September 12, 2008

Context and Challenge for Twenty-First Century Engineering Education

By Vest, Charles M

The engineering workforce of tomorrow, and indeed that of today, will face profound new challenges. Every day the men and women of this workforce will face the stress of competing in the fast-paced world of change we call the knowledge-based global economy of the twenty-first century. They will also face even larger challenges because the nation and world will need to call on them to seize opportunities and solve global problems of unprecedented scope and scale. The United States has long been King of the Hill in engineering education, especially at the graduate level, and certainly in the quality and accomplishment of our research universities overall. We have been the most technologically innovative nation on the planet. But things are changing rapidly in the twenty-first century.

The last half of the twentieth century was dominated by physics, electronics, high-speed communications, and high-speed long- distance transportation. It was an age of speed and power. The twenty-first century appears to be quite different, dominated by biology and information, but also by macro-scale issues like energy, water, and sustainability. These are things that should be strengths of U.S. engineers, but the context is rapidly evolving.

We once dominated all other countries in terms of expenditures on R&D, but today North America, Europe, and Asia each account for about a third of the world's R&D expenditures. Whereas, the U.S. is still on top, we are losing "market share" in every category used to evaluate R&D. From 1986 to 2003 the U.S. share of R&D spending dropped nine percent. The U.S. dropped eight percent in share of scientific publications, dropped 10 percent in share of new of science and engineering bachelors degrees, dropped two percent in share of U.S. patents, and dropped 30 percent in share of new science and engineering Ph.Ds. Now this is not all bad, because it largely reflects growth in other parts of the world, and we should celebrate the advances of other countries. Nonetheless, because we must depend on out-thinking and out-innovating others, these trends must be watched carefully.

The rise of production of engineers in China is unprecedented. China now educates about 250,000 bachelor-level engineers per year while the U.S. graduates about 60,000. Yes, there are still large quality differences, and numbers are not everything, but Floyd Kvamme, a highly experienced high-tech venture capitalist with Kleiner-Perkins, says that "Venture capital is the search for smart engineers." So we do have to worry about numbers, and we must note with deep consternation that fewer than 15 percent of U.S. high school graduates have sufficient math and science backgrounds to even have the option of entering engineering school.

Our engineers must work and innovate at ever accelerating rates. When the automobile was introduced into the market, it took 55 years, essentially a lifetime, until a fourth of U.S. households owned one. It took about 22 years until 25 percent of U.S. households owned a radio. The World Wide Web achieved this penetration in about eight years. Such acceleration drives an inexhaustible thirst for innovation and produces competitive pressures. The spread of education and technology around the world magnifies these competitive pressures many fold.

Globalization is changing the way in which engineering work is organized and in which companies acquire innovation. Today the service sector employs more than 70 percent of the U.S. workforce. The development and execution of IT-based service projects is usually accomplished by dividing the functions into a dozen or so components, each of which is carried out by a different group of engineers and managers. These groups are likely to be in several different locations around the world. In the manufacturing sector, this new distribution of work is even more dramatic. For example, the new Boeing 787 reportedly has 132,500 engineered parts that are produced in 545 global locations. Indeed, IBM CEO Sam Palmasano says that we have now moved beyond multinational corporations to globally integrated enterprises. An emerging element of this evolving engineering context is "open innovation." Companies no longer look just within themselves for innovation, nor do they just purchase it by acquiring small companies. Today they obtain innovation wherever it is found-in other companies, in other countries, or even through arrangements with competitors. Working in this evolving context requires a nimble new kind of engineer and engineering organization.

Perhaps even more dramatic than the changes brought about by globalization and competition in the Knowledge Age are the new engineering frontiers and grand challenges. I think of two frontiers of engineering, Tiny Systems and Macro Systems. Tiny Systems are those developed in the "Bio/Nano/Info" world where things get increasingly smaller, faster, and more complex. Here there is little distinction between engineering and natural science. Research and product development are done by teams of men and women from various scientific and engineering disciplines that rapidly move from reductionist science to synthesis and system building.

Macro Systems are of ever increasing size and complexity. Work at this frontier may be associated with systems of great societal importance: energy, water, environment, health care, manufacturing, communications, logistics, etc. Research, development, and the design and deployment of projects frequently require teams of engineers and people with backgrounds in social science, management, and communications.

Much of what will be exciting and valuable in the twenty-first century will be the work of engineers who will move tiny systems technology into macro systems applications. Here I have in mind the application of bio-based materials design and production, biomimetics, personalized predictive medicine, biofuels, nanotechnology-based energy production and storage devices, etc.

We also must think about what projects should engage the best of engineering talent and knowledge in the years ahead. The National Academy of Engineering formed a committee of 17 amazingly creative and accomplished engineers and related scientists and medical experts and asked them to define several Engineering Grand Challenges for the decades ahead. These challenges were to be such that accomplishing them would advance the human condition, and that the committee believed could actually be accomplished in the next few decades. The committee proposed 14 unranked Engineering Grand Challenges:1

* Make Solar Energy Economical

* Provide Energy from Fusion

* Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods

* Manage the Nitrogen Cycle

* Provide Access to Clean Water

* Engineer Better Medicines

* Advance Health Informatics

* Secure Cyberspace

* Prevent Nuclear Terror

* Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure

* Reverse Engineer the Brain

* Enhance Virtual Reality

* Advance Personalized Learning

* Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery

These challenges involve energy and sustainability, medicine and healthcare, reducing our vulnerability to natural and human threats, and advancing our human capabilities and understanding of our world and ourselves. Meeting some of these challenges is imperative for human survival, meeting some will make us more secure, and all will improve quality of life.

My message here is that the twenty-first century will be very different from the twentieth. Engineering will be enormously exciting, and increasingly rich and complex in its context and importance. As we think about the 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 can focus on the environment in which they learn and the forces, ideas, inspirations, and empowering situations to which they are exposed. Despite our best efforts to plan their education, however, to a large extent we simply wind them up, 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. Nonetheless, I hope that those who design curricula, pedagogy, and student experiences will profitably contemplate the new context, competition, content, and challenges of engineering.

1 See further details.



National Academy of Engineering


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