting the Nelms Institute’s director.
  • The college’s Engineering Innovation Institute receives $2 million from alumnus Michael Durham (ME ’75, PHD ’78) to teach student entrepreneurs.
  • An endowed directorship is established in the Engineering Leadership Institute with a $1.5 million gift from alumnus William Wadsworth (BSCE ’76).
  • Alumnus Alex Moreno (BSCHE’ 83) invests $3 million in UF to create a professorship and new sustainable energy program in chemical engineering.
  • The UF Transportation Institute launches I-STREET, places 200 sensors around campus and Gainesville to create a real-world testbed for emerging transportation technologies, such as autonomous vehicles.
  • Three engineering professors are awarded Rising Star Professorships — established with gifts from Walden Rhines and alumnus Arnold (BSECI ’90) and Lisa Goldberg to recruit and retain premier junior faculty. The stars are: Erika Moore, Daisy Zhe Wang and Kevin Butler.
  • UF becomes “America’s A.I. University” when alumnus Chris Malachowsky (BSEE ’80) and the company he founded, NVIDIA, pledge $50 million to place the university and the engineering college on the cutting-edge of artificial intelligence training and innovation. UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering will provide the programmatic backbone and develop the curricular resources so Gator graduates from every discipline will be empowered with an exceptional level of digital literacy and equipped to apply A.I. techniques in their chosen field of study.

The best is yet to come

Go Greater was a determination, embraced across campus. To continue that pursuit, the university looks to caring philanthropists — the people who feed ingenuity and exploration and create doers and bring ideas to life, imagination to fruition, promise to fulfilment and potential to exceptional. It’s those partnerships with far-sighted leaders that will make UF even more spectacular and enable the university to touch the lives of Earth’s 7 billion people.

So we can all Go Greater, together.

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