Engineering Science and Mechanics: An Evolutionary Department

September 21st, 2016

Engineering Science and Mechanics (ESM) is a program that has experienced a great deal of evolution through the years. Its purpose has always been central to the Ut Prosim mission of Virginia Tech, making it integral to the history of the university. Part of that history has involved a few renamings as the department has adapted to meet the needs of changing times. It started when Virginia Tech was only as old as the average grad student.

Experimental Engineering (and Applied Mechanics): 1908 - 1914

The engineering department of Virginia Agricultural and Technical College saw a significant growth in applied mechanics courses in the first fifteen years of its life. To adequately address the needs of these service courses, Experimental Engineering was created in 1908. Six years later, Applied Mechanics was added to the division name. 

Applied Mechanics: 1932

The department reorganized in 1932, this time with another department known as Power Engineering and Machine Design. The result was two new departments: Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. This clarified the administration of the mechanical engineering B.S. and M.S. programs and gave Applied Mechanics the oversight of service courses in applied mechanics, engineering materials, and aeronautics. Applied Mechanics expanded staff and programming as a result, eventually supporting all engineering programs with valuable hands-on experience critical to a high standard of excellence.

Engineering Mechanics: 1958

World War II brought about dramatic changes. The department provided courses for the Army Specialized Training Program, which helped to equip soldiers for the war effort and resulted in a much-needed boost to the student body as collegiate enrollment nationwide plummeted. When the War ended, expansion did not; in 1946 the department was issued the authority to grant master’s degrees.  The presence of that offering more clearly designated the program for engineers. Keeping the department true to its roots, the name was changed to Engineering Mechanics and the degree title followed in kind, establishing the master’s and Ph.D. degrees which continue today.

1958 also saw the presenting of the first B.S. degrees in Engineering Mechanics with emphasis on mathematics and the physical and engineering sciences. 

Engineering Science and Mechanics: 1972

Virginia Tech officially became a university in 1970, which caused the need for many amendments campus-wide. The Department of Engineering became a college, and a review of all programs became the natural side effect. In 1972, Engineering Mechanics was renamed Engineering Science and Mechanics as a department, with the undergraduate program also taking that label. The name held for the longest time in the department’s history --a total of 42 years-- when it was combined with the small but growing Department of Biomedical Engineering in August of this year. The combination of these two disciplines (and indeed, there are many overlaps between them) resulted in the current department name, Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics.

The Growth of Biomedical

The history of ESM can be traced with the development of Virginia Tech. It has been an adaptable, flexible, and enriching department focused on preparing students for the uncertainties of the job market, grounded in the bedrock of engineering experience. Curiosity and innovation have been as closely connected to the path that graduates have chosen as math, science, and engineering have been. The results are scholars who have chosen careers with NASA, Michelin, DuPont, General Motors, the armed forces, and many others. 

This most recent adaptation is no exception to the shaping of the program to its times. The Princeton Review calls Biomed one of the top 10 majors. US News names it one of the “11 Hot College Majors,” and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the field will see a 62 percent growth in jobs between 2010 and 2020. The field is one of rapid growth, and Virginia Tech currently has no undergraduate programs in the area. It should come as no surprise that the department that was called upon to parallel this area of potentially explosive growth is the same department that has seen a steady flow of changes since its inception.

The justification goes further than the theoretical. Many faculty who teach in ESM are already doing work which directly impacts the biomedical and biomechanical fields. Research by faculty such as Jake Socha, Raffaella De Vita, Anne Staples, Mark Stremler, and others has for some time been a part of the educational and research landscape for the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. With partnerships of that kind already existing, a formal coalescence was the next logical evolutionary development.