Opening the Engineering Door
New Thayer School Dean Joseph Helble on why the future depends on engineers.
By Tamara Steinert
Photographs by John Sherman
After a decade on the faculty at the University of Connecticut, Joseph Helble is familiar with the rhythms of academia, including the autumn “busy season.” But as fall approached this year, there were more demands on Helble’s time than usual. The 45-year-old chemical engineer was just finishing a year-long fellowship in Senator Joseph Lieberman’s Washington, D.C., office when it was time to turn his attention to the school year — and to his new duties as Dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School.
As he completed an analysis of the environmental impacts of nanotechnology for Lieberman, there were loose ends to tie up at UConn as well. Add to this the challenge of packing to move with his wife, Becky Dabora, and their three school-aged children to Norwich, Vermont, and it’s a safe guess that this might not have been the most convenient time for Helble to sit down for an interview.
But, if he felt any impatience to get back to the tasks pressing upon him, there was nothing about Helble’s cordial greeting in the front office of Lieberman’s suite that revealed it. After all, working on Capitol Hill requires the ability to shift gears quickly as issues demanding immediate attention arise. As the Roger Revelle Fellow in Global Stewardship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Helble spent the year advising Lieberman and his staff on a variety of environmental science and technology issues. Some, like President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, have been closely tied to Helble’s research interests. Other topics, like the feasibility of creating an early detection system for tsunamis, have been new to him.
Helble listens closely to questions before answering, often taking a moment to think before speaking. But when he does start talking, the words come quickly. The topic of conversation is the future of engineering and engineering education, a subject which Helble admits with a wry smile is “dinner and hallway conversation” for him and his engineering colleagues. “Are our students getting it? Are we teaching them what we need them to get? Should we be doing it differently?” asks Helble, echoing the concerns of engineering educators across the country. And, of course, THE question: “Why aren’t there more engineers?”
It’s a question that lawmakers and business leaders, concerned about U.S. competitiveness in a global economy, are beginning to ask as well. Technological innovation has been at the heart of economic growth in recent decades, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in science and engineering will increase at about three times the rate for other occupations in the near future. However, the United States isn’t producing enough engineers to fill these jobs. On a per capita basis, the number of engineering degrees earned each year in the United States has steadily declined, “even through the ’90s, when the economic boom was driven by high tech,” notes Helble. And with the National Science Foundation reporting in the 2004 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators that more than half of the nation’s engineers are age 40 or older, that could mean too few trained engineers prepared to meet the technological challenges of the future.
Developing countries such as China and India, however, are taking up the slack left by too few engineers here. The United States will graduate approximately 70,000 new engineers this year, while China reportedly will graduate about 600,000, and India will give diplomas to 350,000.
“That’s not a recipe for future success” in an economy increasingly dependent on technology, Helble says. However, he believes economic competitiveness is not the only reason why Americans should be concerned about the declining interest in engineering.
“The U.S. is in a leadership position in the globe. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to do the right thing, to do good for the rest of the world through engineering,” he says.
Helble cites global climate change as one issue among many where the United States could provide guidance. “I’m talking about how that affects developing countries, not the impact of a 2-degree increase in temperature in Hanover, N.H., and what that might do to the maple sugar industry. I’m talking about huge percentages of the global population living in low-lying coastal areas as subsistence farmers. How are those people going to be affected by global climate change and what’s that going to do in terms of creating refugee problems, starvation, poverty, and mass movement of people? These are problems that should concern us as Americans as well. These are problems engineering can tackle,” he says.
Educators and other experts have identified a variety of reasons for the declining interest in engineering. A generation or two ago, people in the United States saw engineering as a way “to apply yourself and improve your circumstances,” says Helble.
“I think we’ve reached a point where, for a large number of Americans, perhaps the motivation isn’t the same. You can go to Wall Street. There are other opportunities in business where you can perhaps do better economically” without having to take the rigorous math and science curriculum required for engineering, he notes. “In places like India and China, they’re where we were 40 or 50 years ago in terms of this being a good, solid opportunity to advance yourself.”
