Sean Zimmermann goes behind the scenes of the controversial engineering core.

On the 12th floor of Seeley Mudd Hall is the Botwinick Multimedia Learning Laboratory, a state-of-the-art computing classroom outfitted with more than four dozen computers, two digital projectors, and 20 terabytes of networked storage space. The facility is used by a number of engineering courses and faculty, but at the moment, the classroom is under the careful instruction of Promiti Dutta, a tall, soft-spoken woman in her late twenties. Dutta is in the middle of teaching her ENGI E1102 section — the course goes by the name “Design Fundamentals Using Advanced Computer Technologies” in the official SEAS bulletin, but to every first-year engineering student at Columbia, it’s known simply as “Gateway.”

Dutta is leading her students through a round of midterm evaluations today. Unlike the vast majority of Columbia College courses, many SEAS courses offer students a chance to give instructor feedback through evaluations conducted at the semester’s midpoint. These evaluations are anonymous, but rather than entering the ether of tenure committees and departmental files, students’ private opinions get aired publicly like dirty laundry on washing day. Dutta’s role during this process is to discuss the responses with her class, acting as both moderator and public relations officer while students are given the floor to debate the merits of their previous weeks’ experience.

Tensions are running high. One student writes in an evaluation that, in a class designed for first year engineers, “the engineering feel is absent.” Another questions the group project, which allows students to work with real clients to design real projects, writing “Is Gateway really intended to implement solutions? I feel the whole international client business is just a promotional tool for Columbia University.” Though some student evaluations are positive, numerous informal student interviews echo these sentiments. Mid-way through the year, Gateway students are not just finding problems with the course—they are questioning what the purpose of Gateway actually is.

Such existential concerns are endemic among core courses. “Frontiers of Science,” for example, has had more than its fair share of detractors since its 2004 introduction to the university, and even the vaunted “Contemporary Civilizations” has endured withering criticism over the decades for its potential to leave students with only “a smattering of knowledge,” as one professor objected when the course was first established. Because of their broad nature as survey courses, required classes tend to go hand in hand with superficiality.

But Gateway was conceived of as no ordinary survey course—if anything, Gateway was designed to be the opposite, bringing first-year SEAS students and faculty together to produce meaningful projects and build lasting academic relationships.

Such goals would have been unheard of a generation ago, for until the course began in the early 1990s as a project of now-Vice Dean Morton Friedman, it was standard practice for engineering students to spend their entire first two years mastering the fundamentals of calculus, physics, chemistry, and other sciences. Rarely, if ever, would students actually work within their desired engineering fields or even speak to engineering professors before their junior years.

But when increasing numbers of faculty around the country began to perceive this lack of interaction as unhealthy, a reform movement emerged. Led by Dean Friedman, professors from 10 engineering schools partnered to develop the Gateway Coalition, a National Science Foundation-funded consortium with a mandate to rethink undergraduate engineering educations. For Columbia, this reform movement resulted in the 1994 introduction of the Gateway course, which exposes students to real, applied engineering as freshmen, not juniors.

Despite the growing calls for curriculum reform, the first incarnation of Gateway encountered some resistance among the SEAS faculty. Many professors scoffed at the idea that freshmen could grasp engineering concepts without at least a few semesters’ worth of rigorous grounding in the math and science. But various departments eventually did develop introductory short-courses covering their engineering sub-fields, several of which filled out the modular framework of the new Gateway class. Dean Friedman soon became concerned about the lack of coherence in the course, though, and hired applied psychology professor Jack McGourty to revamp Gateway in 1998. McGourty’s goal was to replace the old topic-specific modules with a unified program centered around service learning, and in 2003 the freshmen class became the first to team up with “clients” from the local New York community to tackle social issues using engineering solutions – designing a rooftop garden for an AIDS clinic, for example, or developing a one-handed video game controller for amputees. “This course is an excellent example of ‘technoscience,’ the integration of multiple disciplines where the projects, not the disciplines, drive the investigation and research,” said Dean Friedman in a 2004 SEAS newsletter article explaining the genesis of the new Gateway. By giving students real-world problems to solve from the get-go, the new engineering knowledge they pick up along the way immediately finds an application in service of the project’s goal. Abstract theory gives way to concrete, tangible know-how.

Prospective SEAS students hear Gateway described in similar terms when they visit for Days on Campus, and the opportunity to interact with engineering professors, create an original design, and solve a real-world problem makes Gateway seem almost too good to be true. Current students recall being mesmerized by presentations about the course only to be disappointed when their first-year experience lived up to none of their expectations.

“Gateway was, on paper, such an appealing class that it was part of the reason I chose Columbia,” says Max Gilmore, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering. But in practice, Gilmore says, the course was “frighteningly far” from the pitch he had received at Days on Campus. Aside from a perplexing grading system, Gilmore laments that the “service” element of Gateway faded into the background while tedious, procedural assignments took center-stage. “This class was so ineffectively done that I felt cheated out of the class I was supposed to have taken—the class in the course description,” he says.

Below are the descriptions of actual Gateway projects completed by students in the class in recent semesters.

