During the second half of the forum, the speakers addressed questions posed by Velshi and members of the audience. Many of the questions concerned familiar topics such as interdisciplinary education, the roles of teachers, and the future supply of engineers, but the visions laid out in the speakers’ presentations contributed to fresh and invigorating answers that transcend past approaches.
A forum participant pointed out that, in Chile, engineering is a six-year degree, and engineers have more prestige and are more highly paid than doctors and lawyers. But sentiment is growing in Chile for a four-year program in engineering, as in the United States, with a fraction of students going on to the master’s and doctoral levels.
Khan thought that good engineers could graduate from college in less than four years, so long as they are exposed to good projects and develop the can-do attitude that top engineering students have. “I don’t think it’s a matter of seat time. It’s a matter of competency and having a portfolio of works.”
Stephens raised the question of how people in industry know that they are hiring good engineers. Portfolios and internship performances are indications of quality, but Boeing has to hire thousands of engineers, and those engineers need to be able to make airplanes that will fly.
Khan agreed with that observation. The problem, he said, is that degrees are not necessarily a good indicator of quality. To hire engineers, he relies on interviews that have both a technical and a social compo-
CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi and forum panelists.
nent. The great advantage of online learning, he said, is that it will shift educational outcomes toward measures of competency, not just seat time or grade point averages. Furthermore, competency-based skills could be either academic or social, based on the kind of online learning undertaken. Even students who specialized in other areas and then discovered a love of engineering could learn skills online “and then prove that they are just as good as the MIT grad or the Stanford grad,” which in addition would help address projected shortages of engineers.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of seat time. It’s a matter of competency and having a portfolio of works.”
Salman Khan, Khan Academy
Continuing education will be critical in a world where knowledge is growing so quickly. Stephens said that the Boeing Company spends $100 million on sending 22,000 of its employees to school, and overall it spends three-quarters of a billion dollars on training and education. “We believe in it that much.”
Agarwal, drawing on an idea from a recent conversation with an MIT alumnus, described a model of education that relies heavily on continuing education. Instead of having engineers complete a four-, five-,
or six-year degree program, why not bring students into universities for a year or two to orient them to engineering and point them in the right direction? Then let them loose into the world to practice engineering while they continue to learn online. That way, even as they are learning online, they would be learning by doing.
In response to a question about the structure of the engineering curriculum, Agarwal called attention to the strict disciplinary boundaries that persist in most universities. Departments tend to dwell on the needs of the department more than the needs of students. At MIT, for example, students from mechanical engineering who want to take a popular electrical engineering course cannot do so because the two courses traditionally have been taught at the same time. Today’s students “are very interdisciplinary,” he said. “They want to have much more of an international experience, much more of a multidisciplinary experience, but our departments are very stovepiped.” Universities need to find ways to deliver broad interdisciplinary degrees to serve students who seek an interdisciplinary experience, he observed.
One way to promote interdisciplinary education, said Miller, is to put people back into textbooks along with scientific principles and engineering problems. Reynolds and Mach were people, not just numbers. People learn the most from stories, said Miller, and especially stories about people. At Olin College, a course called “The Stuff of History” combines the history of science and the principles of materials science. The course is team-taught by a historian and a materials scientist, and they cite the life of Paul Revere, who was a metallurgist and an entrepreneur as well as a patriot. “People will remember that. The students will have it in context.”
“They want to have much more of an international experience, much more of a multidisciplinary experience, but our departments are very stovepiped.”
Anant Agarwal, edX and MIT
Miller told a story about the Stanford economist Paul Romer’s work on “charter cities”—cities designed and built essentially from scratch to take advantage of 21st century opportunities while serving the objectives and meeting the needs of their occupants. Olin College put together an interdisciplinary team of about 30 students, including students from
Wellesley College and Babson College, who spent a month developing a blueprint for such a city. They addressed problems involving transportation, sustainable energy, social justice, banking, international relations, and many other issues. The experience “changed the way they think about their careers and their ability to interact and to work on big problems outside of their disciplines.”
Teeri reminded the group that a multidisciplinary education in engineering must still give students a deep understanding of something. When students are building bridges and aircraft, they need a science-based curriculum. Aalto University tries to provide its students with a broad-based literacy at the undergraduate level and then lets them choose an in-depth topic of study at the graduate level. Students often have a better sense than do faculty members about the kinds of jobs that will be available in the future, jobs that in many cases will be unlike today’s jobs. Also, because the industries of the future cannot be predicted, engineers need a broad education while also being able to learn and practice skills on the job. “Learning to learn is one of the key things for future engineers.”
Universities consider faculty to be the core of their institutions, said Katehi, whereas in fact students are the core. If curricula were redesigned around the needs of students rather than around the needs of faculty members, they would look quite different. Today, faculty members expect and want to deliver courses in their own areas of expertise. “If we put the student at the center and if we start looking at everything through that lens, then our decisions will be totally different.”
Several panel members observed that the United States is not producing enough engineers to meet future needs, particularly in high-demand fields. “If we look at the demographics across industry, we have too many people who are going to retire,” said Stephens. “We don’t see a pipeline large enough to be able to fill that need.”
