Dean's Message

Experience provides context, magic doesn't

February 2022

Albert P. Pisano

While I was in high school, I worked on cars. I had a working knowledge of carburetors well before I took my first engineering course in college. So when my professor lectured on the basics of fluid flow, I was able to think about carburetors and why they work the way they do. And because I had real experiences on which I could ground my education, I was able to extract a lot of value from that fluid dynamics course.

Technology in that era was often simple enough that a patient eye and a curious mind could discern the basics of its operation. If you were motivated and you paid attention, you could get pretty far on your own. Through careful observation and tinkering, I was able to construct context. That context helped me absorb the math and engineering I would be introduced to in high school and college.

As a sophomore in college, I was lucky to get the one undergraduate student job in the engineering machine shop. That job gave me opportunities to shift from being an observer to becoming a creator of form and function in technology. I was now designing and making the very things that I would subsequently test in order to deeply understand the way they work.

Today, in our everyday lives, we are surrounded by incredible feats of engineering and computer science. These feats, and the technologies behind them, are more and more invisible to the untrained eye. What Arthur C. Clarke said about "sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic" feels increasingly true. Unfortunately, those incredible feats of engineering and computer science, now indistinguishable from magic, are unable to provide sufficient context for students to absorb fundamental math and engineering concepts. And so, for the benefit of individual lives and careers, and for the long-term health of our innovation-driven economy, we need to offer engineering and computer science students more opportunities to experience the math and engineering behind today's incredible technological feats.

This is why I'm so grateful for the relevance-obsessed engineering and computer science educators out there. This is also why experiential education, and school-wide efforts such as our IDEA Engineering Student Center and EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio here at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering are so real to me. Their value is not a theoretical or bureaucratic exercise. They represent some of our concrete efforts to encourage students to connect personally and emotionally to the coursework.

I was never a student who absorbed theoretical material immediately or came to deep understandings without practice. I respect, laud and honor the people who do. But that's not me, and I'm not alone. I strongly feel that as a community, it is our joint responsibility to ensure that every incoming engineering and computer science college student has opportunities to connect personally with the math and engineering and computing theory and fundamentals that will fuel their careers. Despite economic pressures, here at the Jacobs School of Engineering, we continue to strengthen these efforts.

I'm pleased to share the 2020-2021 Annual Report of our IDEA Engineering Student Center. This Center engages with the entire Jacobs School of Engineering, both in terms of building community, and in terms of empowering and inspiring ALL of our students to connect personally with the theoretical coursework that will fuel their careers, unlock social mobility, and make engineering and computer science for the public good a concrete reality.

Read the February 2022 Jacobs School of Engineering news email.

As always, I can be reached at


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