Unexpected Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Dedication of Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory
University of Colorado
April 24, 1997
Good afternoon and thank you. President Buechner,
Chancellor Byyney, Dean Corotis, students, faculty,
friends, and distinguished guests, I want to begin
by thanking the entire university, and the College
of Engineering and Applied Science in particular,
for being wonderful hosts these past two days and
for allowing me to share a few thoughts with you on
this day when we are all "touching the future."
It is also a special pleasure and an honor for me
to join Norm Augustine and Joel Birnbaum on the program
for today's celebration.
I can't say enough about Norm Augustine and his contribution
to both engineering education and to U.S. science
and engineering generally. No one individual is doing
more today to build bridges between academe and industry,
and that's just one element of his leadership and
contribution. Norm also just led a top-to-bottom review
of NSF's operations in the Antarctic. The Antarctic
is a true scientific treasure-trove - a veritable
bounty for everything from solar neutrinos to Martian
meteorites. Norm's work has positioned the U.S. Antarctic
Program to remain a mainstay of U.S. science and engineering
for many generations to come.
I think I also speak for future generations when I
say that all of us owe a tremendous debt of gratitude
to Joel Birnbaum for Hewlett-Packard's many contributions
to research and development in the U.S. For starters,
if it were not for the generous support provided by
Hewlett-Packard and David Packard himself for construction
of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory,
it's doubtful that we would even be gathered here
today. My hat's off to you as well.
I also want to tip my hat today to the people of Colorado,
the university, and especially to the students here.
At NSF, we are passionate advocates for investments
in the future. The wealth of support provided by Colorado's
taxpayers and through the tuition surcharge that the
students themselves initiated both give me great comfort
regarding our nation's future course.
As I was thinking about what to say this afternoon,
I was reminded of another story about setting the
right compass heading in life. This story is from
my days in the Navy. I took a course in celestial
navigation. This was long before GPS. After completing
the course, one of my classmates was eager to show
off his new knowledge to some friends who were visiting
"That's Regulus," he said confidently, "and there's
Polaris, the North Star." His friends were impressed,
and then one of them pointed to a bright light on
the horizon and asked what it was. "That's Venus,"
my classmate replied. "Note the steady light typical
Their awe quickly turned to amusement, however, when
"Venus" slowly drew nearer, turned, and began to lower
its wheels for landing.
In recent years, many of us have found our most confident
pronouncements turned askew by unexpected turns of
reality. This brings me to the subject of my talk.
My remarks this afternoon are entitled Unexpected
Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities. A number
of unexpected twists and turns have caught our society
by surprise in recent years. My intent today is to
help all of us appreciate the opportunities emerging
from these twists and turns, particularly as they
relate to engineering education. In fact, nowhere
is the promise and potential contained in these opportunities
more apparent than it is today, as we stand before
this new and visionary home for teaching and learning.
Although many of us use terms like "post-cold war
economy" and the "information age" with frequency
and ease, we have not necessarily paid enough attention
to the far reaching implications of their meaning
- particularly for research and education. Indeed,
I would submit that we can't even be sure if these
are the right terms to use.
The end of the Cold War, just seven years ago, was
unpredicted. It did not even show up on the radar
screens of foreign policy experts and political gurus.
It caught the world by happy surprise. No one, however,
had imagined or planned for a global landscape without
the Free World versus Iron Curtain rivalry of the
previous forty years. And, certainly no one had given
serious thought to how this enormous change would
influence the way we prepare our youth for the workforce.
We are now living in the infancy of what scholars
and song writers all term the "Information Age," despite
the fact that there are no adequate definitions of
what an information age means. We may, in fact, face
an era quite different from the word "information"
that we are using with impunity. The period before
us is much more than computing power, digital transmission,
global communication, and multimedia integration.
For starters, we no longer live in an era where academe
can provide an autonomous career sheltered from society's
needs and problems. We no longer live in a time when
U.S. industry believes it has nothing to learn from
other nations or other sectors, an attitude that persisted
for too long. We no longer live in the luxury of succeeding
on first-rate higher education and mediocre K-12 education.
