Education, the problems the Grand Challenges address, and the role of the US National Academy of Engineering were the topics that dominated the discussion among the presenters and participants in the second half of the forum.
The Grand Challenges can serve as an organizing principle and motivating force at all levels of education. As Dan Mote said, “You can’t start early enough. That is clearly a message for us. It’s all about connection and the excitement of youth.”
Building on El-Baz’s idea of a children’s book for each of the Grand Challenges, Georges Belfort of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggested producing a movie that teaches young students what engineering is and how people can create and build things. Andy Jackson of the University of Pennsylvania emphasized the importance of making sure that all teachers understand the relevance of the Grand Challenges, including social science teachers, geography teachers, and all the other teachers who influence students’ educational and career choices. “Unfortunately most of our high schools, at least in the United States, don’t have engineering programs,” he said. “They do math, physics, science, [but] they don’t know how to put it all together.”
The best way to introduce the Grand Challenges, said El-Baz, is to present the problems to students and let them get enthusiastic about solving those problems. When that happens, the response of students is overwhelmingly positive, he and several other presenters said. When
Calestous Juma talks with KunMo Chung.
Juma and Harris have talked about the Grand Challenges in high schools, for example, they have been surprised by the interest shown by students. “Because it’s a long-term issue, the best place to start is with people who are likely to be here in the long term,” said Juma.
Ying said that when she goes to girls’ schools, “their eyes light up when they realize that an engineer makes this dramatic impact on humanity for the whole globe. That’s when it appeals to them.”
Kamen observed that when you tell schoolchildren that there are 300 billion stars in the universe, they believe you. But “you put up a sign that says ‘Wet Paint,’ they have to touch it to be sure.” Because whether the paint is wet is relevant to their lives. “We have to make science, technology, engineering, and math relevant and comprehensible,” he said. “They have to see a need and an excitement and a path to do something…. These things can be very inviting and bring [students] in.”
Ying made the same point for higher education. In many developed countries, young people educated in engineering do not want to be engineers any more. They enter engineering to get a bachelor’s degree and then go into finance and banking. To make sure that more people stay in engineering, the problems they work on in class need to be “relevant to real problems,” she said.
One way to integrate the Grand Challenges throughout education, said Harris, would be to credit schools from the K–12 level through higher education for incorporating the Grand Challenges into their curricula. For example, when the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) comes to a college to evaluate an engineering program, it should give the program credit if it has elements that involve the Grand Challenges, he said. “Grade school, high school, engineering schools, and even industry should receive credits—tax credits, for example—if they are engaged appropriately, within their mission, in supporting and expanding the Grand Challenges.”
In response to a question about whether college capstone courses could be oriented toward the Grand Challenges, Harris said, “we should not wait until the capstone design experience.” MIT has demonstrated that first-year engineering students can learn design, and “there is nothing unique about MIT in that regard.” He cited the example of a first-year student who suggested taking advantage of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) in Africa, which does not transmit diseases but devours protein and converts it to fertilizer. “You don’t have to write a computer code. It’s already there. We took that to Ghana and it worked.”
The presenters and participants also discussed whether engineers should receive more than four years of higher education. As Donald Chaffin of the University of Michigan said, “I don’t want a surgeon with a four-year education to operate on me. I don’t want a lawyer to take my case with four years of education. Why do we expect four years of education to be sufficient to deal with these kinds of matters?”
Socolow responded that students need to be ready to participate in the Grand Challenges in many different ways. A two-year engineering education can lead to a valuable role in solving these problems. Kamen added that engineering education does not start in engineering school and does not end when a student graduates. What an engineer does with his or her knowledge matters more than how long it took to acquire that knowledge.
A discussion arose about the fact that the Grand Challenges do not mention food production or population growth. As El-Baz noted, food needs are implied in the water challenge. Broers also pointed out that food security is implicit in the challenge on managing the nitrogen cycle.
On the issue of population, Socolow noted that a dichotomy exists between parts of the world where the demographic transition has not yet happened and parts where it has, with some parts of the world headed toward smaller populations and others toward larger populations. Should smaller populations be regarded as a threat, he asked, or is there a way to take advantage of them by, for example, focusing on constructive aging and medical care?
Another exchange concerned nuclear waste. Ron Latanision of the consulting company Exponent pointed out that the social science dimensions of the issue are as important as the political dimensions. “It is an extremely difficult issue,” responded Broers. The amount of money that the United Kingdom is predicted to spend on the disposal of existing nuclear waste is “absolutely vast”—more than £100 billion, or about $150 billion—and the timetable now extends beyond 2100.
