M&T Marks a Three-Decade Wharton-Engineering “Marriage”

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“Thirty years is a long time for a marriage,” said Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson, greeting alumni of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology who had come back to campus to celebrate their program’s 30th anniversary in November. It seemed an apt metaphor for the University’s oldest joint-degree program, an interdisciplinary effort commonly known as M&T that links Wharton and Penn Engineering. Robertson credits the schools’ close-knit relationship for giving M&T an edge over competing programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. 

Penn Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt GCh’75 Gr’77 echoed the theme, assuring his counterpart with a wink that his school had been faithful. “Don’t worry! We have not been seeing any other deans behind your back!”  

M&T is a small program, admitting just 50 freshmen each year, and the metaphor of loyal family seems to apply to the alumni as well. The turnout surpassed event chair Doug Alexander EE’83 W’83’s expectations to the point that attendance had to be capped at some events.

Program Director William Hamilton ChE’61 GCh’64 WG’64 assured them that the students on track to join their ranks are an impressive bunch. They are also increasingly diverse. Over the past decade international enrollment has grown by 25 percent. Meanwhile, high-school applicants often boast 8, 10, or even 12 AP credits, making M&T one of the most selective programs on campus.

This last fact was confirmed by Jeremy Siegel, the Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance, in his faculty keynote address. He recalled his early days teaching at Wharton, when he insisted that undergrads be allowed into some of his classes alongside the MBA candidates. He found he had to grade them on separate curves—because the undergrad exam scores were consistently 10-15 points higher. “Let’s face it,” Siegel said. “That was a lot of M&T people.”

For a demonstration of what some current students have been up to, associate professor of engineering Dan Lee dropped in with a short, soccer-playing robot in tow. For the past several years, his team has participated in RoboCup, an international robotic-soccer competition (this year the UPennalizers, as they’re called, took second place). Some of the techniques they’ve helped to pioneer have led to products with serious applications, like the “legged platform” developed by Boston Dynamics to help U.S. Marines carry heavy loads over terrain too rough for cars.

Chris Murray, the Richard Perry University Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, showed off an array of projects under way in nanotechnology. Before long, science started to blend with science fiction, as he discussed new work with “meta-materials,” solids that have been engineered at an atomic level to provide capabilities not found in nature [“Proof of Concept,” Sept|Oct 2008]. One researcher is working on a meta-material that has a negative index of refraction, which literally bends light the wrong way, so that an observer sees what’s behind an object, rather than the object itself. “This is something that takes you back to Star Trek,” Murray said: an actual cloaking device. 

The day concluded with a visit from Garrett Reisman EAS’91 W’91, a mission specialist for NASA who in 2008 spent three months aboard the International Space Station. Reisman embodies the dual spirit of M&T. The last time he came to campus, to speak at the Engineering School, he’d worn his navy blue NASA flight suit [“Tossed in Space,” May|June 2009]. But on this day he looked just as comfortable in business attire. Recently he found out he’ll be going into space again in 2010, on what will be the final flight of the Shuttle Atlantis. After NASA brings the Shuttle program to an end, Reisman will have to adapt to whatever comes next.

In that way, he served as an exemplar of how M&T envisions its purpose. As Dean Robertson had put it at the beginning of the day: “When our students come in, we tell them they’ll work in industries that don’t exist yet.”

—Sean Whiteman LPS’11

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