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Gift to Drive Better Understanding of Uncertainty Analysis

Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering has received a gift of $5 million from an anonymous donor to establish a new undergraduate curriculum that will encourage students to think critically about problems that lack obvious solutions, like those they will encounter after graduation, President Richard H. Brodhead announced Wednesday.

The planned curriculum will be open to undergraduates from all majors.

“Duke’s strategic plan, ‘Making a Difference,’ calls for investments in programs that help students approach real-world problems with creativity, flexibility and a curious mind,” Brodhead said. “This generous gift will lead to the development of a curriculum that challenges students to deal effectively with uncertainty in a wide variety of situations, ranging from housing prices to energy efficiency.”

The gift provides $2.5 million, which will be matched by $2.5 million from The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte, N.C.-based charitable trust, to support two endowed professorships for experts in the fields of statistics, uncertainty analysis, and optimization. The matching funds are part of The Duke Endowment’s $40 million gift announced on Jan. 9, 2008 — to support new faculty engaged in innovative work with Duke undergraduates. Deepening the Duke faculty is a major priority of the university’s strategic plan, approved by the university’s trustees in 2006.

The remaining $2.5 million will help endow a position for a professor of the practice — faculty who also have exceptional professional experience and expertise — to focus on teaching and developing courses. The money will also provide $500,000 in unrestricted support for the program in the future and could be used to support the modernization of classroom space with experimental equipment and technology.

“We anticipate opportunities for students to conduct research with these new faculty members,” Pratt School Dean Rob Clark said. “The world’s greatest challenges — such as the need for water and energy in the greater context of environmental responsibility — cry out for a technically literate society capable of creating solutions and communicating effectively to influence public policy globally. We hope this gift and the resulting curriculum will bridge the historical gap in training between engineers and non-engineers, and lead to distinctive learning opportunities for Duke students across all majors.”

Officials said the planned curriculum will provide fundamental training in uncertainty analysis and optimization, areas that are increasingly critical to the work of engineers and other decision makers.

“The application of statistics to problems characterized by uncertainty is critical to all professions. Optimization allows engineers and non-engineers to prioritize trade-offs in the decision-making process and find the most efficient way to do things,” Clark said.

For example, insurance companies grapple daily with uncertainty as they forecast the risk to oceanside real estate when determining insurance rates. Similar examples abound, he noted.

“From deciding where to park the car to designing a more fuel-efficient car, humans are drawn to doing things better,” Clark said. “While engineers are trained to take these kinds of problems and create mathematical models that ultimately lead to the design of new products, students from other disciplines can also benefit from these concepts and tools, whether they go into investment banking, environmental policy or something else.”

Clark envisions the new curriculum to include courses that address problems spanning both engineering and non-engineering disciplines, presenting probability and statistical science within a practical context. The material will be organized so that all students, regardless of major, can gain useful theoretical and applied experience.