Moderator Dan Vergano and forum panelists.
Canada has done a better job with this question than have either the United Kingdom or United States, he observed.
In response to a question about what the fifteenth Grand Challenge will be, Kamen quoted Franklin Roosevelt: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” “The future is moving much faster than it ever has before,” he said. “Typically a generation or two of engineering success leaves behind unintended consequences. We made plastics, which were great, but now there is too much plastic. One car is a work of art, but a hundred million cars is a traffic jam. We typically take a generation or two to solve a problem, and then it leaves behind others. At the rate at which technology moves today, young people are going to catch up to their own problems so quickly that they won’t have a generation to plan.”
Because of this process, many future challenges cannot be envisioned today, said Kamen. For that reason, “the fifteenth Grand Challenge has to be to create an environment in which people are more capable of communicating and cooperating,” he said. “A much larger percentage of the people on this planet, whether they are practicing engineers or not, have to be competent to separate fact from nonsense so that when their governments deploy resources and assets, they do it in an intelligent way.”
Added Broers, “Could I be controversial and suggest that a challenge should be to provide for the women of the world the knowledge, education, and means to control the number of children that they have?”
The US National Academy of Engineering and other academies of engineering, science, and medicine around the world can play a pivotal role not only in identifying but solving the Grand Challenges. Other organizations have devoted considerable attention to the problems that must be solved in the 21st century for human societies to thrive, noted Janet Hering of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. For example, the Grand Challenges overlap with both
the UN Millennium Development Goals and more recent Sustainable Development Goals.
As Juma pointed out, the Sustainable Development Goals will not be implemented “without a strong engineering component, because all of them are very much linked to solving particular problems.” This would be one way for the US National Academy of Engineering to engage with academies in other countries, he added. For example, he pointed to the potential for countries in Africa to leapfrog current technologies to apply new technologies that could bring great benefit to those societies. “An interesting discussion happening across Africa right now is whether solar photovoltaics will do for energy what mobile phones have done for telecommunications,” he observed.
John Kassakian of MIT noted that the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have a dimension that could be used very effectively to leverage attention to the Grand Challenges: the committees they convene to address national and international con-
Audience members queue to participate in the postforum discussion.
cerns in these areas. “Many of us have served on one or more National Research Council committees, and hundreds of these committees are operating at any one time.” Many of them are addressing aspects of the Grand Challenges, he said, and they offer a means of bringing critical information to students and policymakers. This work is “a valuable resource that we shouldn’t overlook,” he said.
Mischa Schwartz of Columbia University noticed that a number of the Grand Challenges have to do with the negative consequences of humankind on the Earth. Yet in the United States a substantial number of people, including quite a few congressmen and presidential candidates, say they do not believe in anthropogenic global warming. If policymakers do not believe in the reality of the problems that humanity faces, he asked, how can funding for the necessary research and change be sustained?
It is an important question, Socolow acknowledged. “Are we losing, particularly in the United States, the conviction that the scientific method is a privileged way of knowing?” he said. “Many people resist it. They prefer to have a religious way of knowing. We need to join that issue.”
Kamen said that “democracy is a very inefficient system. It is the best one we have, but it will only work if more than 50 percent of the people get it right.” Once the questions facing democracy were not technologically complex. Now, as the entire globe must start dealing with complicated technical problems, democracies need to produce enough young people with a passion to learn about science and engineering. “If [people] are not competent to deal with the world they live in, we are going to get what we deserve.”
Engineers should not let ill-informed politicians get away with the nonsensical things they say, he added, but often “there is no countervailing voice, because the technical community thinks that politics is not its field. But being a citizen is our field!” Those in the technical community need to talk with students and with politicians “about the difference between facts and nonsense and what’s important and what’s irrelevant.”
KunMo Chung, president of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology, pointed out that South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world in the 1950s and now is doing very well. The key to South
Korea’s success, he said, is that the country’s first president decided to build the nation through science and technology. Leadership is essential, according to Chung. “It’s not just the leadership among the engineering community alone but national leadership. The members in this room are part of that leadership. We have to expand our influence beyond the engineering community. We have to be actively seeking the progress” of individual nations and the world, he said.
The US National Academy of Engineering has helped focus the world’s attention on the need to forge a path toward a sustainable, productive, and fulfilling future. By continuing to draw on the expertise of engineers, the institution can help create that future, said Mote. “We should use our convening power to maximize the impact we have.”
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