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Fueling the Tech Economy through Education

Fueling the Tech Economy through Education

Cornell University

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To be a leader in the 21st century, you have to be a leader in innovation," said Seth Pinsky during his tenure as president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. And, "an important part of innovation is technology." But New York, a recognized leader in many industries, lacks the engineering and computing talent that other major economic centers have—talent that serves as a critical driver of industry growth and transformation.

Not a city to turn its back on such a problem, the Bloomberg administration instead created an opportunity: In 2010 Applied Sciences NYC was born. The competition invited top institutions from around the world to propose a new or expanded state-of-the-art applied sciences and engineering campus. The city's offer of land and up to $100 million in capital to help with building and related costs was enough to lure 18 proposals from 27 world-class institutions from six U.S. states and eight countries. In December 2011, we had a winner: the proposal from Cornell University and its academic partner, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Called Cornell NYC Tech, the program of graduate tech education aims to produce leaders who will advance technology and generate cutting-edge research that addresses critical issues, making significant contributions to the New York City community and economy by fusing educational excellence with real-world applications and a focus on commercializing technology rooted in the latest academic research.

Mayor Bloomberg, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs (Cornell class of 1956, who with his wife Joan announced a $133 million gift to Cornell Tech last April), and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt have signed on to provide guidance on the programmatic and physical development of the tech campus. Such guidance is welcome as Cornell Tech builds a new culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that marries technical excellence with real-world impact. Cornell Tech is "a startup inside a university in partnership with government," says Dean and Vice Provost Dan Huttenlocher.

"Cornell Tech aims to produce leaders who will focus on commercializing technology rooted in the latest academic research."

To this end, Cornell Tech ditches traditional academic departments in favor of interdisciplinary hubs and discipline-based programs that bring together different expertise centered on industries already established in the city.

"Hubs will allow us to focus on generating technology to serve particular industry sectors," says Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering. "The objective is to yield businesses." The first hubs are Connective Media, Healthier Life, and the Built Environment. For Healthier Life, think mobile health sensor-enabled smartphones (measure your glucose level while you text), improved electronic medical records, and human-implanted and biomorphic electronic chips.

"This is a singularly inventive graduate community fostering collaboration in an open-office setting with no departmental silos," says Rajit Manohar, associate dean for academic affairs and professor at Cornell Tech.

The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute (JTCII), an academic partnership between Techion and Cornell, is a key component of Cornell Tech. Starting in fall 2014, JTCII will offer a unique two-year Master of Science degree where students will specialize in applied information-based sciences in connective media, earning dual master's degrees concurrently, one each from Cornell and Technion. Also starting in 2014 is an innovative new MBA from the Johnson School, designed specifically for the tech sector.

Cornell Tech isn't waiting for its Roosevelt Island campus (opening in 2017) to be finished before enrolling students. Its first "beta" class arrived in January at Cornell Tech's temporary space in Google's New York building to work toward a one-year Master of Engineering program in computer science. Among the projects the students completed with industry partners was a fee-based interface called MOOOH (Massive Open Online Office Hours) intended to improve the dismal completion record of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courseware), which only 10 percent of enrollees finish, by enabling online interaction with professors.

Another student project, called Adfilter, is a browser extension that lets users choose which Internet ads get through, while one in which students worked with Google engineers uses machine learning to improve severe weather alerts like those that warn residents of an approaching tornado. This fall there are nearly 30 students on the campus, about two-thirds in the computer science MEng program, and the remainder pursuing doctoral studies.

Looking ahead to 2023, Cornell Tech aims to hit several milestones: demonstrating that it is fueling the city's tech economy, attracting and retaining the brightest faculty, engaging with leading edge businesses, and fostering start-ups. And by 2043? Up to 2,500 students and nearly 280 faculty members, boosting the city's full-time engineering students at the graduate and PhD level by 70%—and making New York City a center of the world for applied science and technology.

Photo: Cornell Tech student gives talk based on his work.