Engineers in these developing countries typically work more cheaply than American engineers. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that as many as 52 percent of engineering jobs might be vulnerable to “offshoring.”
As Helble sees it, however, these changing circumstances and attitudes are not the cause of plummeting numbers in engineering. In his view, these are symptoms of a bigger problem: an outdated mindset that sees engineering education as nothing more than vocational training.
“We need to stop thinking about engineering education as being training just to produce engineers who will go off and work at engineering jobs and solve engineering problems,” he says. “That’s clearly a very, very, very important part of what we do. It’s our core mission and that won’t change,” but “engineering education is useful apart from producing engineers.”
Engineering education is really about teaching a set of skills — to analyze, create, innovate, and communicate — that are increasingly necessary across many occupations and fields as technology continues to evolve.
“Let’s look at medicine. So much of health care in this county is technology based. Wouldn’t our health care system be better if people who go to medical school had undergraduate training in engineering rather than all studying biology?” Helble says. He also suggests that young entrepreneurs consider engineering rather than business school since economic development is driven by technological development.
“Whenever we as educators have the opportunity for a public platform — including talking to 17- and 18-year-olds at high school events — we need to say, ‘look, this is not vocational training. This is analytical training that helps you develop the skills to analyze a problem, to be innovative, to be creative, to be entrepreneurial,’ ” he says.
One of the ways to convey this message is by highlighting the myriad ways our lives are touched by technology and science every day.
“The technological training we get in engineering puts us in a position — even if we’re not practicing engineers — to make informed decisions in our local communities and as citizens when we go to the voting booth,” he says. It happens in the grocery store when people decide whether or not to buy genetically modified foods, at the doctor’s office when they’re selecting from treatment options, and when they’re choosing political candidates who best reflect their views on issues like stem cell research and space exploration. Often the information consumers have about these issues is incomplete, or presented in ways that elicit emotional reactions without scientific context.
“There’s a real need for a significant component of society to have the analytical skills to understand these problems and the skills to communicate effectively to people who don’t have this training about why these issues are important to them,” he says.
“One of the things that’s got me excited about going to Thayer is you’re starting with a body of students and faculty who think more broadly, who don’t think about engineering as strictly a vocational training. People are looking at this as an education to help them attack a much broader range of problems,” he adds.
THE ELDEST OF THREE CHILDREN raised in a suburb of Paterson, N.J., Helble says the immediacy of the OPEC oil crisis — made concrete for him by sitting in gas lines as a teenager with his father — started him on the path to engineering. He’d always been good in math and science, and his father was also an engineer, so it was a “natural” choice, he says.
Helble’s undergraduate experience at Lehigh University was four years of a “complete and total emphasis on science, math and engineering.” It was a solid education, but in some ways he felt restricted because he wanted to explore the bigger picture of technology in the world.
“What I see of the program at Thayer is it provides students exactly the kind of flexibility I think is important and that I would have wanted,” he says, noting that even during graduate school he tried to keep a broader focus by completing a minor in Spanish.
Helble entered graduate school at MIT in 1982. A runner and bicyclist who grew up during the early years of the American environmental movement, he had a natural interest in protecting the environment, and so pursued research on air pollution and aerosol science. After completing his Ph.D. in 1987, he took a job as a research scientist at Physical Sciences Inc., a small research firm near Boston, then returned to academia as a faculty member at the University of Connecticut in 1995.
Over the years, his research interests have expanded to include nanoparticle technology. It’s a field with potential uses in many industries, from manufacturing to medicine, but in his role as a legislative fellow, Helble focused on investigating the potential impact of the technology on people and the environment, rather than on developing new applications. “We’re talking about a new class of materials where, in many cases, we don’t have a complete understanding of how they would operate in the environment. We don’t know what happens if they’re released into the environment, either purposely or not. There are broad legislative questions that need to be answered about how we continue responsible development while putting in place appropriate controls to protect people and the environment. What should that balance be? Does the EPA have the authority and resources to do this?” he asks.