Family Greenhouse

Design a low-cost greenhouse with attached rainwater-harvesting system that could be marketed and sold to rural communities in developing countries.

Hearing Aid

Develop a self-fitting hearing aid that does not require an earmold nor a computer to program the hearing aid, and runs on solar power.

Adjustable Desk

Design an easily adjustable, light-weight desk for a handicapped student in the School of General Studies.

Irrigation System

Create a low-cost graywater system with attached drip irrigation systems to be powered in the most appropriate, low-cost manner.

Electrical engineering junior Natalia Baklitskaya was also taken in by the grand Gateway talk, particularly that of McGourty himself. Based on the presentation he made to admitted students at Days on Campus, Baklitskaya believed that the course would enable her and her team to “design something cool,” and even the course’s negative reviews on CULPA did not dissuade her hopes initially. But, like Gilmore, Baklitskaya ultimately feels that the project she worked on did not help anyone. She remembers how her group struggled to meet the exacting demands of their client, whom she feels was “solely in it for the publicity anyway.” Gateway did teach her how to work with a client who has no technical training, Baklitskaya admits, but she feels that lesson could have been conveyed just as well through a better-managed course and less repetitive assignments.

Dean Friedman acknowledges that student complaints about their projects’ final outcomes are not unfounded. “It’s unfair, in a way,” says Friedman. “It’s a freshman level course, and we often do exaggerate. We’ve had a lot of disappointments, where it looks exciting as you start out, then you realize, we—not the students—overlooked some things, and it’s not possible.” But, as he points out, part of the course’s mission is to expose students to real engineering projects—twists and turns included. “Many of the projects did end up with something,” says Friedman, “But we cannot guarantee that even half of them will end up at all.”

Part of the problem may simply be the nature of first-year engineering students. “You have people from all backgrounds coming into that class and can’t assume any thing,” says Dutta, whose current title is the assistant director for community-based learning programs. “I can’t assume that everyone has taken two years of calculus, so teaching anything highly technical becomes a challenge.” These knowledge gaps necessarily limit how much “real” engineering that freshman can do on a project, lowering the overall chance of successful completion and forcing instructors to focus instead on holistic, big-picture themes of design, communication, and teamwork. Gateway may at times feel more like philosophy than physics, but as Dutta explains, freshmen generally get quite “frazzled” the moment as an integral appears on the blackboard.

Some faculty, however, do believe the Gateway curriculum should encompass more detailed pre-professional instruction. “There is no technical rigor to Gateway,” says electrical engineering Professor Ken Shepard, who echoes the complaints of many SEAS students that the course is light on the element they are most excited about—actual engineering. According to Shepard, most faculty share this perception, but no one thus far has stepped up to call for change. “It takes some activism on the part of the faculty to do this [change the course], and the faculty are busy and so there is a certain laziness,” says Shepard. “We have lots of other things to worry about, and, okay, so there is a problem. Somebody else will worry about it. Somebody else will fix it.”

This collective action problem is made worse by the charged atmosphere within the administrative ranks of SEAS. Professors decline to criticize the course publicly, fearing that their grievances may be perceived as personal attacks on Dean Friedman, whose legacy is intimately entwined with the creation and evolution of Gateway. He is well-respected as an administrator and highly popular among faculty, so no one wishes to “rock the boat,” as Shepard puts it. “It’s become the third rail of Columbia engineering politics,” he says. “And I just don’t understand it because the intentions here are all noble ones.”

McGourty rejects such criticisms as unfounded. “There are people [on the faculty] that have opinions but don’t know the facts,” he says. But McGourty also admits that there is almost “no mechanism for dialogue” between the faculty at-large and those who run Gateway. Shepard agrees, citing the lack of faculty oversight as “the fundamental problem” with the course.

For his part, Friedman says he welcomes suggestions and input from professors. “We’d love the faculty to get involved, but they all plead, ‘We’re busy; we don’t have time; use the TAs,'” he explains. Until the various departments within SEAS are ready to invest time and effort in revamping the course, Friedman believes it will be difficult to make meaningful improvements to the Gateway curriculum.

But the first breezes of change may be starting to blow. Shepard, Friedman, and representatives of McGourty’s staff have met at least once to discuss the state of Gateway, and it seems that the degree and depth of technical content will eventually be addressed. “I have worried from the beginning about this very issue: is there enough technical content?” says Dean Friedman. “Somehow I’ve had the sense that we don’t have enough of that. Maybe we’ve gone too far in the other direction, worrying about all these other things because it’s easier [and] worrying that the technical stuff is hard.”

And Shepard argues that more and more professors feel prepared to step up to the plate and begin reshaping Gateway. “I can find five faculty that would be willing to do this,” he says with a dash of dramatic flair. “We’re losing an opportunity with the Gateway course to provide a good technical introduction, a broad overview of all the engineering disciplines.”

Just as Gateway was created to respond to the needs of undergraduates who were kept too far away from engineering for too long, the course may adapt and evolve to stay relevant to a new generation of SEAS students. “That’s what Gateway was originally about,” says Friedman. “Maybe it’s time to change a little bit of it again.”