These transcripts of presentations given at the plenary sessions of the 2004 Engineering Education Summit served as catalysts for the discussions that occurred in the breakout groups. They represent the opinions of the individual speakers and are not necessarily endorsed by the Engineer of 2020 Phase II Committee. The Committee wishes to express its thanks to all of the speakers for their contribution to the Summit.
Capturing the Imagination: High-Priority Reforms for Engineering Educators
University of Washington
My remarks are based on lessons learned in recent years, particularly through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Education Coalitions, but also through other notable efforts to reform science education at both the university and K-12 levels. A great many projects have been undertaken, and we have accumulated quite a bit of data about what works well and what doesn’t. There have been many successful innovations that can help us in planning for the future: the benefits of interdisciplinary, team-based design activities early in the curriculum; the power of novel linkages with K-12 programs and student leadership activities; the importance of the innovative integration of technology (particularly when students are involved in its design and implementation); the importance of alternative approaches to assessing student learning; the need for programs for graduate student and faculty development; and the implications of all of these for diversity in our communities.
Even if we could scale up what works in the intellectual and professional development of students and in increasing diversity in the engineering workforce, we would still not be able to address the problems we face nationally in engineering education. That is because most of the work up to now has been performed in the framework of perceived and/or real constraints, focused mostly on the curriculum, particularly the transformation of courses creatively about the kind of activities that promote the intellectual and professional development of students, we
have fallen back on old educational metaphors. To a certain extent, both students and faculty are burdened by the tyranny of the assumption that “courses” are the primary (and in many cases almost the sole) mechanisms for student intellectual development.
As we move forward, we must boldly reformulate engineering education. To put it bluntly, by sticking to existing models, we are losing the battle for the imaginations of young people. Many of the best, most creative, most idealistic, and most energetic young people do not see a future for themselves in engineering that engages their passions. Instead, many see engineering education as a formulaic, boring, individualistic endeavor driven largely by the acquisition of highly atomized, esoteric technical skills. The connection in students’ minds between engineering and the issues they care about is obscure. Even those who recognize engineering as a venue for solving major problems facing humanity often become discouraged in the early years by the seemingly endless drudgery of courses that appear to be largely disconnected, not only from their interests, but also from the broader picture of what engineering could be, and should be, about.
Besides losing the battle for the imaginations of young people, we are not addressing the rapidly changing nature of professional practice. Considering the rapid pace of change and the internationalization of technical labor, there simply will not be jobs for our students unless we begin to think more creatively about the kinds of skills and personal development they will need to be competitive.
I am arguing for a dramatic, fundamental transformation of the educational process. Instead of an education based on courses, we should focus on participation in multidisciplinary, multisectoral, multicultural, even multinational teams addressing the grand challenges facing our world. Let engineering capture the intellectual high ground of transforming higher education across disciplines by challenging the fundamental structure of undergraduate education. In this reformulation, the heart of the curriculum is participation—in interdisciplinary teams and in substantive research projects. This new approach might be called a “grand challenges curriculum.”
Examples of grand challenges could include: the development of effective, low-cost wastewater treatment technologies to make clean water accessible to more people around the world; new health care diagnostic technologies; the transformation of decaying urban infrastructures; and so on. Because the lines between science and technology are
being increasingly blurred (e.g., nanotechnology and bioengineering), basic challenges at the frontiers of science should also be included. Superb science also serves humanity.
Building a curriculum around grand challenges would mean that courses as we currently think of them would have a subsidiary, supporting role. The predominant activities of students would change dramatically, as would the role of faculty. In structuring this new educational paradigm, we can learn from the NSF Engineering Education Coalitions and other projects:
Engage students in exciting, team-based, authentic experiences in their freshmen year. We can build here on the experience of the NSF Engineering Education Coalitions.
Help students develop intellectual road maps of their field(s) (a moving target for many). The road maps should include “milestones,” that is, specific knowledge and skills they will need and why. Some of these milestones may be reachable through existing courses, but we should be open to defining alternative mechanisms and alternative ways of certifying these skills.
Provide students with multiple entry points and exit points. We must preserve the extraordinary flexibility of the U.S. higher education system and encourage students to explore a variety of interests without inordinate penalties. Even a student who starts and finishes her degree in one institution would benefit greatly from “messing around” a bit and working on a number of challenges before zeroing in on an area of specialization.
Establish interdisciplinary working teams to address challenges thatinclude, as appropriate, faculty and students from social sciences and humanities, natural sciences, business and law, and other disciplines. Of course, if the challenges are big enough, the research will have to be interdisciplinary. This would also give students who initially thought engineering was boring a chance to take a second look and maybe reconsider. Interdisciplinary teams can also further diversity.