THAYER SCHOOL’S ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT PROGRAM and its close links to the Tuck School of Business put the program at the head of the next wave of engineering education, Helble says. Companies expect engineers to know their way around a spreadsheet and value employees with entrepreneurial instincts. In recent years, industry has also come to expect engineers to design with the “triple bottom line” in mind. This term means giving equal regard to the environmental and societal impact of a project along with profitability, says Helble. As the population ages, medicine and engineering are also becoming more entwined, presenting another area of growth for the occupation.
He is concerned about the fact that engineering school enrollments don’t reflect the diversity found in the college graduate pool. “We’re not doing a very effective job as a profession and as educators of getting the message out that engineers solve applied problems that are important to society,” he says. “If we made that connection — that you’re solving problems that are important to society — we’d be doing a much better job drawing students from a much broader range of society.”
Helble also worries that “the idea that engineering is just the province of those who absolutely love math and science” discourages many potentially talented engineers from exploring the field. “There’s got to be room for people who are creative — people who may not have the mathematical skills to immediately analyze and model a problem, but have the engineering creativity to think about technological development from a more entrepreneurial standpoint,” he says.
That’s not to suggest that engineering students don’t need basic math. “We just don’t want the first couple of years of engineering education to be a hazing ritual,” he adds. “Not everyone is going to go off, get a Ph.D., become a professor or a research group leader at a large corporation, and do computer modeling. What we’re trying to teach is a framework for analyzing problems and then applying that framework to unknown situations.”
Some observers have suggested that the United States needs a major technological challenge to inspire young people — much like the race to the moon did in the 1960s. However, Helble thinks the problem won’t be resolved so simply. “There’s no silver bullet here,” he says. “I think this is a slow process; it’s going to take a lot of engineering and technological leaders across the country to stand on their respective soapboxes and remind people that this is important.”
A MAJOR CHALLENGE FACING ENGINEERING programs is how to deal with the rapid pace of technology development. With so many new fields of inquiry, schools are struggling with the question of what to include — and exclude — from the curriculum.
Helble cautions against jumping on the bandwagon of every new technology. Instead, he advocates focusing on fundamental math and science and developing what he calls “the tools for engineering thought.”
“We can’t teach everything to every student and graduate them in a reasonable period of time. We could keep them forever, but then they would have no impact on the world at large,” he says. However, electives and survey courses offer an opportunity to discuss the science behind new technology, as well as its societal context. A good example, he says, is a survey course on nanotechnology currently being offered at Thayer School that requires students to read a novel about the technology in addition to exploring its technical underpinnings. “This is great. This is helping 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds understand the relevance of technology to the broader society,” Helble says.
Graduate and faculty research also helps keep the undergraduate program fresh by giving students the opportunity to participate in research projects in evolving fields, according to Helble. One of his goals is to help enhance Thayer’s existing research program.
“I think there’s a real opportunity to build upon a strong research program at Thayer and make it even better,” he says. “Thayer has got an outstanding reputation as a place that produces first-rate undergraduates. The graduate program isn’t as well known. That doesn’t mean graduate students haven’t gone out and done great things. It just means it’s not as well known.”
He realizes that some people are concerned that a greater emphasis on research will detract from Dartmouth’s and Thayer’s teaching missions. However, research “does not diminish or denigrate” teaching, but should “enhance it” as faculty bring their work into the classroom, he says.
One reason people sometimes fear an increased emphasis on research is that they think it means the College will try to fit the mold of other, larger institutions.“I have no thoughts whatsoever of Dartmouth being Harvard or Thayer being MIT. It’s not. It is a fairly unique entity, and that’s one of the things I’m excited about,” Helble says. In fact, he would like to see the graduate program incorporate some of the “things that work so well at the undergraduate level.”
“I would like to see our Ph.D. students, even those who come in to work in high-powered research labs for the high-powered research faculty, also be thinking about taking a class in the business school or taking a class in liberal arts so they think about how what they do applies more broadly,” he says.
“A strong research program is a win/win situation for undergraduate and graduate students. Plus it gets 18-year-olds and their parents excited about the school.”
— Tamara Steinert is a freelance writer based in Wichita, Kansas.