Perspective: Inspiration is the Best Incentive
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
This past year several major reports have argued that the development of engineering talent is critical to the continued competitiveness of our economy. From “Innovate America,” published by the Council on Competitiveness, to “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” recently released by the National Academies, the message has been loud, clear, and consistent: We are a nation whose progress is driven by technology. To remain competitive, we need to support innovation. Supporting innovation means producing a technology-skilled workforce. And that means producing engineers.
This theme has echoed broadly, from op-ed columns in major newspapers to the halls of Capitol Hill. China graduates 600,000 engineers, we are told, while the U.S. only graduates 70,000. Even if one disputes these numbers — and many have — we know as engineers that the slope of the curve is also important, and investment in engineering in Chinese universities appears to be growing. Bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate to encourage innovation — bills that include providing more funding for technology R&D and more scholarship aid for engineering students. In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush sounded many of the same arguments as he advanced the American Competitiveness Initiative and backed it up with funding. His proposed budget, currently working its way through Congress, calls for a 7.8 percent increase in funding for the National Science Foundation, the major source for research funding in engineering and the physical sciences, as well as increases in basic physical science funding for the Department of Energy and intramural funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the Department of Commerce. The drumbeat is steady: Globalization means new competition. We must train more engineers to keep ahead. And we must provide scholarships to entice students to study engineering.
Increased investment is welcome and needed. It provides critical funding for universities, national labs, and industry alike to push the frontiers in areas such as the interface between engineering and medicine — a new research and educational thrust at Thayer — and in nanomedicine, biotechnology, communication, and renewable energy. Investment is critical for refining and expanding our knowledge in core areas such as combustion, fluid mechanics, and environmental transport, all of which bodes well for the engineering enterprise.
But I think this misses the point when it comes to student recruitment.
Arguing about U.S. economic competitiveness is hardly the way to entice more students into science and engineering. Do we really think that students are not studying engineering because there isn’t a scholarship incentive to do so, or because they somehow didn’t know that it was important for national competitiveness? And if we are truly concerned about broadening diversity in engineering, do we really believe that young girls, recent immigrants, or members of minority groups will be inspired because it is “in the national economic interest?” If we as a profession seek to increase our numbers and our diversity, we need to inspire young people, to show them that engineering can help them make a difference in people’s lives. And we need to give them a college engineering education that embraces this ideal.
Colleges and universities need to take a hard look at their programs and ask whether they provide the opportunity for students to explore things creatively, to understand innovation, and to see the connection of their work to people’s daily lives. Most American engineering programs are structured into rigid departments — departments that were organized around the industrial problems of the day, 50 or more years ago. I have been paging through some engineering college catalogues dating back to the 1950s, and I find that in many universities, in many programs, little has changed. Most offer basic science and math, perhaps a survey course that “exposes” students to the different branches of engineering in a lecture or two, then asks them to choose a departmental major, often freshman year, so they can take introductory courses that have changed little over the past five decades. Finally, as seniors — if they make it that far without dropping out — students take electives that remind them why they chose engineering in the first place. And then, and only then, they might work on an applied project in a team environment and experience the joy of tackling an open-ended, challenging intellectual problem.
We know that much of this is different at Thayer. From ENGS 21 to the absence of departments, from students patenting their ideas to using their technical education to solve basic water supply problems in the developing world, Thayer students experience the promise of engineering to create a better world. A few other schools take a similar approach, but change at universities is slow. I have heard colleagues elsewhere argue, for example, that electrical engineering students don’t need chemistry or biology — or other engineering, for that matter — because those subjects won’t help them in their careers. I couldn’t disagree more. At the undergraduate level, students need the breadth of exposure to different fields. After all, how many of them will spend an entire career designing circuits or sensors without needing to know about the biological, or mechanical, or chemical system at the interface?
At Thayer, we view it as our responsibility to constantly examine our programs and ask how we might do things better. For example, we are exploring ways to provide students with a hands-on “innovation” experience outside the walls of Thayer. With every new initiative and every programmatic refinement, Thayer works to ensure that inspiration remains at the heart of engineering education.