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Engineering Dean Elaine Scott: Building Schools and Space Shuttles

Elaine Scott is the new Dean of the School of Engineering. Prior to Santa Clara, she served as the founding Dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Washington in Bothell. There, she focused her energy on charting the school’s mission and vision, hiring and supporting distinguished faculty scholars, developing innovative degree programs, growing enrollment, and engaging the broader community.


Scott earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering from the University of California, Davis, as well as doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering and agricultural engineering from Michigan State University. 


In this conversation, we touch on the spontaneity of Dean Scott’s career journey, her goals for the School of Engineering, the engineering problem-solving mindset, and what role engineers play in our modern world.


Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How did you get interested in engineering?


Elaine Scott: I had no clue what engineering was when I was a kid. I loved math and science, but it wasn’t until later in high school I heard of engineering. I grew up in the 60’s, and NASA was a really big deal. I didn’t have a thought-out life plan.


GC: How did NASA come into the picture?


ES: I got my PhD from Michigan State in agricultural engineering, but most of my coursework was in mechanical engineering in the area of heat transfer. I ended up down at Virginia Tech in a faculty position, and did research at NASA Langley Research Center on the coast in Virginia.


I was researching heat transfer for materials for the X-33 shuttle, looking at what happens when the vehicle comes into orbit, and the heat transfer on the vehicle. The X-33 was a planned vehicle they never ended up building.


GC: After getting your PhD, you became director of a biomedical engineering center at Virginia Tech along with Wake Forest University. What was it like transitioning into a leadership position?


ES: It was a lot of fun creating a new thing and building something. One of the best parts of being in a leadership position is that you get to see other people thrive, and your job is to facilitate that.


GC: You built the engineering program at the University of Washington campus in Bothell. What lessons can students learn from your experience starting and scaling that program?


ES: One important thing is to get people involved in the decision-making process. Sometimes you’re successful and sometimes you’re not.


Being an engineer, I had laid out a plan. I got joked on about it quite a bit because everyone knew I had my spreadsheets. That was part of the engineering background of solving problems and planning.


GC: How does the engineering mindset relate to problem solving?


ES: As an engineer, you learn how to solve problems in a systematic way. Some people call that being a little nerdy, but that’s how I approach things.


Think about being deliberate for solving a problem, and think about what the problem is, what your constraints are, and who you’re trying to serve.


GC: What are a couple of your priorities as dean?


ES: There’s a lot of effort around the new STEM campus and how to make 1+1=3. I’ve been trying to understand better how the School of Engineering works. We’re forming a faculty and staff council in the school to have more transparency in decision-making, and better ways of transmitting information.


GC: If I came back in 10 years, how would the School of Engineering be different?


ES: The impact that computer science has on all fields is really high, so I would expect it to be more integrated into other disciplines by then.


There is already a focus on big world problems like climate change, but thinking about what our role is in the world as engineers in trying to make the world a better place.


GC: What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Santa Clara?


ES: Work hard, don’t worry about making your life decisions right now because things will change. Do something outside your academic portion, get involved in other activities whether it be clubs or intramural sports. Mainly, be the best you can be.

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