CORVALLIS - Oregon is beginning to reap the benefits of state and private investment to expand the state's engineering capabilities - an initiative that is bringing more high-achieving students and research dollars to Oregon State University.

Last year, OSU announced its plan to raise $180 million in private and public funds over five years to elevate its engineering program from 74th to one of the top 25 such programs nationally. Private donors since have given more than $45 million to help OSU achieve its goal and the university is seeking $50 million in public funding over five years, beginning with the 2001-2003 biennium.

The Oregon University System and the Oregon State Board of Higher Education have endorsed OSU's top tier goal. During the last biennium, OSU received about $3 million in state funding to increase degree capacity by 20 percent.

That momentum continues to grow, says Ron Adams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering.

"During the last five years, enrollment has grown by nearly 800 new undergraduate students," Adams said, "and we have more than tripled the number of students who have grade point averages above 3.9 and SAT scores above 1,300. What that means is that more top Oregon students are staying in state.

"Our ability to offer more and better scholarships is one reason," he added. "There also is an awareness that OSU is significantly expanding its capabilities and branching into new, exciting areas. That's attractive to students as well as faculty."

During the last biennium, the College of Engineering has brought in nine new faculty members. These new faculty have helped attract major research grants and "energized our existing faculty," Adams said. Among some of the new initiatives:

  • Terri Fiez, hired as head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has built a laboratory at OSU focusing on mixed signal design. With funding of more than $1 million annually, her lab is working to develop new sophisticated circuits used in cell phones and other wireless applications.
  • The Department of Energy has awarded OSU a three-year, $1.58 million grant to provide support for a hazardous materials tracking program at the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. Rick Billo, the new head of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, has developed a Bar Code and Wireless Data Capture Laboratory at OSU that will work on the project. The goal: to see if wireless technology can be used to track nuclear materials and thousands of other packages, while accurately assessing their hazard potential. 
  • OSU just received a four-year, $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the world's most sophisticated tsunami research center. Under the leadership of long-time faculty members Solomon Yim and Cherri Pancake, the center will helps scientists better understand tsunamis, create better warning systems, and ultimately save lives. The center will be accessible to researchers around the country via the Internet.

Another growing research area is microtechnology-based energy and chemical systems. Using miniature fuel cells for a power source, these systems have a variety of applications, from individualized air conditioners within suits worn by persons dealing with hazardous materials, to environmental sensors that can detect toxins.

OSU has as many as 17 faculty members from three different colleges working in microtechnology. Seed money from the College of Engineering helped start the initiative, enabling OSU to hire Kevin Drost from the Battelle National Laboratory. Under his leadership, OSU since has attracted about $2 million in external annual funding to support that research.

Adams said the College of Engineering already has surpassed last year's total of $12.9 million in new research funding, and could top the $16 million mark by the end of the year. "Our strategy has been to provide lots of seed money to get things started," Adams said. "These 'micro investments' start the momentum and help us attract new faculty, who have leveraged additional dollars. It isn't difficult to show a good return on investment."

Financial support for students also is growing. The college recently developed a new "Dean's Scholarship" program that provides $1,000 a year for two years to top students. Added to the Presidential Scholarship Program and the Intel Scholarship Program, it has helped keep top students in state.

Adams said the college now offers a scholarship to every student from Oregon who has at least a 3.9 g.p.a. and a score of 1,300 on their SAT. "Now we need to do the same thing at the graduate level," Adams said. "Our graduate student enrollment has been flat, but additional research funding will significantly increase our ability to offer competitive stipends, which is a key to attracting graduate students."

Overall, the College of Engineering has 2,900 undergraduate students and 450 graduate students, with plans to add an additional 500 students by the year 2003. The additional students, faculty and research needs have created a space crunch, Adams said.

Planning has begun for a major new engineering building on campus, fueled by an anonymous donation to the university of $20 million. The gift, from an alumnus, is the third largest in the university's history. A major new high tech engineering complex would help address some of the college's needs, including classrooms, research laboratories and office space.

Construction won't begin for at least a year, Adams said.

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Ron Adams, 541-737-7722