Eric Lander President Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Co-Chair, PCAST
Learning can never cease – especially not for engineers, because the world around us keeps changing. The community has so many ways – facilities, equipment, teachers, mentors – to support engineers’ thirst for lifelong learning.
“The key to our success—as it has always been—will be to compete by developing new products, by generating new industries, by maintaining our role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. It’s absolutely essential to our future.” — President Barack Obama1
Our innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce accounts for more than 50 percent of the nation’s sustained economic growth.2,3 Long-term strategies to maintain and increase US living standards, therefore, must include long-term plans to meet the educational needs of STEM professionals.
Engineers today need at least a BS to be prepared for work in their field, and advanced degrees are increasingly necessary to advance professionally and remain competitive. But in a world of rapid scientific and technological advancement, the half-life of an engineer’s vocation-specific knowledge is steadily decreasing. Even engineers with PhDs and extensive experience are vulnerable to being outdated. Moreover, new fields are constantly emerging (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and genetics are recent examples), and many problems require engineers to work—and therefore learn—across the standard boundaries of engineering disciplines.
The problem is that American engineering institutions and policies focus primarily on the traditional 18- to 24-year-old student, while, as noted by Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University, “Lifelong learning has become an applause line in everybody’s stump speech but has yet to become a line item of any consequence in public budgets.”4
Changing the postdegree learning culture among engineers in the United States is a tall order. But it’s doable, and it’s a lot easier than playing catch-up if the rest of the world passes us by. As Daniel Laughlin of NASA put it, we
1 Remarks by the President at the 2010 National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation Ceremony, November 17.
2 Eleanor Babco. 2004. Skills for the Innovation Economy: What the 21st Century Workforce Needs and How to Provide It. Washington: Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.
3 Robert Solow. 1957. Technical change and the aggregate production function. Review of Economics and Statistics 39(3): 312–320.
4 Anthony P. Carnevale. Postsecondary Education and Training As We Know It Is Not Enough: Why We Need to Leaven Postsecondary Strategy with More Attention to Employment Policy, Social Policy, and Career and Technical Education in High School. April 2010. Available online at http://cew.georgetown.edu/uploadedfiles/412071_postsecondary_education.pdf.
should be “preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”5
The National Academy’s report The Engineer of 2020 calls for engineers to expand their learning over their lifetime.6 Our nation’s competitiveness and growth in a global economy hinge fundamentally on its ability to keep its STEM workforce at the technological forefront.
Despite many excellent degree programs and other educational opportunities for engineers in the United States, however, the current infrastructure for engineering education cannot meet the needs of the engineer of 2020.
The need to improve the lifelong learning infrastructure for engineers has been addressed outside the United States.
In 2004, the European Commission proposed a Decision of the European Parliament and Council to establish an integrated action agenda called the Lifelong Learning Programme. The initiative supports lifelong learning through transnational learning mobility and cooperation projects aiming at modernizing education and training systems across the 31 participating European countries. In addition, as part of the Lisbon Strategy,7 the European Union (EU) proposed an initiative aimed at improving workers’ qualifications based on an analysis of labor market trends up to 2020. EU members fulfill the Programme’s objectives in several ways. For example, in Finland, the Universities Act was enacted in 2009 mandating that lifelong learning be part of a university’s mission. A 1971 French law set up the country’s institutional training system, requiring employers to spend at least 1.6 percent of their wage bill on employee training or pay the equivalent in taxes. A follow-up law in 2004 establishes, in principle, an individual’s right to training in the form of a 20-hour credit per year outside the workplace.8
In Asia, most wealthy countries promote lifelong learning for engineers.9 South Korea and Japan, for example, have introduced explicit laws and legis-
5 National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Goddard’s Innovative Partnerships Program Office; Accomplishments 2008. Available online at http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/downloads/accomp_reports/2008_ipp_accomp_report.pdf.
8 Anni Weiler. Impact of training on people’s employability. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Ireland. 20 June 2005.
9 Soonghee Han. 2001. Creating systems for lifelong learning in Asia. Asia Pacific Education Review 2(2): 90.
lation on lifelong learning. Korea’s policy is based primarily on its Lifelong Education Law, promulgated in 1999. The Japanese Diet enacted the Lifelong Learning Promotion Law in 1990, administered by the Ministry of Education Science and Culture. Hong Kong and Singapore have developed policy models that focus on promoting lifelong learning through strategic banners such as “Manpower 21” (Singapore) and “Education Blueprint” (Hong Kong).
