UChicago's first undergraduate engineering major

It is the moment that hundreds of eager and curious students have been waiting for: the University of Chicago has finally announced the approval of the much-anticipated bachelor-of-science degree in molecular engineering, the first undergraduate degree program in engineering the University has ever offered in its 125-year history.

“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 Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) offers them the opportunity to apply these patterns of thought to the problems and tools of engineering at the molecular scale."

The undergraduate academic program at the University of Chicago has long been lauded for its traditional liberal arts curriculum, with the most prominent feature being its strong core curriculum. The core incorporates elements of the arts, sciences, and humanities together to educate students to address fundamental questions across multiple disciplines, with significant implications for solving society’s toughest problems.

However, it has become progressively clear that with the increasing demands and complexities of our modern society, that more novel and innovative approaches are required from academic institutions to address these difficult issues. How do we educate the next generation of leaders, researchers, and workers to solve challenges such as the energy crisis, clean water, or healthcare?

The new molecular engineering major, which launched in Autumn 2015, combines essential problem-solving skills and quantitative reasoning with a comprehensive foundation in the fundamental sciences to build practical and useful systems from the molecular level up. Two tracks within the major will be offered: one with a biological, chemical, and soft materials emphasis, and the other geared towards quantum engineering, which is the first undergraduate program with this focus worldwide.

Additionally, business concepts such as patent design, market analysis, and project economics, will be introduced and emphasized in a three-credit design course capstone, the first ever of its kind at UChicago. Teams of students will work with a faculty mentor to solve an open-ended problem, such as analyzing chemical and biological properties of cancer cells to develop new treatment and delivery vehicles, or harnessing the properties of electrons in materials to develop quantum information technologies. Thus, students will become well versed not only in engineering analysis, but also in a world where innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship is absolute key for major societal impact.

“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 Pritzker Molecular Engineering. “This major gives us the opportunity to invent an undergraduate engineering curriculum that is entirely new.”

With the addition of molecular engineering, an intellectually rigorous and extremely cross-disciplinary, cutting-edge field of study, the University of Chicago is poised to become a leader in modern engineering research and education.

“What we’re doing with undergraduate engineering education is completely different and completely new,” said Paul Nealey, 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. “How could any student not be excited about this? About being a part of something this monumental, this bold? And when the PME is already comprised of an incredible group of individuals, from faculty to staff to administration, who are also incredibly enthusiastic of what’s to come from this new major, it makes the whole college experience that much more fun. This major is one of the main reasons I chose the University of Chicago.”