Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Cultivates Imagination, Innovation and Inspiration

Look up the definition of “Renaissance Man” in the dictionary, and you just might find a picture of Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering (SMSE) Dean Chell Roberts staring back at you. Whether he’s creating a culinary masterpiece in the kitchen, writing poetry or dabbling in music and theater, Roberts’s varied interests are reflective of his passion for learning.


“When I was a student, I had a hard time deciding what degree to pursue,” he says. “There was theater. There was history. I liked to write poetry. I liked to cook. I liked to do other things. You might like to do other things as a prospective student, and you might think of engineering in a certain way. But engineering at USD is not static. It’s dynamic, and it’s designed to develop engineers who understand the contextualization of our global society, and who can provide solutions to problems society faces.”

Judging by the School of Engineering’s rapid ascension to its current position as one of the premier non-doctoral granting engineering programs in the country, it’s clear his dedication to the acquisition of knowledge is shared by the SMSE students and faculty. While Roberts is thrilled about the school's current No. 15 ranking on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top undergraduate engineering programs in the nation, he's clearly not interested in settling there. "We're only on our way up; trust me,"  he says without a hint of braggadocio. A key component of his plan to expand hinges on the school’s unique position as the only engineering program in the nation that requires graduates to earn a dual-degree (BS and BA) as a key component to the upward trajectory.

“If you’re going to create a truly competent – and not just technically competent – engineer, it takes exposure to real-world situations that help develop that type of thinking and intellectual development,” he says. That’s why the dual degree is so important to our mission.”

The dual BS/BA degree in engineering was designed to develop innovators and leaders who not only have a solid base in technical competencies, but are also effective communicators who understand the impact their work has on society as a whole. As global populations rise and natural resources dwindle, finding solutions to issues such as water pollution, energy production and climate change are job one.

In Roberts’ estimation, the answers to those questions will not come solely from research and development — an education complimented by the influence of the liberal arts can help USD engineering students understand and articulate why there is a problem, and not just how to fix it. “What I love about the dual degree program here at USD is that it provides our students that opportunity to become broader, to engage in the academic disciplines that may fall outside of their immediate academic focus, but will help them immeasurably down the road.”

Engineering for the 21st Century

In 2015, the School of Engineering received a milestone $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which has served as the launching point for the school’s commitment to developing engineers capable of tackling the 21st century’s greatest challenges.

Leveraging the university’s position as an Ashoka U Changemaker campus (one of only 33 worldwide) the school seeks to enhance the professional skills of students and change the culture of the faculty to emphasize social justice and humanitarian engineering. Existing courses were modified and new ones developed that tie technical concepts to global issues, thereby changing the culture of engineering education.

As a result, student professional skills are aligned with the mission of USD to foster a community of students dedicated to building a better world. There is also a hope that the changes the grant supports will broaden the appeal of engineering, and result in a more diverse demographic of students who choose to study it.

“We need to create a more diverse demographic of students, we need to change our curriculum to reflect a more inclusive environment,” Roberts says.

With the aid of the grant, the school is able to do even more to prepare all students with the skills needed to communicate effectively and work on teams in a diverse world, as well as consider the critical social and ethical factors needed to find technological answers to the challenges facing our global community.

“There are many engineering pathways,” says Roberts. “Some students will rise to create new products and companies, some will become lawyers and lead in developing regulations and emerging intellectual property, and others will become the leaders and CEOs of industry. There’s such a wealth of opportunities in this field, and we’re preparing our students to take advantage of those opportunities.”

— Mike Sauer