SUNY New Paltz science and engineering programs get two big boosts

SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a proponent of STEM education, was present for the festivities. (photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz)

SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a proponent of STEM education, was present for the festivities. (photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz)

This was a big week for the sciences at the state university at New Paltz. A week ago Tuesday the college won a $10-million highly competitive state grant for its new program in mechanical engineering plus an additional 10,000 square feet of office and lab space for new companies starting up in the state or recruited from elsewhere to the state under the Start-Up NY program. And last Friday a ceremonial groundbreaking was held for the college’s widely anticipated new $48-million, 77,000-square-foot science building, presently under serious construction, judging from a 15-foot-deep hole where the building will be on the northeast corner of the campus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo was in New Paltz for the award announcement, and SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher came by for the groundbreaking. “This is a happening place,” declared Zimpher last Friday, turning to college president Donald Christian during her brief remarks. “You have the right leader at the right time in the right place.”


During his remarks, Christian had called Zimpher “a huge proponent of STEM [science, technology, engineering and math].” He later used the word STEAM to include the arts in the acronym, the politically correct version of expressing the special elixir that the administration says characterizes the New Paltz experience.

According to Christian and to Dan Freedman, dean of the school of science and engineering, in the past five years the number of New Paltz students majoring in the STEM fields has doubled to 1000.

The SUNY New Paltz campus has been the beneficiary of $250 million in capital construction in the past few years. The improvements in science and engineering spaces along Mohonk Walk include the present refurbishment of the Wooster Science Building, the just-funded mechanical engineering building next to the Resnick Engineering Building, and the new science building for which ground was broken last week.

To gain the $10 million competitive state grant, the New Paltz application, strengthened considerably from the unsuccessful one submitted last year, expects three outcomes:

The first is to offer a college option to prospective engineering students that was “local, affordable and of highest quality.” New Paltz offers the only option for degree-level engineering education in the region.

The second is to ease a shortage of mechanical engineers in the region, something documented in the application by 32 letters of support and a Council of Industry survey of 125 companies; the 29 which responded said they employed 79 mechanical engineers. The college estimated that a third of the 300 mechanical engineers New Paltz will have produced after ten years will remain in the region, “providing a regional response to a regional problem.”

The third is to give Start-up NY “a solid footing” on the New Paltz campus, “providing an opportunity for companies involved in advanced manufacturing to work in synergy” with the new mechanical engineering program and other science and engineering departments. “I want to grow the companies here,” said Freedman, who provided several examples of entrepreneurs with whom he and other have been working at the school’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing. Written into the budget for the start-up effort, the marketing of which statewide has involved hundreds of millions of state dollars, are the services of a half-time Start-up NY coordinator, presently Rich Winters.

According to Freedman, the successful proposal was put together mainly by himself, New Paltz private grantswriter Steve Densmore, and Catherine Hoselton, vice president for sponsored programs at the college. Many others, including president Christian, provided feedback and made significant contributions.

The budget portion for what is called the Engineering Innovation Hub envisages five faculty hires (one each in years one, two, three, five and six) in mechanical engineering plus the services of a full-time technician, and administrative, information technology and student support. The ten-year budget amounts to a total commitment of $9 million in salaries and benefits. Capital investment for the program over the same period (for the Wooster renovation, the mechanical engineering building and lab in the new science building) amount to $14.6 million.

A couple of a million dollars will be spent on equipment, including a half-million dollars of MakerBot 3D printing labs in New Paltz and at the community colleges in Ulster, Dutchess and Orange counties. “The proposal,” the successful application said, “will further solidify the aforementioned connection to the community colleges by establishing new curricula and equipment” at the three community colleges.

Theatre was the art involved in the groundbreaking for the science building, which it is estimated will be completed in early 2016. The drag-around podium with the school’s insignia may have been the responsibility of the prop department, with the shovels and hardhats worn by the major players and supporting cast selected by the costume department. A front-end loader had arranged a neat pile of earth in the near background from which the 13 designated players from the academic, political and construction universes filled their brand-new-looking shovels with real dirt and on command cast the soil forward as though they were spreading bread upon the waters. Photographers scurried about, arranging themselves so as best to capture the symbolic activity.