“If we look at the demographics across industry, we have too many people who are going to retire. We don’t see a pipeline large enough to be able to fill that need.”
Richard Stephens, Boeing Company
Katehi emphasized the need for diversity if America is going to produce enough engineers. That means
getting women and students of color interested in engineering from an early age, which has the additional benefit of spurring creativity by bringing additional perspectives to the field.
Agarwal called particular attention to computer science, where the shortage of students is “a disaster.” He said, “We have a huge number of unfilled openings, and we graduate very, very few.”
Khan pointed to an interesting development, which is that incomes have been rising rapidly for college graduates with computer science degrees. “A good trend is that those computer science incomes are now becoming at parity with doctors, lawyers, and hedge fund analysts, which will hopefully equate things.”
As science and technology become ever more entwined with major public policy issues, the public needs to engage in policy discussions that have a scientific and technological component. But current levels of literacy in science and technology are not high enough to have these discussions, said Katehi. “I don’t believe we have the ability to engage in science discussions and talk about nuclear energy, GMOs, . . . even Google and how it is constructed and utilized. We don’t have the ability as a public to be engaged meaningfully.”
One way mentioned by several speakers to build scientific and technological literacy among college students is to bring together students from different fields and have them work together. For a design problem, for example, students from the humanities, the arts, business, and engineering can all make distinctive contributions. “Design is not just an engineering skill. It’s a skill for everyone,” said Katehi.
“Design is not just an engineering skill. It’s a skill for everyone.”
Linda Katehi, University of California, Davis
Building on this idea, Teeri described design in the context of the fashion industry. Aalto University had a fashion show at the beginning of a recent term to emphasize the elements of design that go into fashion. Cocreation platforms and teamwork can build the kind of literacy with technical subjects that students need. “If you are a fashion designer and you see that there is a materials scientist who is working with something interesting for you, then obviously it becomes
interesting and less difficult, because you have the motivation to learn about it.”
Engineers also could be encouraged to talk about engineering with students from other fields, suggested Miller, just as music students put on recitals for nonmusicians. Such performances could help engineering students become better communicators while helping nonengineers understand what engineers do.
For example, Aalto University has taken the idea of a Masters of Art exhibition from the design school and turned it into a Masters of Aalto exhibition, where master’s-level engineers and designers showcase the products of their graduate work. “They get ideas from each other, but not least, they get to meet potential future employers. So it’s not only an exhibition of their work, but it also turns into a kind of job fair at the same time.”
In an online world, said Agarwal, the most valuable role for teachers is to be a guide for the development of communities and the discussion of ideas. Because of their online experiences, today’s students are
NAE member Jennie S. Hwang participating in a group discussion.
very comfortable typing questions into electronic devices and reading responses. For the edX forums, just a handful of teachers were able to support the thousands of students taking the course because students usually answered each other’s questions—and were “learning as they did.” As a result, students became teachers for each other.
Miller agreed that student engagement with faculty members will remain essential, even as online learning “changes the game.” Communication has many different forms and many different purposes. If all communication occurs through texting, essential skills will be lost. “You need to be there in person. You need to make eye contact. You need to develop confidence in who you are as a person, and trust.”
“We are going to have a whole portfolio of ways of learning, and people will be commuting between the different ways.”
Tuula Teeri, Aalto University
Everyone has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, said Teeri. As a result, different kinds of teaching and learning will appeal to and best serve different people. Some people will prefer online learning, while others will opt for more practice-based learning. “We are going to have a whole portfolio of ways of learning, and people will be commuting between the different ways.”
Katehi agreed that online interactions cannot replace human interactions. “I don’t believe that anyone can learn without a teacher playing a key role,” she said. “Social scientists will tell you that there is a human need to be connected and to come into contact with and learn from others. It’s as if we would believe that we can produce professional football players just by learning from each other without a coach. We would not have any football teams. That’s the role of the teacher, the role of the coach.”
Khan also agreed that online learning will never replace human interaction, and particularly the inspiration and wisdom that mentors can deliver. But the possibilities for online learning are just starting to be explored and will continue to diversify and develop. Already, online learning raises the question of why students continue to learn from 300-person lectures. A revolutionary outcome, he said, would be for online learning to replace lectures on college campuses within five years. Instead, learning could be interactive and project based, with students teaching each other and professors providing mentoring and guidance.
While technology has great potential to change education, some panelists argued for more time making things rather than interacting with screens. In recent decades, US children have spent less time outside and in rural areas where they can become engaged with the physical world, Stephens said. “They are more digitally capable, but less real world–savvy.” For example, when Steve Jobs was growing up, Stephens observed, he was taking apart and reassembling cars, not computers.
Katehi stressed the importance of engaging children very early in real-life problems. “A lot of kids want to change their lives. They want to change the world.” Traditional engineering education provides students with large amounts of content; then, toward the end of their educational experiences, they get to start designing things. The order should be reversed, said Katehi. “We need to start with practice, get them to experience the impact of their solutions—even if they may be incomplete or suboptimal—and get them excited in what they are doing. That’s what is going to get more kids to come to engineering and is going to make the engineering workforce more diverse.” Online experiences are a useful supplement to hands-on experiences, but people need to know how to ask questions, search together for solutions, and take satisfaction in solving problems.