Offer students multiple opportunities for leadership, either in the K-12 community, in the design and delivery of educational technology, or in service projects to local communities. Students are our most underutilized resource in making educational change.
Promote extra-university partnerships. The new educational metaphor will require more involvement with state and local government, the nonprofit sector and industry. These deeper and broader multisector partnerships will have a number of ancillary benefits for students.
Develop international alliances to enhance partnerships. Benefits include: preparing students educationally and professionally for the world arena in which they will be working and the transnational dimensions of the challenges they will face; overcoming the insularity of the U.S. engineering education community; and increasing the diversity of the student body. Women, for example, are significantly overrepresented in most “study abroad” programs. If we choose partners and topics carefully (e.g., working closely with partner universities around the world), internationalizing student projects can be a strategy for increasing ethnic and cultural diversity.
Continue (albeit with some modifications) the culminating senior thesis/design project, either as an individual or as part of a team. Students must have the experience of completing and presenting a substantive body of work before they move to the next stage of their lives.
An undergraduate engineering education based on participation in multidisciplinary teams working on major, or grand, challenges will have a variety of ancillary benefits. Students will develop strong leadership, communication, and teamwork skills, cross-cultural and cross-national awareness, and most important, confidence in their ability to contribute to the science and engineering community.
In the new educational setting, faculty will experience the intellectual excitement of learning new things and building new partnerships and will be able to focus more energy on the things they really care about, such as contributing to important research, making a real difference in young people’s lives, and contributing to society. The emotional rewards for faculty are a key element in a transformed educational environment.
If the new educational environment is carefully constructed, it can also benefit institution in many ways: by increasing the credibility of the institution with stakeholders as university research is targeted toward solving local societal problems; by establishing better partnerships
with local organizations and international allies; and by making institutions more attractive to students and faculty from diverse backgrounds.
The engineering profession will be more likely to capture the imaginations of young people, thus moving engineering to the forefront as educational institutions rethink and redesign undergraduate education. Engineering graduates will be among the most creative, energetic, and dynamic young professionals in the world.
In this brief summary, I have outlined where I think engineering education should be going and some of the steps we must take to move from a curriculum focused on courses to a curriculum focused on collaborative, interdisciplinary projects. Individual institutions can do a lot; multi-institutional alliances can do much more. Catalyzing the results of experiments in the pragmatics of educational transformation would be very useful. For the health of the system as a whole, we should maintain institutional diversity in “flavors” and approaches.
The University of Washington has taken some steps in the direction I have described. Through an initiative I led called UW Worldwide, the university is bringing together faculty and students not just in engineering, but also from a wide variety of other colleges and schools, to work with partner universities around the world on multinational, project-based education. Our flagship project is a joint, four-year, research-based undergraduate curriculum with Sichuan University focusing on challenges to the environment in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and southwest China. This program combines research in water quality and wastewater treatment, eco-materials, forest ecology, and biodiversity with extensive language and cultural studies and a reciprocal year-long exchange. This is just a beginning, though. Our hope is that this initiative will be a model for networks of projects and institutions working together to transform the curriculum to focus on participation in large-scale, team-based research challenges.
The Global Engineer
As I was preparing for this panel, I read The Engineer of 2020 with great interest (NAE, 2004). One particular section attracted my attention. It describes scenarios for the future, four alternative environments, all futuristic, each one taking us in a different direction. When I finished reading, I was thankful that none of them was real and intrigued by a future so wonderfully unknown. And yet, the unknown that makes the future beautiful and wonderful in the eyes of some, also makes us vulnerable. This vulnerability has become clear in the present economic environment.
In the last few years, the U.S. engineering workforce has undergone trends that we would never have anticipated 10 or 20 years ago—the outsourcing of mainstream engineering jobs; increasing reliance on foreign-born Ph.D. graduates; and the need for retraining engineers to enable them to change careers a number of times before retirement.
As we try to predict the future of the engineering profession and engineering education, we must take into account some important factors. First, history has shown that changes in the engineering profession follow changes in cultural, social, and political environments. Evidence shows that these changes in the profession have led to technology breakthroughs that helped or harmed social progress, depending on the political environment surrounding them.
Second, as we think about the engineering profession of the future
and education to prepare the engineer of 2020 and beyond, we should keep in mind statistical projections relevant to anticipated social and economic changes:
By 2050, 8 billion of the 9 billion people on Earth will live in developing countries, and economic growth in these countries will be only 2 percent below the expected economic growth in the developed world.
In 20 to 30 years, the most popular language will not be English, and what we now consider U.S. industries will not exist in their present form. If these industries exist by name at all, their headquarters will not be in the United States.
