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McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science Turns 100

University-wide celebration Oct. 2 will mark school's successful educational evolution.

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September 21, 2009 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University has much to celebrate during its 100-year anniversary, including a party for the Northwestern community, alumni events around the country and an exhibit of historical photographs.

President Morton Schapiro and McCormick Dean Julio Ottino will deliver remarks at a University-wide centennial celebration from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, on the Garrett Lawn, just south of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center on the Evanston campus. The festivities will include live music, food, ice cream and prizes.

Also marking the centennial is a special exhibition at the Dittmar Memorial Gallery in the Norris University Center. Photographs from each decade of the school's history, research images that illustrate the art of engineering and videos about McCormick are on display through Sept. 29. A reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24.

The McCormick School has evolved from its early roots of providing rigorous training in science and mathematics to its current emphasis on combining strong analytical and quantitative skills with right-brain thinking, including creativity, aesthetics and design.

Dean Ottino summed up best where McCormick stands today. "Engineering used to be defined by what we manufactured," he said. "Now more than ever we have to be defined by how we think."

McCormick involves students at all levels in problem solving and encourages entrepreneurship among students and faculty. Boasting one of the oldest cooperative engineering education programs in the country, McCormick has strong ties to industry. And -- by housing all the engineering departments along with chemistry and physics in a single building with interconnected wings -- interdisciplinary relationships flourish.

The school prides itself in crossing all sorts of boundaries, not only across departments within McCormick but also across the Evanston and Chicago campuses, to make important connections with Northwestern's other schools. This is reflected in McCormick's prominence in University-wide centers and research institutes, the innovative interdisciplinary programs it offers and the large number of joint appointments between McCormick and other schools.

"I have been on campus for only a short time," said President Schapiro, "but I was immediately impressed to see how tightly integrated McCormick is within the fabric of Northwestern."

The McCormick School got its start in 1909, when Northwestern created the College of Engineering and built Swift Hall to house it. The new college adopted the motto "Culture for Usefulness." Two tracks were offered, civil engineering and mechanical-electrical engineering, with the curriculum favoring science and mathematics.

Three decades later the college itself faced some reengineering: it needed to offer a more practical, applied approach to engineering, in addition to the theoretical foundation. A $7 million gift to Northwestern in 1938 from inventor and industrialist Walter Patton Murphy endowed the new Northwestern School of Engineering.

A cornerstone of the school was an extensive cooperative program that allowed students to spend significant time in actual industrial jobs -- the birth of the "co-op program" that today still bears Murphy's name. And a literal cornerstone was laid for the school's new home, the Technological Institute, which was completed in 1942.

Next came an expansion of the school through modern facilities and first-class research. Highlights include the creation in 1954 of the department of materials science, the first such department in the world; the creation of a new interdisciplinary research center, the Materials Research Center, followed by many other new collaborative centers; and the broadening of engineering into the life sciences in biomedical engineering.

By the time the late 1980s rolled around, it was time to update both the School of Engineering's curriculum and the building. A $30 million grant in 1989 from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation resulted in a new name for the school -- the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science -- and a complete rehab for Tech.

A revolutionary new curriculum, called Engineering First, was required of all freshmen starting in 1998. Students were challenged with design projects from real clients and learned design, communication and analysis. Other programs in the same spirit followed, stamping McCormick as a place that engages the needs of business and society.

The school's commitment to innovation -- as well as its affinity with industry -- was affirmed with a $10 million gift from the Ford Motor Company for a new engineering design center. The building, completed in 2005, is the first building at Northwestern specifically built to obtain certification in environmental sustainability.

Ottino, who became dean in 2005, believes the greatest opportunities for McCormick are to be found in enhancing design thinking -- an emphasis on the creative side of engineering. Several new programs were born out of this concept in the last few years, including the Segal Design Institute and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

This drive to combine ingenuity and analysis and to find real-world applications for research defines McCormick as the school continues to more forward in the 21st century.

To learn more about McCormick's history, visit McCormick's Centennial Web site.