Needless to say, nothing similar exists in the United States, either formally or informally. This means that the American engineering community does not have access to a lifelong learning infrastructure that could help it remain competitive in the global marketplace.
Improving the lifelong learning infrastructure in the United States need not entail copying Asian and European models. Given the decentralization of American academic and governmental institutions, broad partnerships among leaders in industry and academia, federal and state-level policymakers, and engineering organizations could produce a US-based version of the infrastructure that’s needed. Such partnerships, precisely because they are not necessarily tied to long-term, centralized efforts to formalize training, would be effectively responsive to the rapidly (and unpredictably) changing marketplace that the 21st century engineer will increasingly face. They could, in other words, enable the United States to position itself as a global engineering leader for many years to come.
The Lifelong Learning Imperative (LLI) project is a joint initiative of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to assess current practices in lifelong learning for engineering professionals, reexamine underlying assumptions behind those practices, and explore strategies for addressing unmet needs.
In 2009, an NAE workshop organizing committee chaired by Linda Katehi, then Provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was appointed to provide advice on the design of a project-framing workshop organized by NAE Scholar in Residence Debasish Dutta (Appendix A). The workshop, which resulted in a published summary, was aimed at identifying issues critical for restructuring ongoing education for engineering professionals in the 21st century knowledge-based economy.10
10 National Academy of Engineering. 2010. Lifelong Learning Imperative in Engineering: Summary of a Workshop. Washington: National Academies Press. Available online at www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12866&page=R1.
Samuel J. Palmisano former President & CEO, IBM
By definition, a system of lifelong learning will require deep, long-term collaboration among all key players in science and engineering. In that, businesses of all sizes can and must play a lead role.
A research team, headed by Dr. Dutta, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) then conducted an assessment of the issues identified in the 2009 workshop. NAE appointed a project advisory committee chaired by James B. Porter, Jr., retired vice president, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, to advise the work of the UIUC research team. The UIUC study included a survey of engineering professionals (targeted through professional societies, alumni associations, and corporations) and interviews with thought leaders; the questions focused on organizing and disseminating information about lifelong learning for engineers (Appendix B, C). This was followed by a workshop in the fall of 2011 to share initial findings and discuss next steps (Appendix D). This monograph, coauthored by Dutta, Porter, and Lalit Patil, is the result of that study and the two workshops.
The authors arrived at the following findings from their study and the conversations at the 2009 and 2011 workshops:
1. A rudimentary lifelong learning infrastructure exists in the United States. Bourne and colleagues (2005, p. 137) note two predominant educational models: “At one extreme, continuing education programs blend with traditional degree-based programs. For example, courses developed for on-campus degree seekers are often slightly modified and repurposed as a short course offered to industry professionals. At the other extreme, corporations contract with university faculty or for-profit vendors to develop continuing education content specific to their requirements.”11
2. This rudimentary infrastructure is inadequate for today’s (and tomorrow’s) engineers. Evaluation in these courses is characterized by lack of standardization, and content is not uniform even within engineering subdisciplines. Very little is done to address the changing needs of learners, especially those who want to study and interact online. The most common approach (other than granting a postbaccalaureate degree) to recognize formal nondegree learning is by means of certificates.
3. Stimulating lifelong learning in the United States will improve the knowledge base of the country’s engineers and our capacity for innovation and competition. In particular, a national vision and actionable strategy to overcome barriers for lifelong learning in the engineering profession are required.
11 J. Bourne, D. A. Harris, and F. Mayadas. 2005. Online engineering education: Learning anywhere, anytime. Journal of Engineering Education 94(1): 131–146.
4. A well-coordinated effort between industry, academia, professional societies, and policymakers to develop a national framework for lifelong learning for engineers should begin as soon as possible. The New York Times reported that, based on a recent Battelle Memorial Institute study, Chinese spending on research and development will likely match US spending in 2022.12 The article goes on to say that “if US government labs, university departments and corporate researchers aren’t already on top of the next generation of breakthroughs, the country will very likely fall behind in 10 or 20 years when those innovations become marketable products.” Such a scenario is possible but not likely if American engineers, who are motivated to maintain and upgrade their skills, find it straightforward to access lifelong learning.
12 Adam Davidson. 2011. Will China Outsmart the US? NY Times, December 28. Available online at www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/magazine/adam-davidson-china-threat.html.