By 2050, the biggest social problem occupying the world will be poverty, and its primary impact will be on the female population.
In 20 to 30 years, the primary economic growth in nations around the world will depend on females working in all professions, from farming to high-tech industry.
THE U.S. ENGINEER OF 2020 AND BEYOND
With these factors in mind, it is very easy to conclude that U.S. engineers will face totally different problems from the ones we face today. It is expected that U.S. engineers will be based abroad, will have to travel (physically or virtually) around the world to meet customers, and will have to converse proficiently in more than one language. U.S. engineers will represent a minority culture and, thus, will have to be open to different religions, different ways of thinking, and different social values. Flexibility and respect for ways of life different from ours will be critical to professional success.
Future U.S. engineers will have to address and help solve a variety of problems, from creating means of communication among indigenous groups to reducing or eliminating poverty to providing transportation to addressing environmental problems to accommodating new technology breakthroughs in solutions to becoming accustomed to a technology progress rate 10 to 100 times faster than today’s rate.
U.S. engineers must become global engineers. They will have to know how to replenish their knowledge by self-motivated, self-initiated learning. They will have to be aware of socioeconomic changes and
appreciate the impact of these changes on the social and economic landscape in the United States and elsewhere. The engineer of 2020 and beyond will need skills to be globally competitive over the length of her or his career.
History has shown that the “Great American Engineering College” has been extremely conservative in terms of curricular issues. This indigenous and historical conservatism has been compounded by the over-specification and over-prescription of educational requirements. However, revising the curriculum has become a heroic and very expensive task. As a result, university curricula structures last for long periods of time, sometimes more than 20 years.
When it comes to changes in the curriculum, we tend to focus on the successes of the past rather than the challenges of the future. As The Engineer of 2020 states, “we are teaching more and more about less and less.” As our interest and awareness of global problems increases, our teaching efforts are increasingly being perceived as pointless attempts to teach everything about nothing.
Although the future is unpredictable, the skills required for engineers to be successful are well known. And one thing is for sure—the future will be global. Neither the United States nor any other developed country will be able to ignore global issues. Addressing poverty and health care delivery on a global scale and accepting social responsibility will not be matters of philanthropy but of survival.
Engineering schools today are facing a challenge they have never faced before. They must prepare engineers for solving unknown problems and not for addressing assumed scenarios. Therefore, the emphasis should be on teaching to learn rather than providing more knowledge. Teaching engineers to think analytically will be more important than helping them memorize algebra theorems. Teaching them to cope with rapid progress will be more critical than teaching them all of the technology breakthroughs.
We have seen in the past 20 years that the amount of new knowledge increases at a logarithmic rate in all technology and physical sci-
ence disciplines. It is fascinating that all of this information is available at the click of a keyboard key.
Future Learning Paradigms
The new engineering curriculum must take into account that in the future students will learn in a completely different way. Up to now, engineering schools have developed curricula by creating scenarios or predicting the problems we expect to face. In doing so, we have focused on knowledge rather than skills.
Curricula based on specific knowledge are built from the bottom up. In this teaching paradigm, we dissect a hypothetical problem into a myriad of pieces. We then teach about each of these pieces, anticipating that we will be able to develop a solution by combining them. As the complexity of the problem increases, however, the relative size of the building blocks becomes smaller. Eventually, the effort involved in learning about the small pieces is so overwhelming that we can no longer synthesize the original problem—the parts become more important than the whole. Engineers whose education is built from the bottom up cannot comprehend and address big problems. They get lost in irrelevant details.
Solving Unknown Problems
In a scenario-free future, there are no anticipated problems, only anticipated challenges and possible opportunities. The future engineering curriculum should be built around developing skills and not around teaching available knowledge. We must focus on shaping analytic skills, problem-solving skills, and design skills. We must teach methods and not solutions. We must teach future engineers to be creative and flexible, to be curious and imaginative.
Future engineers must understand and appreciate the impact of social/cultural dynamics on a team environment. They must appreciate the power of a team relative to the importance of each individual’s talent. They must know how to communicate effectively and how to think globally. Engineering curricula must focus on developing skills that enable them to address the unknown.
CREATING GLOBAL ENGINEERS
We need engineering curricula that are not overly prescribed, that focus on how to learn and how to apply what has been learned. We need to focus on how to seek and find information. We need curricula that satisfy a few fundamental teaching principles but allow for true variations. Requirements must be flexible to react to change. Future engineers will need design skills, as well as analytical skills.
We must also open engineering curricula to non-engineers and teach our students how to solve social problems and how to commoditize technical innovations and processes to erase poverty. We must recreate connections between engineering and the larger society and focus on tools that will improve the quality of life. American engineering schools are facing a great challenge, and we should be looking forward to making it an opportunity for national and global leadership.
NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2004. The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
The Importance of Economics
G. Bennett Stewart, III
Stern Stewart & Co.
Given my slim curriculum vitae and engineering credentials, I agreed to speak only on the condition that Princeton Professor John Mulvey not revoke my engineering degree. This is the first lesson of risk management, of which Mulvey is a world expert. I should explain that I entered Princeton’s engineering program in 1970 because my father was an engineer, I was good at math and science, and I enjoyed solving problems. But like many, many others, I didn’t know what to expect, and by the end of my freshman year, in 1971, I didn’t know which of the five departments to choose. A fellow engineer and roommate, Larry McKeithan, helped. “Bennett,” he said, “it’s electrical engineering. Computers are the wave of the future.” That was enough to convince me. At the end of my junior year, when I was once again approaching a fork in the road, I consulted my consigliere Larry again. “Business school,” he advised. “What’s that?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he said, “but it gets you a job at the end.”
With the next stage of my education carefully plotted, off I went to the University of Chicago, which at the time was an engineer’s delight. Finance was taught like a branch of physics—mathematical models and empirical research into stock market and accounting data, and, in my humble opinion, the world’s best economics department. I lapped it up, while, to my satisfaction, undergraduate liberal arts majors struggled mightily.
The Chicago business education is now decidedly different than it
was in my time. It now includes more case studies, more teamwork, more of the “real world,” largely in reaction to popular rankings published in Business Week magazine and other publications. Based on my experience interviewing Chicago students, recent graduates are more verbal, less one-dimensional, “slicker” than we were, but also less substantive. In exchange for more immediate market value, they appear to have surrendered foundations and skills I believe are of lifelong value. Although they may be better at addressing questions of the moment, I suspect they lack the ability to adapt readily to unpredictable changes, and therein may lie a lesson for the education of engineers.
To complete this short story, I ended up joining the corporate financial advisory arm of the Chase Manhattan Bank, from which, in 1982, a group of us left to start our own management consulting firm specializing in valuation, financial management, and incentive compensation. And in this work I have found my training as an engineer to be of real value, not so much in specific ways, although there certainly were specifics, particularly in the early years, but in the rational, systemic, problem-solving mind-set engineering education fosters. That is a gift I have cherished, and I owe it to the outstanding and dedicated engineering faculty at Princeton. I have been fortunate, and will not forget it.
And that brings me at long last to my first pertinent comment, based on my particular set of experiences. Engineers must learn economics. Not high-faluting Keynesian macroeconomics, but basic micro-economics, the setting of prices, the determinants of market value, and so forth. If engineering is about designing solutions to problems in a world of constraints and tradeoffs, which I think is a fair definition, the best engineering solutions can emerge only in the context of market prices and market forces. And engineers should take the lead in insisting that market forces be permitted to work as broadly as possible.
For example, pollution taxes and the trading of pollution credits are preferable to outright pollution controls or mandated solutions. The former allow an economic calculus of tradeoffs to enter the engineering model, and the later, not. To take another example, the Engineer of 2020 report cites the shortage of water as a pressing global need, and surely it is. But why? Because, universally, the price of water is regulated and held below a price that reflects its true value. The engineering solution ought to be to develop the right price and let market forces operate, not to waste precious resources solving a problem that fundamentally may not exist.
One of the best papers I read at Chicago suggested that we will never run out of any natural resource, as long as market forces are allowed to work. As relative scarcity raises the price, conservation, and more important, the development of new supplies and substitutes (which is what engineers are so darn good at doing) will take care of the problem. The point is that engineering and free-market economics necessarily advance hand-in-hand. The extreme case of communist countries, where market forces and the profit motive were closed off, proves the point. They resorted to stealing technology because they were unable to create it.
Unless the importance of free markets is understood, engineering can easily go the wrong way. The 2020 report quotes the Guiding Principles for Green Engineering, many of which read like Communist Party slogans. For example, Principle #6 is: “Strive to Prevent Waste.” (I think I’ll put that up on my living room wall in bright red letters.) But that statement is non-operative. The trouble is that striving itself is wasteful if the waste saved is not worthwhile. And how would one measure in the absence of a price for the waste? Again, engineers need market prices, not black-and-white regulations, to make correct, “unwasteful,” economic decisions, and engineers should inject themselves forcefully into this very public debate.
While we’re on the subject of waste, there is a form of waste in engineering that I think everyone will agree must be reduced. I was stunned to read that if all entering freshmen completed their engineering degrees, the number of graduates would increase by an astonishing 40 percent. To put that in the parlance of total quality management, the failure rate of American engineering departments is two out of five—hardly 6 sigma. If a for-profit company had a failure rate that high, it would go out of business. Something is terribly wrong here, and it must be fixed. Perhaps part of the fix is better preparation and better selection of students before they enter an engineering program.
