The strengthening of the science and engineering programs at SUNY New Paltz has been one of the bright spots in the slow recovery of the Hudson Valley economy from the long Great Recession. The official ribbon-cutting and tour of the steel-framed, slate-clad two-story $48-million Science Building on the northeast corner of the New Paltz campus next Thursday, March 9 at 10:30 a.m. will celebrate what the invitation calls “the burgeoning enrollments in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields” at the school. The event is expected to be well attended by the local officialdom.
This past fall, undergraduate enrollments in the School of Science and Engineering topped 1,000 for the first time at 1,029, up from 624 just five years ago. Having surpassed education with 496 undergraduate enrollees, fine and performing arts with 749 and business with 902, the STEM school’s numbers now trail only liberal arts (2366) in undergraduate enrollees.
The computer science, geology, physics and astronomy, and geography departments have offices and laboratories in the new building. Math has a new lab there. Geography, formally in the liberal-arts sphere, and geology are both concerned with how humans interact with the physical world and almost inevitably study some of the same things. In the new building, the two departments will share maps, GIS and a lab to study soil chemistry, according to science and engineering dean Dan Freedman, who will also have an office there.
Freedman, chair of the SUNY New Paltz chemistry department from 2003 to 2012, became interim dean of the school in August 2011 and dean in April 2012.
Most of the STEM disciplines have gained enrollment during Dan Freedman’s five-year tenure as dean, but none more than the computer science program, which went from 67 to 146 undergraduates, and the engineering programs, which increased from 144 undergraduates to 315. In only its third academic term, the new mechanical engineering program this past fall enrolled 104 students. The spring numbers are expected to show another increase.
Interestingly, Freedman attributes the strong interest in mechanical engineering at his school less to the digital techniques that have made design simulations more accurate and easier to manipulate and more to the interest in designing and making real objects — the same impulse that stimulated the so-called maker movement.
The college’s 3D printing program, since last July the Stratasys-MakerBot Additive Research & Teaching Lab (or Smart Lab, to use the inevitable acronym) has been one of the campus’s major calling cards since it was christened as the Makerbot Innovation Center in February 2014. “I want to invest in the company that emerges from the meetings that happen in this room,” Makerbot co-founder Bre Pettis said on that heady occasion. SUNY chancellor Nancy Zimpher was sure the college would become the hub for advanced manufacturing technology in the Hudson Valley and New York State, “and I cannot wait to learn what comes next.”
What has come next is the increasing diffusion of New Paltz engineering expertise to the Hudson Valley manufacturing sector. Since the 3D printing lab was launched, a constant flow of manufacturers, inventors and schemers have made their way to Dan Freedman’s door looking for solutions to fabrication, design and art problems. The manufacturing internships and jobs the students are now getting with many Hudson Valley firms with which Freedman and others have relationships are now likely to provide them real-life insights that develop their entrepreneurial spirits.
Freedman’s favorite example is his school’s relationship with Sono-Tek, the Milton-based manufacturer of ultrasonic spray systems. The firm has hired a number of interns and electrical engineering graduates over the past five years.
“The manufacturing companies that I’m familiar with in the Hudson Valley that seem healthy specialize in making hard-to-manufacture, semi-custom products,” explained the science dean last year. “To stay successful in this space requires an entrepreneurial mindset. For New Paltz to be a driver in the local economy, we need to be able to graduate students who think this way.”
In this next step in the evolution of the New Paltz science and engineering programs, the bricks and mortar and the program development will again go hand in hand. The college hopes to break ground this fall on a 20,000-square-foot facility to be called the Engineering Innovation Hub in a parking lot next to the Resnick Engineering Hall. According to the college, “the campus’s 3D printing initiative will reinforce and support mechanical engineering, and the mechanical engineering will bring new dimensions to the 3D printing initiative.”
The equipment on the innovation hub will support the engineering program and the work of companies partnering with SUNY New Paltz through the 3D printing program. It will also support the start-ups the state attracts, including the successor program to the ill-fated Start-Up New York.
Who says education can’t interact profitably with innovative business enterprises? Prestigious science and engineering schools have long been doing so. But such relationships don’t happen on their own. They need to be nurtured, often in the form of sponsored research. The SUNY system’s Office of Sponsored Research (the New Paltz unit is called the Office of Sponsored Programs) provides the technical support.
This month, Freedman expects to launch a new initiative designed to bring together entrepreneurs, people in venture capital businesses, and various other folks who could evaluate and support entrepreneurship in advanced manufacturing.
Set respectfully distant from the village streets to its north and east and awaiting only outside landscaping and more permanent signage, the two-story 77,000-square-foot Science Building, now occupied for about six weeks, admits natural light from all directions. The structure will be LEED-certified, meaning that it is resource-efficient: fresh air, temperature zones, a panoply of switches, outlets, sensors and controls, lots of glass, spatial diversity. Laboratories, classrooms and offices co-exist with large open public spaces. Students and staff walk around, sit on hallway furniture, or converse. The Science Building is a faraway — and more habitable — universe from that provided by the teachers’-college-cum-brutalist architectural style of much of the SUNY campus.
SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian is reportedly happy with the building and its contents. “Now we have the facilities that match the quality of the people in them,” Freedman quoted him as saying.