After nearly a century of promoting a multidisciplinary approach to educating future designers, the architectural engineering department at State College-based Pennsylvania State University, the country’s oldest such program and the longest to be continuously accredited, believes today’s industry trends have come full circle with tradition.

Photo: Pennsylvania State University Architectural Engineering Dept.

As the industry pushes toward more integrated project-delivery methods and high-performance buildings, students need both a breadth and depth of knowledge to succeed in project teams, says Chimay Anumba, head of the department, which was founded in 1910. “In some ways, it’s rethinking the old master-builder concept,” he says. “For today’s integrated teams, you need team members who can understand and appreciate where other team members are coming from.”

The school’s five-year bachelor’s of architectural engineering program, which produces nearly 100 graduates each year, is heavily weighted toward cross-disciplinary education. Although students ultimately focus on structural, mechanical, lighting-electrical or construction management, the first three years are spent covering a broad range of fundamentals.

“What you see in integrated teams is that those who are trained in what has become the typical way [at architecture and engineering schools] have some difficulties,” says Anumba, department head since early 2008. “There is a divide where some are fighting in the architect’s corner and others in the engineer’s corner. That is their expertise and what they understand. Our graduates understand all sides and thrive in integrated teams.”

The Penn State program, first accredited in 1936 by a forerunner of today’s engineering school accrediting body, ABET, has held firm even as many universities have eliminated programs. Gifford Albright, a professor emeritus and department head from 1963 to 1983, says the school fought the movement in academia in the 1950s to eliminate architectural engineering as a separate program.

Today, Penn State is one of 17 U.S. universities with an accredited architectural engineering program. As part of its centennial, the school next June will host the sixth annual international conference on innovation in architecture, engineering and construction, along with the Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Engineering at U.K.-based Loughborough University, Anumba’s former employer.

As many schools took an approach that put students in more segmented tracks in engineering, Penn State fought the stigma of producing graduates who were “Jacks of all trades,” says Albright. “Many of our graduates ended up at large integrated A/E firms, and many were elevated to senior leadership positions,” he says. “Now we see firms looking for grads with these types of skills for integrated teams.”

Karen Sweeney, Baltimore-based vice president for diversity and inclusion at Turner Construction, New York City, sees many schools responding to industry demand for graduates who can thrive in such environments. A 1980 graduate of the Penn State program and one of its first to focus in construction management, she says employers are now coming to expect strong cross-disciplinary skills for new hires. “The schools that can produce those graduates are the ones you want to hire from,” she says.