Text title treatment: Dialogue with the Deans

School of Engineering & Computer Science

Dennis O'Neal, Dean

O'Neal

What is the greatest challenge or opportunity that students in Baylor's School of Engineering and Computer Science will face, and how is Baylor preparing them to face/address it?

We live in a world where technology touches our daily lives in ways we could never have imagined just a few decades ago. Today's technological advancements are happening at a faster pace each year. This rapid advancement is coupled with both challenges and opportunities for our students. The education they received as freshmen has already been modified with new content and enhanced by new technologies by the time they graduate as a senior. Keeping up with these modifications while continuing to progress is a real-time challenge that students must face in today’s world. As new technologies are created, there will be unprecedented opportunities for our students to take an even greater role in the development of new software and technologies, some that may help solve some of the pressing issues facing humankind. Baylor provides the fundamental education these students need to compete, while also equipping them with the inner drive to use their abilities to create positive change.

What do you hope students in the School of Engineering and Computer Science gain during their time at Baylor?

Whether they go directly to industry or further their education in graduate school, I would like our students to leave Baylor with an excellent education that allows them to compete with the best engineers and computer scientists in the world. Part of that education involves teaching our students to approach technical problems and solutions in a systematic way. In addition, we give our students opportunities to develop their communication skills, which is extremely important for engineers and computer scientists as they work with diverse teams and people groups to solve complicated problems. While the education is important, it is not the only thing we want our students to gain during their tenure at Baylor. We also want our students to explore their faith and discover how their Christian faith informs their understanding of their discipline and their responsibility to make ethical decisions. Lastly, we want our students to leave with a genuine appreciation for their faculty and colleagues and the impact each one has made in their lives.

What is the most significant thing Baylor graduates from the School of Engineering and Computer Science offer to the world?

Employers and graduate programs expect our students, and those from competitive engineering and computer science programs, to be technically competent. The most significant thing that distinguishes our students from others is a sense of service and ethical responsibility that stems from their Christian faith. Students in our computer science program get involved in Computing for Compassion where they work with small non-profits to design websites free of charge.

This summer, a group of students and faculty with Engineers with a Mission spent two weeks in Haiti alongside Mission Waco building and installing solar photovoltaic systems to provide electricity to surrounding communities. In the spring, students involved with Basic Utility Vehicle are involved in a competition to build a simple utility vehicle that can be used in a small third-world village. Our students have opportunities throughout the year to serve others in the community as an extension of their Christian faith. When they leave Baylor, they carry that sense of service with them to their companies and graduate programs.

What is the most exciting/meaningful thing about being dean of Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science?

I am starting my fourth year as dean, and I still have the same level of excitement about being at Baylor that I did when I first set foot on campus. Having come from one of the largest engineering programs in the country (Texas A&M), I have really appreciated the personal atmosphere here, both within the school and around the University. I have found it so much easier here to reach out across the campus and work collaboratively with other deans, such as Dean Lee Nordt from Arts and Sciences and Dean Terry Maness from Hankamer School of Business. I have also enjoyed getting to know many of our undergraduate and graduate students on a first-name basis.

We are a young program compared to other established programs in Texas and the U.S. In 2015, we are celebrating our 20th anniversary. By comparison many established engineering programs in the U.S. are over 100 years old. As one of the younger programs in the country, we are very much a work "in progress." I appreciate the commitment of the University and alumni to provide resources to strengthen the engineering and computer science programs here at Baylor. It has been exciting to come here and have an opportunity to create new programs and strengthen existing programs so our students can compete with the best and the brightest around the world.

Do you have a mentor/memory or experience from your time at Baylor (or elsewhere) that deeply influenced who/where you are today?

For all of us, there are many people that have mentored or influenced us during our life's journey. Two who stand out to me are my father and a former faculty member. My dad, John O'Neal, flew bombers during World War II and was a career officer in the United States Air Force. He was also a committed Christian. He grew up in a rural family in a small community north of Fort Worth. Having grown up in a poor family, he didn't have the opportunity to attend college as a young adult. However, while I was growing up, my dad taught my brothers and I the importance of getting a college education. He wanted his children to have educational opportunities that he was not able to afford. It was because of my dad’s sacrifices that I attended college, and I am eternally grateful for his guidance and influence in my life.

Another individual who had a major influence on my life was a physics professor at Texas A&M. As an undergraduate, I was heavily involved in a campus ministry called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Our faculty advisor was a world-renowned physicist by the name of Jack McIntyre. I had opportunities to interact with him as a student. His strong Christian faith and excellence in his discipline really impressed me and was pivotal to my decision to become a professor.

Is there anything you want alumni or parents to know about you or your plans for the School of Engineering and Computer Science? Please explain.

Our plan for the Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science is to continue improving our program. I want to expand the number of faculty in our existing departments, explore new undergraduate and graduate programs and improve our infrastructure to support the programs that we now have. We have grown rapidly over the past decade and are adding faculty to catch up with our growth. We will have nearly 50 faculty in the school this fall. Over the next five years, I am hoping to expand our faculty ranks by another 15. We want to add top-caliber faculty who have a strong commitment to their Christian faith. In recent years, we have added faculty who have received their PhDs at programs such as Stanford, Brown, Rhode Island, UC Santa Barbara and Georgia Tech. We want students to have the same personal experience with our faculty that students experienced 20 years ago when the program was about 20 percent of the size it is today.

While we have made changes in our programs over the past three years, we are still looking to grow our degree offerings. We are proposing the start of a PhD program in computer science. In our undergraduate general engineering program, we now offer concentrations in biomedical, environmental, geopetro and humanitarian engineering. We are looking to add additional options in the future.

The school is in major need of expanding and modernizing undergraduate laboratories. With Hankamer School of Business moving into their new building later this summer, the School of Engineering and Computer Science will be looking to move one of our departments into Cashion/Hankamer in 2016. This move will free up space in the Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building, allowing us to expand our undergraduate laboratories and create desperately needed work space for students working in teams on design projects.