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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Next Generation Engineering: Innovation Through Integration

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Keynote Speech
NSF Engineering Education Innovators' Conference

April 8, 1997

Historically, education for doing engineering has been a response to workforce needs for each new technology that appeared on the economic scene. But technology needs now change so quickly that engineering education must be more than a response; expertise in a single discipline, or technology, is no longer the holy Grail for either a rewarded or rewarding career. The modern engineer needs to be educated to thrive through change; else, the engineer will become a commodity on the global market instead of society's enabler of wealth creation. The former is bought cheaply; the latter is more dearly valued.

Engineers must be enabled to grasp the opportunities for innovation rather than simply contribute to enhancing productivity. Innovation results when new knowledge is applied to tasks which are new and different, yielding brand new enterprises and delivering new products and services and new jobs. Innovation, especially through engineering enterprise, is at the core of a healthy economy. This element of innovativeness lies at the core of 21st century engineering competence whether, for example, the project is a physically big complex thing like a smart bridge or a tiny complex thing like a smart micromechanical system.

Given this capability, what are the fresh career paths? Well, no longer do they layer directly on traditional disciplines. Rather, next generation engineering career paths embrace complex systems issues. Examples include the issue of sustainability -- avoiding environmental harm, efficient use of energy and materials, and life cycle engineering; infrastructure systems renewal; micro/nano systems which are simultaneously small in size and large in capacity and becoming ubiquitous to all product development; megasystems -- extraordinarily large, complex and risky engineering projects and enterprises; living systems engineering -- a dimension beyond bioengineering; smart systems that learn from their environment and adjust operation and even repair themselves; and creative enterprise transformation generally.

How do we prepare our students toward this end? By examining engineering education and exploring innovations based on integrative and holistic approaches, we can shed light on a host of key issues facing the entire science and engineering enterprise as we move into a remarkable era we might dub as "knowledge and distributed intelligence."

What does the phrase "era of knowledge and distributed intelligence" really mean? I like to describe it as an era in which knowledge is available to anyone, located anywhere, at anytime, and an era in which power, information, and control have moved away from centralized systems to the individual.

For example, over the span of just a few years, computers have moved from air conditioned rooms to closets to desktops and now to our laps and our pockets. So, too, has the scope and scale of telecommunications enhanced our intellectual, business, and politically connectivity. The number of Internet hosts leapt from only 200 in 1983 to 10 million in 1996 -- a 50,000-fold increase! -- and remains on track to continue doubling annually, according to estimates from the Computing Research Association.

Along with this explosive change in enhanced computing capability and computer communications, the past half century has witnessed a flurry of intense technological change at and across the boundaries of all fields of human endeavor. Indeed, technological change has been elevated to prime status as driver of economic and cultural change.

There is much evidence supporting the notion that technological innovation is central to wealth creation and economic growth. Many studies indicate that over the past 50 years, technological innovation has accounted for over one-third of U.S. economic growth. We must take this evidence seriously as we think strategically about the future, especially for those of us concerned about creation of knowledge and its use.

The noted management guru, Peter Drucker notes that the source of wealth is knowledge, a human activity that yields wealth in two essential ways, productivity and innovation. 1 He points out that knowledge applied to tasks we already know how to do is productivity, while knowledge applied to tasks that are new and different is innovation -- the process of creating new enterprises and delivering new products and services.

Within this context of productivity and innovation, engineers will play an ever more significant role. The true wealth of a nation resides in its human capital -- especially its engineering workforce. Engineers will develop the new processes and products and will create and manage new systems for civil infrastructure, manufacturing, health care delivery, information management, computer-communications, and so on. In general, they will put knowledge to work for society -- and in doing so, enable a huge potential for the private sector to create wealth and jobs.

To be personally successful in today's world and simultaneously promote prosperity, engineers need more than first rate technical and scientific skills. In an increasingly competitive world, engineers need to make the right decisions about how enormous amounts of time, money, and people are tasked to a common end. I like to think of the engineer as someone who not only knows how to do things right but also knows the right thing to do. This requires engineers to have a broad, holistic background. Since engineering itself is an integrative process, engineering education must focus on this end.

