Toby Cumberbatch

Professor of Electrical Engineering


The CU5327 program was conceived to engage and unite all members of the Cooper Union community from the President, to the first year student, to the newly hired janitor, to the Chairman of the Trustees. We are a unique community – privileged to engage a student body of the highest caliber. We live at a time of enormous challenges to the planet and its peoples. One in seven go to bed hungry, more than a fifth of the world’s population does not have a clean source of light and one in six lacks access to safe drinking water.

 Part of Peter Cooper’s stated philosophy was that “I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good.” He was not referring to sanctimonious, self-enriching activities – he was thinking of the greater good – the disadvantaged in our society. We, as a diverse community, can make a contribution to solving the grand challenges that humankind is facing.

The CU5327 program proposes the formation of approximately 100 multi-disciplinary student teams mentored by the Cooper Union community. In keeping with a rough distribution of the undergraduate student population into 50% engineering, 30% art and 20% architecture, each student team comprises five engineering students, three art students and two architecture students – a team of 10 students. Ideally, the team will represent all the engineering majors and include students from first to final year to facilitate continuity of the project.

To ensure that all constituencies within the Cooper Union community are directly engaged in CU5327, seven individuals, selected as follows, will mentor each student team:

  • Two faculty (from two schools)
  • One administrator
  • One member of staff
  • One alumnus
  • One trustee
  • One external expert (may not be required)

 The term mentor is used in its broadest sense – a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. In truth, we all have something to learn from each other whether it is through counseling or teaching – each of us possesses unique skills, knowledge and expertise. Clearly, the logistics of the mentoring team need consideration – The Cooper Union does not have 100 administrators or 100 staff – we certainly do not have 200 full-time faculty. However, rather than being perceived as a problem, the limited pool of mentors presents an ideal opportunity for substantive communication between different student groups through their mentors – with the assumption that each administrator, member of staff, trustee and faculty mentor more than one group. To maximize the exchange of ideas and information, and hence the indirect interaction between the student teams, each mentoring group should be as unique as our size permits.

The challenges presented to the teams possess almost unlimited breadth and depth, enabling each group to address an aspect of the problem in keeping with its collective interests and expertise. Proposed solutions must satisfy the criteria of being real, economic, minimalist, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing with the potential for universal adaptation. Teams should seek guidance from nature to incorporate biomimetic principles into their designs whilst being mindful of the demands of cultural sensitivity and TEK (traditional environmental knowledge) where applicable. Mentors are also charged with the task of actively encouraging their teams to think well beyond accepted practices and approaches. Proposed solutions should be truly radical, robust and far-reaching – encompassing the very latest, realistic technology and contemporary thinking. An in depth life cycle analysis must be undertaken and include all possible contributions to changes in entropy, energy usage, material waste, environmental impact and end of life disposal. Ideally, proposed solutions will address not only the direct challenge but also incorporate features to extend the overall viability of the commons without perturbation of the environment.

We finally arrive at the grand challenges to be presented to these unique seventeen member teams. The CU5327 philosophy is to engage not only our neighbors in the East Village, but also the general population of New York City and beyond – the remainder of the United States and the rest of the world. A partial list of suggested topics appears below – the program is certainly not limited to these subjects but it is envisaged that future additions will be guided by similar outlook and perspective. More than one team may adopt the same challenge but each would be expected to address a different aspect of the topic and all are mandated to pool their findings and ideas.

  • Energy
  • Water
  • Food
  • Education
  • Population Control
  • Healthcare
  • Medicine
  • Urban Infrastructure
  • Environmental Migration
  • Biomimetic Engineering
  • The Long Emergency
  • . . . .

Participation in this program is mandatory for all undergraduate students for their duration of their stay at The Cooper Union. Each team is expected to raise the necessary funds to execute its program with a minimum figure of $5,000 per year suggested to support the construction of prototypes, the building of models and the execution of experiments. By definition, many of these projects will be based outside the USA, for which travel to a related site should be considered mandatory – pushing the cost of the program closer to $1M/annum – all externally funded. Schedules will be adjusted to accommodate this program with a time slot common to all three schools enabling everyone to meet on a regular basis to receive updates from selected teams, lectures from distinguished visitors and so on. Dedicated internal and external websites will contain descriptions of, information about, and the status of each project.

The CU5327 program has the potential to engage and unite all three schools, the faculty, the staff, the administration, the trustees and the alumni – all within the context of doing good as Peter Cooper would say. Inclusion of mandatory discussion of the grand challenges facing humankind as an integral component of the curriculum across all three schools leads to a broader, more nuanced engagement. The outcomes, partial solutions for these grand challenges, extend well beyond the confines of The Cooper Union and could have significant impact.

Our interaction with, and engagement thereof with the rest of the world in our dialog of baseline challenges that pose significant threats to the social stability of our cities and the global food supply increases our connectivity, sense of belonging and intrinsic worth to the planet beyond New York City.