Engineers have always yearned for more respect from, and authority in, society. They still clamor for it, I suspect. But if an answer has been to make engineers better engineers by making them more human, it is equally true that to make humans better humans they must become better engineers. (My sloganeering is definitely competing with Chairman Mao.) We must begin earlier imparting the mind-set of engineering to all students, not just engineering students, to help them understand the merits of using rational, economic models and discourse to solve problems, even before they enter college but also while they are in
college. The challenge, I repeat, is not just to put the human in the engineer, but also to put the engineer in all humans. In this respect, engineering departments have failed miserably. They have not implanted the mind-set of the engineer in liberal arts students. Why is there a one-way street—we have to take their classes, and they make fun of us? We must reciprocate. Call it the revenge of the nerds.
In Bruce Seely’s excellent review of engineering education reform, he closed with a passage from William Wickenden, a 1920s president of Case Institute of Technology. Wickenden wrote, “What appears to be the most needed is an enriched conception of engineering and its place in the social economy, a broader grounding in its principles and methods, and a more general postponement of specialized training to graduate schools”—and I paraphrase here—to entry-level jobs. Like Seely, I recommend this pithy summary, which seems to address some of the issues I have just raised.
As a closing note from the perspective of industry, let me say that in business we learn that whatever gets measured gets managed; the obverse is mostly true, too. My favorable impression of the work of the task force as represented in the Engineer of 2020 report was undermined by the paucity of specific, numerical goals. I urge you to quantify objectives, to set targets and milestones, and to develop a system of accountability and reward around achieving them. You must also be very careful to set goals for the right outcomes, because you might just get them in ways that make no sense. In fact, I wouldn’t be above suggesting soliciting award funding from industry.
A related point is that engineering departments should not eschew industry relations but should embrace those connections, unabashedly and much more broadly and formally than they do today. Do not be concerned that you will be co-opted by mere commercial priorities, because they can never overcome the instinct for learning and discovery that is so strong in the engineering community. Look at funds as important market signals of how to allocate resources to problems that promise the biggest and most immediate “bang for the buck.” I’d even like to get monetary incentives into faculty pay, but that is a topic for another day.
I know I’ve thrown out some tough challenges for you as tenured academics, but you owe it to yourselves and the future of engineering to rise to them. I earnestly thank you for hearing out this has-been engineer. And I close by imploring you to be generous when you grade my presentation. Thanks, again.
Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond
Charles M. Vest
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I am very pleased to be playing a small role in these important deliberations about educating the engineer of 2020 and beyond. In his letter of invitation, Wayne Clough suggested that I explore this topic “particularly with respect to your extensive experience in higher education.” That was probably his way of reminding me that I am approaching graybeard status. But it also gave me a chance to look back over my 35-plus years as an engineering educator. When I did, I realized that many things have changed remarkably, but others seem not to have changed at all.
The list of things that have not changed is long—far too long. Issues that are still with us, that have hardly changed during all these years, are: how to make the freshman year more exciting; how to explain what engineers actually do; how to improve the writing and communication skills of engineering graduates; how to bring the richness of American diversity into the engineering workforce; how to give students a basic understanding of business processes; and how to get students to think about professional ethics and social responsibility. But for the most part, change has been astounding. In the past 35 years, we have moved from slide rules to calculators to PCs to wireless laptops. Just think of all that implies.
Looking ahead to 2020, a mere 16 years in the future, and setting goals should be a “piece of cake.” But is it? To gain some perspective, just look back 16 years and think about what was not going on in 1988.
There was no World Wide Web. Cell phones and wireless communication were in the embryonic stage. The big challenge was the inability of the American manufacturing sector to be competitive in world markets. Japan was about to bury us economically. The human genome had not been sequenced. There were no carbon nanotubes. Buckminster Fullerines had been around for about three years. We hadn’t even started to inflate the dot-com bubble, let alone watch it burst. And terrorism was something that happened in other parts of the world—not on our shores.
All this is to say that predicting the future, or even setting meaningful goals, is a risky business … even on a scale of a mere 16 years. Years ago, I read that an author who made a study of predictions of the future found one simple invariant. We always underestimate the rate of technological change and overestimate the rate of social change. That is an important lesson for engineering educators because we educate and train the men and women who drive technological change. We turn them loose to affect, and work within, the developing social, economic, and political context.
Although Phase I of the Engineer of 2020 (creating the vision) has already been completed, I hope you will forgive me for making some observations about the context within which we must advance engineering education. These observations fall into five categories: (1) opportunities and challenges; (2) globalization; (3) scale and complexity; (4) new systems engineering; and (5) delivery and pedagogy.