For example, engineers must be able to work in teams and communicate well. They must be flexible, adaptable, and resilient. Equally important, they must be able to view their work from a systems approach, effecting connections, and within the context of ethical, political, international, environmental, and economic considerations. To better illuminate this, let's for a moment examine the innovation process as described by Drucker -- i.e. making and profiting from new things, as opposed to productivity, which implies simply making existing things more efficiently.

A critical element in the innovation process is scientific inquiry, an analytic, reductionist process which involves delving into the secrets of the universe to discover new knowledge. The U.S. excels at this paradigm and must continue to sustain and nurture this rich intellectual infrastructure.

The essence of engineering, on the other hand, is the process of integrating all knowledge to some purpose. As society's "master integrators," engineers must have the functional background to provide leadership in nurturing the concurrent and interactive process of innovation and wealth creation. The engineer must be able to work across many different disciplines and fields -- and make the connections that will lead to deeper insights, more creative solutions, and getting things done. In a poetic sense, paraphrasing the words of Italo Calvino, the engineer must be adept at "correlating exactitude with chaos to bring visions into focus." 2

Our engineering graduates must have added value in order to compete in today's global marketplace. Yes, added value resulting from state-of-the-art knowledge, but even more -- added value garnered by probing the darkness in search of light; added value enabled by understanding risk; and added value gained through understanding and participating in the process of engineering throughout their educational experience.

We all acknowledge that scientific and mathematical skills are necessary for professional success. An engineering student nevertheless must also experience the "functional core of engineering" -- the excitement of facing an open-ended challenge and creating something that has never been. Participating in the entire concurrent process of realizing a new product through integration of seemingly disparate skills is an educational imperative. This is the ultimate added value that enables wealth creation. In this sense, the 21st Century Engineer must have the capacity to:

  • design -- to meet safety, reliability, environmental, cost, operational, and maintenance objectives.
  • realize products
  • create, operate, and sustain complex systems
  • understand the physical constructs and the economic, industrial, social, political, and international context in which engineering is practiced.
  • understand and participate in the process of research.
  • gain the intellectual skills needed for lifelong learning.

Translating these concepts into a viable curriculum raises a core set of issues and challenges facing the academic enterprise. For starters, it requires examining the traditional reductionist approach to teaching and learning.

The philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, presaged today's challenge in engineering education when he wrote in his Mission of the University (1930):

"The need to create sound syntheses and systemizations of knowledge...will call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration: the genius for integration. Of necessity this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this time the [person] will be specializing in the construction of the whole."

Most curricula require students to learn in unconnected pieces -- separate courses whose relationship to each other and to the engineering process are not explained until late in a baccalaureate education, if ever. Further, an engineering education is usually described in terms of a curriculum designed to present to students the set of topics engineers "need to know," leading to the conclusion that an engineering education is a collection of courses. The content of the courses may be valuable, but this view of engineering education appears to ignore the need for connections and for integration -- which should be at the core of an engineering education.

And what of fundamentals? What are the basic constructs of the engineering process? What does the phrase "engineering is an integrative process" mean? In the chart displayed on the screen 3, many of the components of a holistic baccalaureate engineering education are identified. The columnar arrangement and the row-by-row juxtaposition of terms give the appearance of contradiction. Moreover, the emphasis on the science base of engineering over the past half century embraced the elements in the left-hand column -- but often to exclusion of those on the right.

A holistic baccalaureate engineering education should emphasize the inherent connectivity and the complementary nature of these two sets of elements. Tomorrow's engineers will need both abstract and experiential learning, the ability to understand certainty and to handle ambiguity, to formulate and solve problems, to work independently and in teams, and to meld engineering science and engineering practice. Put simply, our aim now should be to achieve some balance between the corresponding elements in each row.

This effort can lead us in a scholarly way to realizing Ortega's "construction of the whole." Certainly, today's easier access to information and improved connectivity will enable engineers (indeed everyone) to make more productive connections to learn and create. This combination of access and connectivity may well prove to be the key enabler for Ortega's vision.

