April 22, 2012

Alumnus Gives $10 Million to Cornell Engineering

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With a $10 million gift from John A. Swanson ’62 M.Eng. ’63 the College of Engineering will expand undergraduate opportunities in both academics and student organizations.

According to a University press release on Thursday, half of the gift will be used to fund engineering project teams — student-run organizations that design and build products, such as race cars and water purification systems, that emphasize practical aspects of engineering.

The donation will also be used to create a director position that will oversee the project teams, according to Prof. Alan T. Zehnder, mechanical and aerospace engineering, associate dean for diversity and faculty development.

“There would be someone who would be able to advise the teams more closely, give more oversight in terms of safety and responsibility,” said Zehnder, who is also a faculty advisor for the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team. “The overall project team program will be on firmer grounds … It’ll make sure that this project team process and experience will be available for a lot more students down the line.”

The decision to appoint a new director comes after the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers project team — which builds and races cars for an annual competition in Michigan — was put on a two-month probation following multiple members’ complaints of excessive stress. According to Prof. Mark Campbell, director of mechanical and aerospace engineering, the engineering college has been trying to improve leadership among project teams.

Other uses for the money might include payments for project teams’ supplies and travelling fees, Zehnder said.

“It’s a great thing to happen, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it will be implemented,” said Matt Byrne ’12, the team leader for Formula SAE. “If money is given directly for the teams to use, that would be a huge help … It would probably go towards facilities, equipment, new machines — things like that.”

Currently, teams receive more than $200,000 in sponsorships from companies every year, according to the press release. Swanson’s gift will give project teams — which provide students hands-on experiences in engineering — more stability in funding, according to Lance Collins, dean of the college.

“These teams provide students with not only the technical challenge of designing and building a complex system, but the opportunity to work with others from different disciplines and to get entrepreneurial, management and financial experience that will inspire some to go on to create startups,” Collins said, according to the press release. “Thanks to [Swanson]’s incredibly generous gift, these teams will no longer have to rely on uncertain funding from companies and other sources that fluctuate year to year.”

Many project teams currently use software designed by ANSYS, Inc., a company that Swanson founded in 1970 and was CEO of until it was sold in 1994, according to the press release. ANSYS, which develops engineering simulation software and assists teams in developing and testing their projects.

Swanson said that his decision to donate to the college was largely motivated by the belief that an undergraduate engineering education — paired with experience working on teams and producing products — helps create well-prepared engineers.

“It’s a very good thing for us,” Zehnder said. “It demonstrates the commitment being made by the college and John Swanson to keep hands-on experience and learning available for engineering students and other students as well.”

The other half of Swanson’s donation will be used to fund additional academic initiatives.

Three million dollars will be used to establish the John A. Swanson engineering undergraduate scholarship fund, according to the press release. The remaining $2 million will help fund the Academic Excellence Workshop, which helps augment student education through peer-facilitated group work, and the Engineering Learning Initiatives program, which enables undergraduates to work alongside Cornell faculty members.

“Engineering can feel to many students to be an intense and aggressive program,” said Prof. Graeme Bailey, computer science, another faculty advisor for CUAUV and a member of The Sun’s Board of Directors. “All that we can do to help students to not only survive but develop both the nerdy and the personal skills to carry them forward into their careers is critically important.”

Original Author: Kaitlyn Kwan