OPPORTUNITY AND CHALLENGE
I envy the next generation of engineering students because this is the most exciting period in human history for science and engineering. Explosive advances in knowledge, instrumentation, communication, and computational capabilities have created mind-boggling possibilities for the next generation. The degree to which students are already routinely cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries is unprecedented. Indeed, the distinction between science and engineering in some domains has been blurred to extinction, which raises some serious issues for engineering education.
As we think about the many challenges ahead, it is important to remember that students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement, and dreams. Although we cannot know exactly what they should be
taught, we must think about the environment in which they learn and the forces, ideas, inspiration, and empowering situations to which they are exposed. Despite our best efforts to plan their education, to a large extent we can simply wind them up and then step back and watch the amazing things they do. In the long run, making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details.
Our task today is to focus on engineering education in the United States, but we can only do so in the context of engineering in 2020 and beyond. We have to ask basic questions about future engineers: who they will be; what they will do; where they will do it; why they will do it; and what this implies for engineering education in the United States and elsewhere.
The truth is that in the future American engineers will constitute a smaller and smaller fraction of the profession. More and more engineers will be educated and will work in other nations, especially in Asia and South Asia, and they will do just what our engineers do—work to run at the leading edge of innovation. Future engineers will be moving rapidly up the proverbial food chain. They will practice engineering in national settings and in global corporations, including corporations with headquarters in the United States. They will see engineering as an exciting career, a personal upward path, and a way to affect local economic well-being.
Universities around the world, especially in Asia and South Asia, are becoming increasingly utilitarian, focusing on advancing economies and cutting-edge research. Tectonic changes are taking place in the way engineers are being produced and in where engineering and research and development are being done.
From the U.S. perspective, globalization is not a choice; it is a reality. To compete in world markets in the “Knowledge Age,” we cannot depend on geography, natural resources, cheap labor, or military might. We can only thrive on brainpower, organization, and innovation. Even agriculture, the one area in which the United States has traditionally been the low-cost producer, is undergoing a revolution that depends on
information technology and biotechnology, that is, brainpower and innovation.
So, we must do two things: (1) discover new scientific knowledge and technological potential through research; and (2) drive high-end, sophisticated technology faster and better than anyone else. We must make the new discoveries, innovate continually, and drive the most sophisticated industries. We must also continue to get new products and services to market faster and better than anyone else. We must design, produce, and deliver to serve world markets. And we must recognize that there are natural global flows of industry and that the manufacturing of many goods will inevitably move from country to country according to their state of development. Manufacturing may start in the United States, then move to Taiwan, then to Korea, and then to China or India. These megashifts will occur faster and faster and will pose enormous challenges to our nation.
Meeting these challenges will require an accelerated commitment to engineering research and education. Research universities and their engineering schools will have to do many things simultaneously: advance the frontiers of fundamental science and technology; advance interdisciplinary work and learning; develop a new, broad approach to engineering systems; focus on technologies that address the most important problems facing the world; and recognize the global nature of all things technological.
SCALE AND COMPLEXITY
Now let’s think a bit about engineering frontiers and the content of engineering education. There are two frontiers of engineering. Each of them has to do with scale, and each is associated with increasing complexity. One frontier has to do with smaller and smaller spatial scales and faster and faster time scales, the world of so-called bio/nano/info. This frontier has to do with the melding of the physical, life, and information sciences, and it has stunning new, unexplored possibilities. Natural forces of this world are forcing faculty and students to work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries. This frontier certainly meets the criterion of inspiring and exciting students. And out of this world will come new products and processes that will drive a new round of entrepreneurship … based on things you can drop on your toe and feel—real products that meet the real needs of real people.
The other frontier has to do with larger and larger systems of great complexity and, generally, of great importance to society. This is the world of energy, environment, food, manufacturing, product development, logistics, and communications. This frontier addresses some of the most daunting challenges to the future of the world. If we do our jobs right, these challenges will also resonate with our students.
NEW SYSTEMS ENGINEERING
I first heard the term “systems engineering” as a graduate student in a seminar about the Vanguard missile—the United States’ first, ill-fated attempt to counter Sputnik by putting a grapefruit-sized satellite into space. An embarrassing number of Vanguards started to climb and then blew up. Khrushchev found this very funny. In fact, the Vanguard rocket was assembled from excellent components, but they had been designed with no knowledge of the components with which they would interface. As a result, heat, electrical fields, and so on, played havoc with them. The fix was to engineer the system. I found this very interesting … and then, like most students of that era, I pursued a career in engineering science.
