On July 1, Mary C. Boyce PhD ’87 will become chair of the Mechanical Engineering department. She will be the first female department head within the School of Engineering.
The department has changed substantially over the seven-year tenure of outgoing chair Rohan Abeyaratne. In structure, curriculum, and future plans, the department has exhibited shifts that Abeyaratne said left it stable and ripe for a transition.
Over seven years, 19 new faculty members joined the department, a move that Abeyaratne said “energizes the department because they have active programs in new areas.”
The mechanical engineering department also grew in 2005, when Ocean Engineering (XIII) was eliminated and merged into Course II.
During Abeyaratne’s time, the department saw new programs to improve the sense of community among faculty and graduate students. He cited as an example mentorship by the Graduate Association of Mechanical Engineers group, which reaches out to incoming graduate students before they arrive on campus.
In the classroom, instruction changed, with an emphasis on open-ended concept questions replacing rote calculation problems. Abeyaratne said that the shift, helped by the Teaching and Learning Lab, is meant to help professors find out how well students understand the material.
Looking to the future, Abeyaratne says the department should grow by increasing the class capacity of some of its popular laboratory subjects.
Freshmen are courted by the relatively new subjects Fundamentals of Engineering Design: Explore! Earth, Sea, Space (2.00A/16.00AJ) and Toy Product Design (2.00B). The popular Toy Product Design subject can accommodate fifty students but is frequently oversubscribed, Abeyaratne said.
The resource-intensive lab subjects, along with a growing Course II enrollment (see table below), place increasing demands on the department, which needs resources to hire more staff, Abeyaratne said.
Notable among the increase in students is an increase in the number of female students in the department, Abeyaratne said. He speculates that this may relate to an increase in female faculty, who serve as role models for female students, he said.
A final resource increase Abeyaratne said his department needed was new labs focusing on energy, especially “micro and nanotechnology.” The department was looking into energy even before the energy initiative began, he said.
Asked about the high and low points of the job, Abeyaratne expressed joy in taking part in hiring and mentoring new faculty.
By choosing to hire the right faculty, the chair can set the direction of the department, he said.
The toughest part of the job turned out to be interpersonal issues, Abeyaratne said, a challenge he wasn’t entirely prepared to face. “As academics, we are not trained to deal with people as much,” he said.
Having left the department what he says is in a good place, where will Abeyaratne go?
Back to teaching, he said.