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Watson marks 20 years of innovation

By : Hal Smith and Susanne Thiel

During the past 20 years, a fledgling engineering school created to meet a local need for highly skilled workers has evolved into a nationally known center of research and education. Now, the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science is celebrating two decades of achievement well beyond the dreams of its founding members, and has set its sights on becoming one of the best schools of its kind in the nation.

"The 'next level' includes national recognition of our excellence, new educational opportunities for our students, new research programs and an improved environment for our faculty. In the very near future, I expect that we will be one of the largest engineering schools in New York state," Watson Dean Charles R. 'Roger' Westgate said.

Watson's forerunner, the School of Advanced Technology (SAT), opened in 1967 in response to local companies need for professional development and graduate-level education for employees. SAT offered courses in computer systems, applied mathematics and general systems science.

As the 1970s drew to a close, industry leaders once again approached the University. The region's high tech firms were growing and employees wanted to earn advanced degrees in mechanical, industrial and electrical engineering without having to travel to Syracuse or Ithaca.

The state Legislature approved funding in 1983 for the Watson School, named for the founder of IBM. The school would absorb and build upon SAT, a program conceived even before the birth of the Internet or the personal computer.

Lyle Feisel, chair of electrical engineering from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, was chosen to become the school's first dean. "

The use of the latest technology has always been a hallmark at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Feisel was clearly the right man at the right time," said James Carrigg, former CEO of NYSEG. "He made it happen. He brought in first-class faculty. You saw his hand on the tiller 100 percent of the time."

Initially, the school recruited junior and senior transfer students and offered a handful of graduate degree programs. It began accepting freshmen in 1995 and by 2000, the year of Feisel's retirement, offered a complete array of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs.

"Binghamton continues to be the most selective of the state university centers and Watson students are among the best in the SUNY system," Westgate said. Incoming Watson freshmen have a mean high school gpa of 3.4 and average SAT scores of 1239.

Alumni and friends, some of whom are top executives at the nation's most prestigious high-tech corporations, have offered invaluable support to the school. Gary Kunis -73, a Harpur College alumnus who is now vice president of technology at Cisco Systems, and his wife Natasha have donated more than $1.2 million for scholarships, a research and instructional laboratory, and campus-wide networking infrastructure. Geraldine MacDonald -68, -73, vice president of global access at AOL/Time Warner, Inc. has endowed scholarships and refurbished the Knoll-MacDonald Commons.

Community friends such as the Link Foundation and the late J. Donald Ahearn, CEO of Universal Instruments, also offered major support for scholarships, laboratories, and more.

Through research and industry collaborations, Watson became well known in the field of electronics packaging. Now, new programs in bioengineering and information science, research ventures and corporate partnerships

Roger Westgate, Watson School Dean
with such major entities as IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco Systems are helping to propel the school into the national limelight.

"We belong to a consortium of Fortune 500 companies that share nonproprietary research, which often involves Watson graduate students in our labs. I've seen those students stand in front of the consortium's researchers to present their findings," said Gerhard Meese, executive vice president of Dover Technologies and a member of the Dean's Advisory Committee. "The dialog is very fruitful. That knowledge has helped tremendously, not only local industry but the entire electronics packaging industry."

The school's Integrated Electronics Engineering Center (IEEC) was founded in 1991 and has acquired a nationwide reputation in electronics packaging. However, Bahgat Sammakia, IEEC director and interim vice president for Research, said the IEEC needs to now move into new areas where micro- and nanotechnologies are the clear wave of the future. These areas will be driven by new development in small-scale systems, including microelectric mechanical systems or MEMS, optical MEMS (known as MOEMS) and nanostructured materials.

Nanotechnology is the application of mechanical, biological and chemical processes on a scale of less than 100 nanometers " roughly 1/1,000,000th the width of a pinhead. The IEEC is refining its mission and focusing on this emerging technology to help the United States regain pre-eminence in the electronics industry and to create and sustain regional jobs. According to the National Science Foundation, nanotechnology will represent a $1 trillion industry over the next decade.

Locally, Watson has already had a major i

Richard Plumb, right, professor and chair of the department of computer and electrical engineering, works with graduate students in the J. Donald Ahearn Instructional Laboratory.
mpact on the region's economy and the preservation and creation of new jobs. The Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR), Watson's engineering extension service, has helped more than 100 small- to mid-sized companies to grow and thrive despite a difficult economic climate. Since SPIR's inception in 1994, Watson faculty and students working with SPIR have contributed 135,000 hours of labor with a value in excess of $20 million.

"Our role in economic development is especially critical today with the decline in employment statewide," Westgate said. "Our Center for Advanced Technology, the IEEC, and our engineering extension program, SPIR, have done much to ameliorate these losses and will continue to be driving forces for economic development. These programs alone have created or retained 1,400 jobs in local and national corporations."

"SPIR has been an indispensable part of Diamond Visionics over the seven years we have been in existence," said company President David P. Gdovin '70. "During this period we have grown from six to 22 employees."

"SPIR is one of the fundamental reasons our company is based in New York state. Its ability to foster and allow the growth of high-tech businesses such as us offers an important competitive advantage over many other locales within the United States," said David A. Goldman, '94, '98 Ph.D., president of Soft Sight, Inc. in Binghamton.

More than 10,000 engineers and technical professionals from around the world have participated in the school's professional development programs, which help employees and their companies to remain competitive within fast-paced working environments and in a shifting global economy.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08