By Ellen James Mbuqe
As cars cross the Queensboro Bridge in New York City they pass right over a fairly non-descript construction site on Roosevelt Island. If the drivers of those cars even bother to look down they might see some piles of dirt, some fences, some heavy equipment, a hole; it does not look like much. When Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell looks at that same hole, he sees the future.
“What is happening right now is probably one of the most significant events in higher education in the last 50 years,” says Collins. He is talking about Cornell Tech. While the Roosevelt Island campus will not be complete for a few more years, the idea of Cornell Tech was too exciting to wait for a campus to be built.
Since its founding in 2011, Cornell Tech has become an important and vibrant extension of Cornell Engineering. Classes have been held in space Google has loaned Cornell at its New York headquarters in the Chelsea neighborhood. Cornell Tech now has well over 100 students and 22 faculty members, including five faculty members from the Ithaca campus. Graduate education at Cornell Tech is focused on students collaborating with NYC-based companies and businesses. The school has much more of a start-up vibe than a traditional Ivy League feel, though the quality of the degree programs offered is everything you would expect from Cornell.
“We are launching programs at a rate that is unheard of. To put this in perspective, the new biomedical engineering major that we launched this fall is the first new major in over a decade. The Cornell Tech campus is launching new programs at a rate of two every year,” said Collins. “Cornell Tech is focused on innovation and technology. Every student is deeply embedded in the tech sector with a focus that impacts a wide spectrum of New York industries including media, healthcare, finance and entertainment.”
The partnership between Cornell Engineering and New York City is a natural fit. Cornell has a rich history of research done at the cutting edge of technological innovation. New York City is one of the great cities of the world, home to creative energy and human resources that are hard to match. “What we have created is a campus right in the middle of one of the most frenetic entrepreneurial atmospheres in the country in the most important city in the U.S.,” said Collins. “This is a truly unique venture. To be successful, Cornell Tech needs to remain committed to the changing technological needs of society. Both the Ithaca and New York campuses serve complimentary needs for our students and faculty and allow them to pursue endeavors and research that are enriched by the environments provided in each location.”
Collins, Dan Huttenlocher, Dean and Vice Provost of Cornell Tech, and Adam Shwartz, Director of the Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech, share a vision for Cornell Tech as a revolutionary way to provide graduate education in technology fields. The school operates with a studio culture where students can design, build, and collaborate on new ideas; apply knowledge in real-world contexts; and work with other students across disciplines.
“The traditional environment that encouraged silos of information has been thrown away. The new environment is one where there are hubs that simulate professional environments with students from a variety of disciplines working together on one project,” said Collins. He envisions a campus that is a unique outpost of academia—one that is a living and breathing community, reflecting the real-time needs of technology and adapting to change.
Collins is not concerned solely with the next five years of Cornell Tech’s development, but rather the next 20 or 50 years. He believes strongly that Cornell Tech must evolve in order to be a campus that remains cutting edge and relevant.
“The idea that Cornell Tech will stay focused solely on technology is wrong. I foresee a future for Cornell Tech where every single college and school at Cornell will interact and be part of the Roosevelt Island campus,” he said. “There will be a time when technology like social media platforms will be ubiquitous, but the questions that need to be explored will be asked by social scientists and psychologists. Understanding how technology is used and creating new designs will require a shift in focus from pure engineering. Cornell Tech will eventually need input from the arts and sciences, human ecology and architecture to remain an innovative and impactful enterprise,” Collins said.
Outside of academia, Cornell Tech continues to work with the greater New York City community to encourage K-12 students and support small businesses. During the summer, Cornell Tech offered summer programming for New York City middle and high school students as part of the “To Code and Beyond” conference as an effort to encourage and support technology education in the city. It has even opened its offices to five start-ups founded by Cornell alumni to help nurture new businesses by providing highly sought after work space.
Collins envisions a day when the campus is complete and the public spaces are filled with people—not just students and faculty, but corporate CEOs, entrepreneurs, and start-up teams. “It’s this kind of activity that really spurs economic development in the tech sector,” says Collins. “It’s these unanticipated connections made between people with different areas of expertise and different backgrounds that will fuel our tech ecosystem.”