UChicago creates undergraduate major in molecular engineering

Program offers first bachelor’s degree in engineering in University’s history

The University of Chicago is announcing the creation of a bachelor of science degree in molecular engineering—the first undergraduate degree program in engineering offered in the University’s 125-year history. Molecular engineering combines problem-solving skills with broad expertise in the fundamental sciences to build useful systems from the molecular level up.

Designed and delivered by the faculty of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the program will launch in Autumn Quarter 2015, offering students in the College a cutting-edge engineering curriculum built on a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, as well as other elements of the Core curriculum.

“Our approach focuses not on the narrow slices of traditional engineering disciplines, but rather on major societal issues that require a broad spectrum of engineering skills to address, such as health care, energy, information technology and water scarcity,” said Matt Tirrell, the Pritzker Director and dean of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. “This major gives us the opportunity to invent an undergraduate engineering curriculum that is entirely new.”

New courses will develop quantitative reasoning and problem-solving skills, introduce engineering analysis of physical, chemical and biological systems, and address open-ended technological questions across a spectrum of disciplines. 

While the program will prepare undergraduates for a wide variety of careers in technology-focused industries, it also will position them for further post-graduate study in fields such as science, engineering, medicine, business or law. The aim is to introduce invention and design, along with inquiry and discovery, as fruitful and complementary intellectual activities.

Founded in 2011, the Institute for Molecular Engineering has from its inception envisioned offering an undergraduate major at the University of Chicago, in keeping with the University’s tradition of intellectual rigor and cross-disciplinary scholarship. The creation of the Institute grew from a process initiated in 2006 by President Robert J. Zimmer and key faculty, the Provost and the director of Argonne National Laboratory. The faculty committee that led this process recognized that the addition of a molecular engineering program to the University’s curriculum offered tremendous possibilities to position the University as an intellectual leader in a new approach to engineering research and education.

In fall 2014, the Institute launched its graduate program, as well as a molecular engineering minor, which garnered 70 students in its gateway course and attracted a large portion of students from the humanities and social sciences, underscoring its interdisciplinary appeal.

“I am delighted that the College is now able to offer an undergraduate major in molecular engineering,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “The rigorous training offered through the Core curriculum has always led our students to ask incisive questions across the disciplines, in the best tradition of the liberal arts. The IME offers them the opportunity to apply these patterns of thought to the problems and tools of engineering at the molecular scale." 

Incoming students will be able to choose from two tracks: one aimed at engineering with a biological, chemical and soft materials emphasis; and one geared toward applied physics. The applied physics track, offered in close collaboration with the Department of Physics, will be one of the first initiatives worldwide to formally educate quantum engineers at the undergraduate level.

Another highlight is a three-credit design course, offered as a capstone, in which student teams will spend a quarter working with a faculty mentor to solve an open-ended problem. For example, students may analyze chemical and biological properties of cancer cells to develop new treatment and delivery vehicles, or harness the properties of electrons in materials to develop quantum information technologies.

“What we’re doing with undergraduate engineering education is completely different and completely new,” said Paul Nealey, the Dougan Professor in Molecular Engineering and the Institute’s director of undergraduate studies. “One of the primary reasons we’ve attracted the faculty that we now have was this opportunity to conceive of and implement a forward-looking curriculum to educate engineers for the next century.”

Rising second-year Claire Liu plans to pursue the major next year, along with a double major in chemistry. “The wonderful thing about this program is that you have all the traditional sciences combined with technology, design, innovation and industrial aspects,” said Liu.

The program will nurture Liu’s interest in designing products that can help society, while helping her learn how to bring them to market. “I’m very excited to start the coursework,” Liu added. “This major is one of the main reasons I chose the University of Chicago.”