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Dean's message

Math matters to all of us

January 2022

Albert P. Pisano

As a mechanical engineering student, I learned the differential equations that govern materials. I applied these concepts in my early work to study and improve the strength of automobile engine parts. When I pivoted to research on thin-film sensor technologies, the bedrock math for mechanical engineering empowered me to understand stresses and strains of the new sensor materials I was developing. Math allowed me to advance my sensor technology research faster than I ever could have by just relying on trial and error, which to be honest, is how some people in the field were operating at the time.

Yes, I'm also a huge proponent of iterative design: it's an exceptional educational tool for introducing the practice of engineering, for example. But we can't stop there. We also need to inspire students to want to use math to deepen their practice of engineering. If I can arrive at an approximately correct answer in one step, why go through a set of slow, expensive experiments that are essentially laborious iterations without the math? 

I bring this up because I think we all have a responsibility to talk more about math in personal terms. We need to share our experiences with how math empowers our work as researchers, as practicing engineers and computer scientists, as educators, as productive members of society.

Of course, math is just one of the many "languages of engineering." Critical thinking, communication, physics, ethics, security and privacy awareness, unintended consequences and societal impacts, design, modeling, prototyping, building – these are just some of the many languages of engineering. In the future, I will return to the topic of our responsibility to ensure students gain fluency in a broad and diverse range of these languages of engineering. 

As we rightly embrace the many essential languages of engineering and computer science, we must remember to renew our focus on math. I would offer that we need to do a better job of providing concrete examples that show why math matters. 

The pandemic has shown us time and time again why math matters to all of us. Calculations describing virus-laden aerosols floating in the air are just one example. Also, understanding the statistics that describe infection rates and hospitalization rates is key to understanding the impact the pandemic is having on our healthcare systems.

My own life experience has shown why math matters. It was fluency in differential equations that first enabled me to get comfortable in mechanical engineering and subsequently enabled me to change my research entirely. So as I think about how we can prepare engineers and computer scientists for an ever-changing workplace driven by cutting-edge innovation, I am convinced that we must ensure that our students are fluent in the math that matters. 

I'm thankful to have gained fluency in math early in my engineering career, and I'm more motivated than ever to ensure that students at the Jacobs School of Engineering and across the nation are provided the experiences and support that will enable their own journey to fluency in the math that matters. 

As always, I can be reached at DeanPisano@eng.ucsd.edu

Read the January 2022 Jacobs School news email as a PDF here

Albert ("Al") P. Pisano, Dean
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering