“The Joy of Engineering”: A Look Into the New Gateway Course

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A new Gateway course, based on engineering principles from the nine departments in SEAS, rises from the ashes of the old, based on the tears of freshmen

Every graduating glass goes through an experience that is uniquely theirs, but it seems like the Engineering Class of 2015 is pioneering an uncanny amount of firsts. Their school was introduced to them as “CE” and not “SEAS,” and they are now taking a Gateway course that is a radically different from what their older peers endured. Learn all about it below!

As we reported last semester, the required first year engineering course, commonly referred to as “Gateway,” is undergoing major modification starting this fall. Plans were set in motion last spring when the committee in charge of Gateway decided to scrap the old curriculum and asked Electrical Engineering Professor David Vallancourt and Mechanical Engineering Professor Fred Stolfi to head and design a brand new course. Vallancourt told Bwog that there was an “abrupt transition from the old group to the new group” and said people associated with the old Gateway courses played no role in the creation of the new one. He added, “No one associated with the course previously had any input into what it is now. Pretty much there was a clean break, and the Gateway Steering Committee was handed a blank slate to create this course from scratch.”

The Lecture

Gateway this fall has a wholly new structure, thanks to Vallancourt. All enrolled students attend a two-hour long lecture every Friday (à la Frontiers), which introduces different aspects and fields of engineering to the freshpeople. Don’t call it a “survey course” though: there’s no one week dedicated to Civil Engineering, and another to Mechanical Engineering. Instead (and, we think, ingeniously), each weekly lecture will examine a particular SI unit (time, mass, etc.) and how to apply these to various disciplines.

Professor Vallancourt is striving to keep these lectures “exciting [and] immediate” and give “examples that aren’t toy examples” by incorporating as many demonstrations and real-life scenarios as possible. The new course will focus more on actual problem-solving, and the introduction of mathematical principles. In addition to these technical lectures, there will be four nontechnical guest lectures during the semester. It is confirmed that Damon Horowitz, the Director of Engineering at Google (!) will address entrepreneurship, and  Engineering Dean Peña-Mora (!!) will tackle project management.

The Projects

Gateway 2.0 will still require a project. Each of the nine engineering departments has developed its own scheme, with a single corresponding weekly section. The mathematical programming language MATLAB will also be taught during these classes, to aid students in performing the complex mathematical operations introduced throughout the course. The sections are capped at around 21, and Vallancourt predicts a frantic sign up process when registration times are announced (“like buying concert tickets,” he said—don’t worry, we’re used to it). Unfortunately, everyone may not get into their top choice.

Unlike the previous Gateway courses, the modeling software Maya will not be taught at all, although there will be design aspects to the projects as well as analytical ones. Previously, projects were designed to benefit specific communities, such as deprived inner-city schools in New York, but projects part of the new course do not directly engage with local or international communities. Instead, Vallancourt said there will be a social component to the projects. Each project “keeps an eye on potential social utility. Every project should have some social aspect to it.” Examples include designing a laser communication system for audio and digital data for the EE department and in CS, writing new firmware for an HP calculator.


The course already appears to be off to a great start. Students’ reactions have generally been positive; freshperson engineers told Bwog they are excited to take the course and to select their projects. Optimism was audible in the first class: “That’s why he got a gold nugget on CULPA,” one enthused, watching Professor Vallancourt. Faculty involved with the course are excited as well. Stephen Edwards, the CS prof in charge of his department’s project, said that he is “very encouraged by the new direction the class is taking” and hopes that the “guided project style of the new Gateway lab will work.”

Vallancourt told Bwog that he hopes the Gateway committee will allow him to title the course “The Joy of Engineering” in lieu of the old “Design Fundamentals Using Advanced Computer Technologies.” From everything he’s told us about the syllabus, the excitement in his voice, and the genuine commitment he has to students, Dr. Vallancourt certainly seems to have reignited the joy in first-year engineering, and Bwog emphatically hopes that the Gateway committee recognizes the significance of this acheivement.

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  1. This is so unfair  

    Not only to past SEAS classes, but to a number of CC classes from the recent past to the forseeable future. Now SEAS has a legitimate course while we're stuck with FoS. This is some old bullshit.

    • umad?  

      It sounds like you are at the peak of mad...

      • ...  

        i'm mad. sometimes people ask me why i always sound like i want to throw columbia under a bus. i have to explain to them that they have it all wrong.... i don't want to throw columbia under a bus... i want to drive the bus over a retching and desperate columbia, feeling the vibrations of its once formidable skeleton crunching helplessly transmitted through the suspension of the bus through to my foot planted firmly on the accelerator while listening to its last dying howls as it painfully succumbs to a horrible, horrible death.

        but then oftentimes i get something to eat and change my mind, for a little while...

        that said, vallancourt is awesome.

    • ARSTNEIO  

      FoS is a great course.

      100% serious, I loved it.

  2. alum '11

    wow. wish i was a freshmen again :(

  3. SEAS '15  

    It's only been one class so far, but it is everything as amazing as the word Vallancourt makes it sound.

  4. Professor Vallancourt  

    is my absolute favorite professor ever, and I'm so sad this wasn't around when I was a freshy :(. SEAS '15 (not CE), you truly have something wonderful.

  5. JY

    Columbia is awesome! And, Columbia is getting better every year. We are on an incredible trajectory!

  6. CE '13  

    I liked Gateway...even if it was mostly bullshit...especially Jose and Maya, even if it's mostly useless. But I also took intro to EE with Vallancourt, as well as the intro course in MATLAB, so I guess I got the best of both (or all three) worlds.

  7. who

    what are the nine engineering departments?

  8. Anonymous  

    Gateway was awesome because i met an astronaut

  9. to think  

    that two and a half years ago, JM almost had DV fired for his attempt to "usurp" his role in gateway.

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