But back to the present. Many of our colleagues believe that we must develop a new field of systems engineering and that it should play a central role in engineering education in the decades ahead. In 1998, MIT established an Engineering Systems Division, which reflected a growing awareness of the rising social and intellectual importance of complex engineered systems. At the time, a large number of faculty members in the School of Engineering and other schools at MIT were already engaged in research on engineering systems … and MIT had launched some very important educational initiatives at both the master’s and doctoral levels.
The Engineering Systems Division is intended to provide a focus for these activities by giving them greater administrative and programmatic coherence and stimulating further development. MIT, of course, is famous for establishing “engineering science,” which revolutionized engineering in the post-World War II era. In fact, in my view, the pivotal moment in MIT’s history was when President Karl Compton realized that we could not be great in engineering if we did not also have great science. This realization started the institution on a path that led to the engineering science revolution.
Another pivotal moment in MIT’s history occurred half a century ago when a faculty commission (headed by Warren K. Lewis) considering the nature of our educational programs told us that to be a great engineering school in the future we would have to develop strong programs in the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps that set us on a path to the evolving twenty-first-century view of engineering systems, which surely are not based solely on physics and chemistry. Indisputably, engineers of today and tomorrow must conceive and direct projects of enormous complexity that require a new, highly integrative view of engineering systems.
Academics led the way in engineering science, but I don’t think we have led the way in what we now call “systems engineering.” In fact, as we observe developments in industry, government, and society, we are asking ourselves what in the world we should teach our students. Although this is a valuable exercise, it is not enough. We need to establish a proper intellectual framework within which to study, understand, and develop large, complex engineered systems. As Bill Wulf [president of the National Academy of Engineering] has eloquently warned us, we work every day with systems whose complexity is so great that we cannot possibly know all of their possible end states. Under those circumstances, how can we ensure that they are safe, reliable, and resilient? In other words, how can we practice engineering?
Something exciting is happening, however, and it comes none too soon. The worlds of biology and neuroscience are suddenly rediscovering the full glory and immense complexity of even the simplest living systems. Engineers and computer scientists are suddenly as indispensable to research in the life sciences as the most brilliant reductionist biologists. The language is about circuits, networks, and pathways.
It is fascinating to participate in discussions of the role of science and biology—of research and development—in homeland security, or more generally in antiterrorism. I think of this as the “Mother of All Systems Problems.” Designing systematic strategies to protect against terrorism has about as much in common with our experience of protecting ourselves from the Soviet threat of just a few years ago as it does with strategizing against eighteenth-century British troops marching toward us in orderly file.
Consider what IBM’s vice president for research, Paul Horn, is thinking about these days. His company and his industry, which produce the ultimate fruit of the engineering science revolution (i.e., com-
puters) is morphing into a new services sector—financial services, manufacturing services, McDonald’s hamburger services. Paul Horn is asking himself if a services science is about to emerge. I don’t know if a new discipline is about to appear, but if it does, it will be a subset of the new systems engineering.
I referred to homeland security as the Mother of All Systems Problems, but there is an even greater, and ultimately more important systems problem—that is the “sustainable development” of human societies on this system of ultimate complexity and fragility we call Earth. In Europe, sustainable development, ill defined though it may be, is part of the everyday work of industry and politicians and a common element in political rhetoric—and rhetoric is a start. I am troubled that sustainable development is not even on the radar screen in the United States, let alone on the tongues of presidential contenders. Nevertheless, sustainable development must be on our agenda as we prepare the engineers of 2020.
DELIVERY AND PEDAGOGY
So far, I have suggested that engineering students prepared for 2020 and beyond must be excited by their freshman year; must have an understanding of what engineers actually do; must write and communicate well; must appreciate and draw on the full richness of American diversity; must think clearly about ethics and social responsibility; must be adept at product development and high-quality manufacturing; must know how to merge the physical, life, and information sciences when working at the micro- and nanoscales; must know how to conceive, design, and operate engineering systems of great complexity. They must also work within a framework of sustainable development, be creative and innovative; understand business and organizations, and be prepared to live and work as global citizens. That is a tall order … perhaps even an impossible order.
But is it really? I meet kids in the hallways of MIT who can do all of these things—and more. So we must keep our sights high. But how are we going to accomplish all this teaching and learning? What has stayed constant, and what needs to be changed?
One constant is the need for a sound basis of science, engineering principles, and analytical capabilities. In my view, a strong base of fundamentals is still the most important thing we provide, because we re-
ally can’t predict in detail what students will end up needing. And I am so old fashioned that I still believe great lectures are wonderful teaching and learning experiences. So humor me, and don’t give up entirely on masterfully conceived, well delivered lectures. They still have their place … at least they better have, because at MIT we just built a magnificent, whacky, inspirational, and expensive building designed by Frank Gehry, and—by golly—it has classrooms and lecture halls in it (among other things). But even I admit that there is truth in what my extraordinary friend Murray Gel-Mann likes to say, “We need to move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” Studio teaching, team projects, open-ended problem solving, experiential learning, engagement in research, and the philosophy of CDIO (conceive/design/implement/operate) should be integral elements of engineering education.
