VU engineering school’s pride soars

Oct. 17, 2013

The Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability is the latest feather in the cap for Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering, which has made a push in recent years to become a leading program in the nation.

In the past five years, research spending from outside grants has climbed 40 percent to $71.9 million, undergraduate applications to the engineering school have more than doubled to 6,213 and average SAT scores has increased from 1420 to 1505. The school has added 10 faculty members, six in the past year, and with the increase of research grants, it has added more than 60 graduate students, bringing the total to 476.

“We have the nucleus to be even more recognized as one of the very top schools in engineering in the nation,” said Philippe Fauchet, dean of the engineering school. “We are really getting a place at the table to make sure that Middle Tennessee and greater Nashville be as successful as they can.”

The Institute of Software Integrated Systems, which is the school’s largest and fastest growing center, has more than doubled its research funds in the past five years to $24.2 million and is involved in more than 60 active projects with the help of more than 130 researchers and students.

For example, the institute is working with General Motors and other universities on a simulator to test automotive safety features, such as cruise control and lane-change warnings.

In a separate project, it has created a design tool and Web portal that will open up the design process for military vehicles to multiple vendors, reducing the time it takes to design new vehicles by several years through a program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to institute director Janos Sztipanovits.

“(The fact that) engineered systems are becoming more and more cyber-physical is very well-aligned with our core technology and core scientific direction,” Sztipanovits said. “That’s why we are experiencing a significant increase in interest in our work.”

Another indicator of the school’s progress is its partnerships with other universities. In the past, Vanderbilt was often asked to join more-established schools running a project, but in the past three years, the school is increasingly leading the projects, which leads to more funding, Sztipanovits said.

In addition to cyber-physical systems, the school also has decided to focus research on risk and reliability, radiation’s effect on electronics in space, energy and natural resources, which includes nuclear waste remediation, health and medicine, including medical robotics, and entertainment, according to Chris Rowe, communications director for the engineering school.

Last fall, just three months after Fauchet joined the school as dean, the university created a new tech entrepreneurship task force to connect students interested in entrepreneurship to local companies and business leaders and to help them turn their ideas into companies. Two undergraduate engineering students have since begun working on their business concepts at the Entrepreneur Center in a space designated for Vanderbilt. Pathfinder Technologies, InvisionHeart and Splitsecnd are among a list of more than 14 companies that were originated through the engineering school.

The development in each initiative helps attract to the school top talent, who may choose to stay in the area if they develop an attractive lifestyle here, Rowe said.

“If we are able to keep the brain trust here that we are developing, there’s an economic impact,” Rowe said. “A lot of the companies looking at this region are looking for skilled labors.”