You are here

Future Shock

Polytech Renaissance

The Rise of the Polytechnic University
University Business, October 2012

As education leaders and policymakers debate how best to reengineer the university learning experience, we take pause to recognize the quiet renaissance occurring at institutions where the captains of engineering innovation are educated in the new global economy.

What would Galileo think about Google Earth? Would Michelangelo’s art have different hues of the pallet which digital animation offers today? What would Shakespeare think of downloading his plays on his iPad? Though the tools may be different in this modernized world, the need for rapid development of discovery research has become the new imperative of planet earth.

Presently, scientific innovation and workforce development have become hot-button topics in the debate on how best to rejuvenate the U.S. economy. Thus, at some of the best polytechnic universities professors are more likely to be scholar practitioners in their field of choice.

From their early beginnings, venerable polytechnics have distinguished themselves as forward- thinking institutions in the several critical fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Indeed, throughout history, “renaissance” connotes the rebirth of scientific and humanistic critical thinking, problem solving, and technological ingenuity. Through a series of industrial revolutions, society has advanced by path-finding product and research development—from the democratization of learning by the printing press to the discovery of new world explorers—from Christopher Columbus to Ballard and the Titanic.

The rise of public higher education in the 20th century has closely paralleled the Industrial Revolution, creating a different kind of scientific, technological, and organizational model for leading institutions into the new millennium. As polytechnic students and faculty moved across academic disciplines, polytechnic universities have expanded exponentially to connect the intellectual dots of science, technology, and engineering. Now, in the 21st century, a broad and varied range of interdisciplinary links have become essential to developing new analytical skills in the wake of an information explosion, and that’s where polytechnic schools have stepped in throughout history.

Founded in 1794, École Polytechnique arose with Napoleon’s blessing, gaining military status “for the fatherland, science, and the glory.” Hubris aside, Napoleon’s declaration reminds us that academically rigorous polytechnic universities strengthen a nation’s security, and importantly, provide a practical vision for future economic prosperity. This vision for École then, and now, is at the heart of what a polytechnic university aims to be—a compelling place to create the fusion of science, technology, industry, politics, and economics and a place to better prepare graduates for the competitive workplace. École’s President Marion Guillou says international challenge, scientific challenge, and the challenge of social responsibility continue to be the university’s major focuses.

In the U.S, new emergent polytechnic models abound—top flight schools like California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly), University of Wisconsin-Stout, Florida Polytechnic University (FPU), Vermont Technical College, and State University of New York Institute of Technology (SUNYIT).

Chartered in 1901, US News and World Report ranks CalPoly as among the best polytechnic institutions in the nation. Ranked No. 1 by Forbes, CalPoly is one of the top 100 universities in the nation. Truly, CalPoly has set the platinum standard for contemporary polytechnics.

Established in 1891, University of Wisconsin-Stout focuses programs in industry, technology, home economics, applied art, and the helping professions. Ranked on the list of top 100 schools to attend by US News, University of Wisconsin-Stout also boasts its top-tier regional position on the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges.

In the South, Florida Polytechnic University, formerly known as Southern Florida Polytechnic, provides yet another example to consider as other states restructure their delivery of scientific and technical education. FPU represents a significant shift toward a more comprehensive polytechnic mission and future growth trajectory.

Heading north, Vermont Technical College is Vermont’s evolving polytechnic, and the SUNY Institute of Technology sets itself apart for their emphasis on nanotech, biotech, and info-technologies. Host to national nanotechnology conferences, SUNYIT’s special focus on nanotech offers students an unusual convergence of disciplines, scholars, practitioners and industry leaders. These cutting-edge areas of science, engineering and technology position SUNYIT graduates to become global thought leaders in a rapidly changing high-tech marketplace. SUNYIT President Wolf Yeigh reflected on the success of SUNYIT alumni: "In the tradition of polytechnic institutions, teaching and the pursuit of new knowledge in technology-rich disciplines are our hallmarks. Focusing on engineering, science, health science, and management, SUNYIT prepares professionals essential to the economic competitiveness of New York. Just as the 19th century’s Normal Schools became liberal arts colleges, technical institutes evolved into institutes of technology. SUNYIT’s unique history as a technical institute paved the way for its emergence as a polytechnic institution, one that readies students for tomorrow’s technological careers."

In the new world of Wikipedia, “polytechnic” denotes several mission complementary institutional missions centered on science and technology. Hopefully, public higher education leaders and policymakers will promote the future growth and development of polytechnics, so that tomorrow’s graduates are equipped with the scientific skills and the technical knowledge required for success in the 21st century. In the academic year ahead, watch for the rise of a new polytechnic university where you are.