“A lot of kids want to change their lives. They want to change the world.”
Linda Katehi, University of California, Davis
Speaking as an employer of engineers, Khan agreed with the need for more problem solving in education. Rigor in engineering education is useful, but if not done properly it can squeeze out creativity, he said. He often talks with students from top engineering schools, but when he asks them what they have built, he finds that they have simply done problem sets and projects that were already well defined. “That’s one of our main filters for people: if they ever created anything.”
“I was blown away,” Khan recalled. “We would never have interviewed someone with a 1.9 GPA. I [said], ‘You’re the smartest guy I know.’ He said, ‘Well, I was working on jQuery the entire time.’”
Another employee, one of the company’s best developers of online exercises, was a college dropout. “He just couldn’t get engaged. He liked to create things. He didn’t like to sit and take tests.” Stressing the creativity inherent in engineering, and not just the rigor, is one of the best ways to get more people interested in engineering and more students graduating from engineering programs, Khan insisted.
Differences of opinion arose in response to a question from the audience about how to encourage young children to become interested in engineering. Make sure they play with Legos, advised Khan. “I don’t know if you all have seen some of these new Lego kits with the Mindstorms. You could do a PhD thesis with these things. They have heat sensors and touch sensors and light sensors and memory. I have seen 9-year-olds do fantastic, creative, really deep things.”
Khan also said that he would teach his young children to program a computer by the time they are ten. Some Khan Academy lessons are aimed at children below the age of ten, and even very young children are able to master sophisticated concepts when they see learning as fun. “It’s amazing what kids can do if you approach the same content in the form of play as opposed to a didactic, mathematics type of thing,” he said.
Stephens countered that the best way to create future engineers is to “get them outside, get them to go play, go interact. They will get the computer skills when the time is right.” He said that it is more important for young children to get hands-on experience in the real world. Academic experiences can then help children understand their experiences. “In my mind, it’s about experiences, it’s about playing, it’s about involving. Those really build the social skills.”
“It’s amazing what kids can do if you approach the same content in the form of play as opposed to a didactic, mathematics type of thing.”
Salman Khan, Khan Academy
For girls, Katehi mentioned the messages they get from their mothers. When they are very young, children tend to spend time with their mothers at home or with other caregivers who tend to be women.
“It’s critical to make sure that our girls, who will become mothers in the future, have enough understanding and appreciation of science and engineering so they can teach it to their children.” The adults in the lives of children need to encourage curiosity, finding the answers to questions, and other precursors to an engineering perspective.
Children are interested in big problems and grand challenges. They care about sustainability, human health, and personal security. Miller said that children need to learn that they have the potential to make a difference in the world, despite its size and complexity. “It’s about envisioning things that you can do, even on a small scale, to build a can-do attitude.” Say a child was to see a classmate struggling to get on or off the school bus. That is a problem to solve. “If they succeed at that, it will exceed their expectations. And if they do that three times in a row, they begin to have a can-do attitude,” Miller said.
Teeri agreed that engineering education starts too late. When children are young, they have no idea what scientists or engineers do. “They see more lawyers than engineers on TV.” Teeri described an event at Aalto University where preschool children came to the university, based on research that children exposed to a university at an early age are more likely to pursue academics than children who have not been to a
Anant Agarwal and Charles M. Vest in conversation.
university. “We were asking them if they knew what a university is, and one of them said, ‘A university is a place where you can become what you want to be.’ I can’t think of a better definition than that.”
Children spend many hours a day with electronic media, Stephens observed. But very few characters they witness in these media are related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—and those who are tend to be portrayed as villains or fools. Industry has begun to work with the entertainment industry to change these stereotypes, and the entertainment industry is receptive, partly because it, too, needs the help of scientists and engineers to be successful. For example, the SET Awards—for science, engineering, and technology—are presented to movies, TV series, radio and TV news programs, and print and online journalism for accurate and impactful entertainment portraying and promoting the fields of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. “They have grabbed on to this and said, ‘We have to help solve this problem as well.’”
Khan made an intriguing suggestion about how to pull the humanities and engineering closer together. Today, students in high school English classes typically study great literature from historical periods such as the Victorian era. But almost completely absent from K–12 English classes is science fiction. Many science fiction novels juxtapose ideas from science and engineering with ideas from the social sciences, implicitly drawing those fields closer together. And in contrast to the literature usually studied in English classes, science fiction is forward looking. Some of the best science fiction “is about extrapolating science to what it can be.”
NAE president Charles Vest closed the forum by thanking the speakers and calling attention to how quickly the world is changing. The new world of engineering education is “coming down the pike so fast that it’s going to hit everybody like a ton of bricks,” he said. “We would be remiss if we underestimated the role that information technology is going to play. We are just at the beginning. We don’t know where it’s going to go, but it’s going to be big,…and it’s very exciting, because we are going to create opportunity for vast new numbers of young women and men.”
“We are going to create opportunity for vast new numbers of young women and men.”
Charles Vest, NAE
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