Now for what has changed. Two obvious things have changed—we now have information technology, and we have the MTV generation. So the idea is to provide deep learning through instant gratification. It sounds oxymoronic to me … but it seems to be happening! Actually, our Frank Gehry building is about something like that.
Of course, I have to say something about the role of information technology in educating the engineer of 2020. But before I do, I want to tell you a true story. A few years ago, two dedicated MIT alums, Alex and Britt d’Arbeloff, gave us a very generous endowment, the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education, which was inspired by Alex’s desire to understand and capitalize on the role of information technology in teaching and learning on a residential campus. We celebrated the establishment of the fund with an intense, day-long, highly interactive forum on teaching that brought together a large number of our most innovative and talented teachers and a wide range of students.
At the end of that very exciting day, we all looked at each other and realized that nobody had actually talked about computers. Even though information technology is a powerful reality, an indispensable, rapidly developing, empowering tool, computers do not contain the essence of teaching and learning. These are deeply human activities. So we have to keep our means and ends straight.
In the first instance, the Internet, World Wide Web, and computers can do two things for engineering schools. First, they can send information outward, beyond the campus boundary. And second, they can bring the external world to the campus. By sending information out, we can teach, or better yet, provide teaching materials to teachers and learners
all over the world. By bringing the world in, we can enrich learning, exploration, and discovery by our students.
Information technology can also create learning communities across time and distance. It can access, display, store, and manipulate unfathomable amounts of information, images, video, and sound. It can provide design tools and sophisticated simulations. And it can burn up a lot of money. To reduce the amount of money, we can do what the Internet and Web do best—create open environments and share resources and intellectual property across institutions. The goal of MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative is to make the basic teaching materials for 2,000 MIT courses available on the Web to teachers and learners anywhere, at any time, free of charge. For example, my remarkable colleague Jesus del Alamo is installing PCs in underresourced African universities, enabling students to log on and operate sophisticated and expensive experimental equipment that is physically located at MIT.
Information technology in education is important, but it is merely the paper and pencil of the twenty-first century. For engineering students of 2020, it should be like the air they breathe—simply there to be used, a means, not an end. But my secret desire, which I hope will play out on the time scale of the next 16 years or so, is that cognitive neuroscience will catch up with information technology and give us an understanding of the nature of experiential learning—a real science of learning. Then we might see a quantum leap, a true transformation in education.
IN THE MEANTIME …
In closing, I want to repeat something I said earlier. Making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details. My primary advice for educating the engineer of 2020 is this. As you develop the concept of a new curriculum and new pedagogy, as you try to attract and interest students in nanoscale science, large complex systems, product development, sustainability, and business realities, don’t be tempted to crowd the humanities, arts, and social sciences out of the curriculum. The integral role of these subjects in U.S. engineering education differentiates us from much of the rest of the world. I believe the humanities, arts, and social sciences are essential
to the creative, explorative, open-minded environment and spirit necessary to educate the engineer of 2020.
American research universities, with their integration of learning, discovery, and doing, can still provide the best environment for educating engineers … if we support, sustain, and challenge them. We must retain their fundamental rigor and discipline, but also provide opportunities for as many undergraduates as possible to participate in research teams, perform challenging work in industry, and gain substantive professional experience in other countries.
One final, critical point—once we decide what to teach and how to teach it, we must be sure that the best and brightest young American men and women become our students … and the engineers of 2020 and beyond. In the past 16 years, the number of B.S. degrees in engineering granted in the United States dropped from about 85,000 to a low of 66,000; it has rebounded now to about 75,000. In this global, knowledge age with its serious problems and opportunities, we need the best and brightest students to pursue careers in engineering, and we need a large percentage of them to earn Ph.D.s in the areas of engineering that can lead to innovations that will keep us free, secure, healthy, and thriving in a vibrant economy.
This will require two things in addition to the broad objectives I have already discussed. First, we must double and redouble our efforts to make engineering schools and the engineering profession attractive and fully engaging to women and students in underinvolved minorities. We need equity and full participation in our engineering workforce, faculties, and leadership. Second, we should rally support for the growing movement to create a twenty-first-century analogue of the National Defense Education Act of the 1950s and 1960s.
I wish you all good luck with the tasks you have set for yourselves. And remember, we cannot afford to fail.