Looking Back at 80 Years

Caption: Students operate lab equipment in this image taken in about 1984. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Example of an image that is floated to the left sideThe California Polytechnic School, as it was known at the time, was established in 1901.  It was the height of the Progressive Era in public education, a time when education was being recognized as not just a privilege of the well-to-do, but also a right of the working class.  An educated worker is a more innovative and productive worker, progressives believed, and education allows workers to rise up the socioeconomic ladder.  

There is no doubt that the founders of Cal Poly were influenced by John Dewey, founder of the progressive movement and arguably the father of Learn by Doing.  Dewey felt that the teaching methods of the day unmotivated students by forcing them to sit  passively through lectures and memorize seemingly unimportant facts and figures.  He argued that students are naturally active learners, and the best way to learn academic subjects is through applied projects.  At Cal Poly, Learn by Doing meant largely what it means today: Students learning their trade and practicing their craft through real-world projects.

Cal Poly started as a vocational high school, with three-year (and later, four-year) programs in agriculture, mechanics and domestic science.  The mechanics curriculum essentially prepared students to become tradesmen in such areas as carpentry, drafting and machining.  It was a Learn by Doing curriculum from the start; the program offered courses in freehand and mechanical drawing, carpentry and electrical working, forging, and even engines (steam and gas) and boilers.

The hands-on curriculum was so important that there were three stand-alone shops on campus by 1909 — a carpentry shop, machine shop and forge shop.  A power house, built around 1910 and used to supply electricity to the campus, was also used as an electrical and mechanical laboratory.  The power house was later expanded (around 1920) to include a hydraulics/fluid mechanics laboratory.  This building still stands and is the oldest building on campus.

In the early days, students built, operated and/or maintained much of the equipment on campus. Students even built the furniture for the classrooms in the carpenter shop as part of their studies. This was hands-on education!

The Beginnings of the Engineering Curriculum

Although Cal Poly started out as a trade school, the curriculum gradually evolved and became more broad and technical.  The mechanics curriculum began to look more like that of the typical mechanical engineering program with courses like materials, hydraulics and heat engines and boilers rounding out the curriculum.  There was also a strong program of electrical courses offered. The Mechanics Department was eventually renamed Engineering-Mechanics to reflect the broader course offerings. An automobile shop, built in 1922, was expanded to include an aeronautical laboratory in 1927, signaling the beginning of aeronautical courses at Cal Poly.

Cal Poly began as a two-year junior college in 1927, offering degrees in Engineering-Mechanics, among others.  By 1933 the newly-named Division of Industrial Education had programs only in aeronautics and electricity.  The curriculum continued to grow and evolve, and in 1940 Cal Poly achieved collegiate status.  Students could enroll in four-year programs to obtain degrees in Aeronautical, Electrical, and Air Conditioning engineering.  

It is important to remember that the engineering courses evolved from the vocational curriculum; in fact, students could receive a vocational certificate after two years of study, or a technical certificate after three years.  The vocational roots were critical in the development of Cal Poly because it established the rich history of hands-on, practical education that governs the program’s philosophy to this day.

The Beginning of Mechanical Engineering

In 1941, the Mechanical Industries Department was formed, offering a four-year degree in mechanical engineering (as well as granting vocational and technical certificates).  The department was led by Norman Sharpe, a faculty member from the Air-Conditioning Department (he later went on to chair the Air-Conditioning Department for a number of years).  The first graduate of the new mechanical engineering program was William Himmelman (mechanical engineering, ’42).

It was an uncertain time, as World War II caused enrollments to drop sharply.  In fact, sagging enrollments forced the administration to close most of the engineering programs in 1944. The end of the war and the GI Bill brought back the demand for engineering programs, and the mechanical engineering program re-opened in 1946.

The Return of Female Students

In the late 1920s, citing funding deficiencies, females were no longer admitted to Cal Poly (it was mandated by state law in 1930).  But in 1956, females were again allowed to attend, and the mechanical engineering program saw its first female students in 1956.

The Evolution of Programs

It is interesting to see how the genealogies of the various engineering programs are intertwined.  In the early 1980s, the air-conditioning program suffered from low enrollments and the budget ax and was absorbed into the Mechanical Engineering Department. It is now known now as the HVAC&R concentration.  Around that same time, aeronautical engineering was absorbed into mechanical engineering, but reemerged as the Aerospace Engineering Department later that decade.  The 1990s saw another budget crisis and the elimination of programs like Engineering Technology and Home Economics. Programs change with the times — new ones form and others disappear.  It is a necessary function of a university to respond to the changing needs of the society.

Our Program Today

Today, the mechanical engineering program is recognized as the best public, primarily undergraduate, mechanical engineering program in the country according to U.S. News & World Report.  It serves about 1,000 students and graduates approximately 200 students annually.

What makes the program so successful?  Faculty and staff still believe in practical, hands-on education and are proud to maintain our laboratory-intensive curriculum. We still have not one, but two machine shops for our students to use for their projects. After all, the best engineers should have some idea how to build what they design.  

Finally, we learn from our past.  In 1902, the original board of trustees debated the inclusion of an engineering program but wrote, “The expense of suitable engineering equipment is so great that we do not feel justified in offering courses therein for the first few years. We prefer to do a few things well rather than try to do many things and not have sufficient means to do anything well.” The department realizes that maintaining a state-of-the-art, hands-on program is costly. But today, as then, faculty and staff recognize the importance and efficiency of sticking to core competencies.  

Some things never change.

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