Engineering education should therefore shift emphasis from course content (and the consequent filtering of students) to a more comprehensive view -- a view that focuses on the development of human resources and the broader educational experience in which individual courses and experiences are connected and integrated. This intent is made more facile in an era of knowledge and distributed intelligence.

While I have focused my remarks primarily on undergraduate education to this point -- what can we say about graduate engineering education, and beyond, in the context of an engineer's responsibility to "construct the whole?" Many U.S. graduate programs, while rigorous and in-depth, are too narrowly focused to appeal to the professionally-oriented engineer who is concerned with career-enabling subjects, such as manufacturing, construction, systems integration, environmental technologies, quality control, safety, and management of technological innovation. Most of this content can be addressed in a Master's program, but too often the program is configured as a "stepping stone" to the reductionist-oriented Ph.D.

Today, there is growing consensus that professional level engineers need an integrative Master's degree and that our universities need to offer more practice-oriented Master's degree programs - with stronger connections to industry and to the social, economic, and management sciences. A variety of investments have been established over the past decade toward this end.

Even the doctoral degree is being challenged as too analytic and too sub-specialty oriented. There is now great call across all of science and engineering to reorient the Ph.D. curriculum to enable graduates to enjoy a broader spectrum of career opportunities, while sustaining the rich educational enhancement derived from the process of doing research.

How we might enable the next generation engineer is depicted on the screen. The complimentary curricular components of a holistic undergraduate curriculum lead to a practice-oriented master's level curriculum and/or a integrative, discovery focused doctoral curriculum -- all supported by infrastructures for cognitive systems and career-long learning.

Let's look more closely at this thing called "cognitive systems." It is no overstatement to say that the term "potential" has never been as meaningful as it is today. Potential conveys possibility, opportunity, and capability -- all of which exist in abundance as we enter an era of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Browsers -- be they Mosaic, Netscape, Explorer, or others -- have transformed the Internet from an obscure research tool to something a five-year-old can "surf." Search engines such as Altavista and Yahoo help people control the flood of information unleashed by the Web.

Moreover, what we are seeing today is only the beginning. Supercomputers are now breaking the teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks - such as the NSF-supported very high speed Backbone Network Service (vNBS) - transmit data in excess of 600 Megabits per second (Mbps), a twelve fold increase over current Internet operating speeds.

If history is any guide, it won't take long for these capabilities to reach the typical user. When combined with technologies such as palmtops, handhelds, intelligent agents, and omnipresent sensors, the potential before us takes on an entirely new dimension.

Information and knowledge would be available in forms that make it easier for everyone to use effectively -- voice, video, text, holograms, to name but a few of a universe of possibilities. Will we develop new ways to express and unleash our creative talents -- talents that are now limited by our ability to interface via a QWERTY keyboard and mouse? What tools will enable us to control and master this ultra-rapid flow of information? Will having the proverbial Library of Congress in your pocket be a blessing or a burden?

In conclusion, the answers to these questions begin with us. Our efforts and our leadership can transform this immense, unprecedented, and somewhat intimidating potential into true progress, economic opportunity, social gain, and rising living standards for human civilization.

The first step toward success in this endeavor rests with our system of education and training for engineers. Engineering education has become much more than a four or five year bachelor's degree or seven year Ph.D. It now requires developing our ability to strengthen and continually refresh our talents for innovation and creativity. Professional societies will need to assume greater responsibility for enabling their members to thrive through change. Universities will be presented with new mechanisms for interacting with students, as well as for linking the creation of knowledge with its dissemination and application.

The spread of digital libraries; the onset of virtual collaboratives; the capacity to mine data with alacrity; the assurance of high-confidence systems for privacy, security, and reliability; and the creation of knowledge-on-demand pedagogies -- all these, and their integration, have ushered in a promising new era of discovery, innovation, and progress.

This presents us with the opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to sustain and expand the connections to learning and discovery. These connections will determine our destiny in the next millennium. Our efforts and our leadership hold the key to success. Let's make these new connections to learn and create and lead engineering education to its next dimension! Paraphrasing the words of Peter Drucker as quoted in the March 10th issue of Forbes magazine, "just look out the window and see what's visible -- but not yet seen."



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