We no longer live in the industrial age when a modestly-skilled
assembly-line workforce could propel the nation.
Today's engineering students will spend most of their
careers in the 21st Century coping with challenges
vastly different from those experienced by engineers
of the last half century. The intellectual skills
of tomorrow's engineers will extend well beyond the
traditional science-focused preparation that has characterized
engineering education since World War II. Global commercial
competition is now a major driver for industrial organization
and engineering employment. Intelligent technologies
now enable us to be more creative and "work smarter."
The ever-expanding infrastructure of our society demands
new talents for handling complexity, risk, and uncertainty.
The eclectic, constantly-changing nature of our work
environment calls for astute interpersonal skills.
And, all of us have become increasingly aware of the
need to place environment, health, and safety at the
front end of the process of design.
Our engineering graduates must provide a real 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
what is truly the "functional core of engineering."
That is the excitement of facing an open-ended challenge
and creating something that has never been. One imperative
is that students participate in the entire concurrent
process of realizing a new product by integrating
seemingly disparate skills. This is the ultimate added
value that enables wealth creation for our society.
The philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, presaged this
challenge by over six decades. In 1930, he produced
his brilliant volume, Mission of the University,
in which he wrote:
"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."
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.
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
And what of fundamentals? What are the basic constructs
of the engineering process? What does the phrase "engineering
is an integrative process" mean? To me, it means that
we balance concepts that are often viewed as the antithesis
of each other -- topics like problem solving and problem
formulation, and teamwork and independence. These
should be at the core of a holistic engineering education.
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.
Underlying all of this is a concept that is built
into every square foot of the Integrated Teaching
and Learning Laboratory. That is the concept of making
connections to learning and creativity, and it provides
the foundation for what we today call higher education.
Consider that over 2,000 years ago a well to-do citizen
of ancient Greece offered some of his real estate,
a grove, to a thoughtful fellow citizen of considerable
intellect. The thoughtful citizen desired to make
the land a place where fellow thinkers could gather
for hearty discussions on matters of common and uncommon
interest. The grove became Plato's Academy, and the
generous benefactor's name was Academus - the name
from which our higher education enterprise derives
its own name.
In those days, a physical place was needed in order
to build connections to learning and creativity. Today,
physical proximity is a definite plus, but it alone
is not sufficient to forge connections to learning
If you follow the goings-on at the National Science
Foundation, you'll know that we are using the term,
"knowledge and distributed intelligence" to describe
the era that is taking shape around us. This is our
way of capturing the fact that knowledge is becoming
available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that power,
information, and responsibility are moving away from
centralized control to the individual.
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 this 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 now help
people control the flood of information unleashed
by the Web - though they are far from perfect.
It is clear that what we are seeing today is only
the beginning for forging connections to learning
and creativity. Supercomputers are now breaking the
teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks -
such as the NSF-supported very high speed Backbone
Network Service - transmit data in excess of 600 Megabits
per second, a twelve fold increase over current Internet
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 will 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 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?
The answers to these questions begin with our work
as researchers and educators. 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.
It all begins with education. Education in engineering
and the sciences has become much more than a four
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 radically changing professional
landscapes. Colleges and 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.
This latter point brings us back to the very reason
we are gathered here today. Advanced information technologies
have transformed how we approach education in science
and engineering. These are quite literally embodied
in the ITLL. The numbers virtually speak for themselves
- 200 sensors built into the building, over 150 PCs
and workstations, two high-speed networks, plus countless
handhelds and other tools that combine portability
These are modern day connections to learning and creativity,
yet they draw upon the same spirit and vision as Academus'
gift to Plato two millennia ago. Above all else, they
provide a pathway to lifelong learning. It was Plato
himself who wrote, "the direction in which education
starts a man, will determine his future life." Aside
from the gender bias of the pronouns, this wisdom
has proved timeless.
Indeed, in his seminal article in The Atlantic
on the emerging information economy, the prominent
corporate advisor Peter Drucker reached a similar
conclusion. He wrote that: "We will redefine what
it means to be an educated person. Traditionally...an
educated person was someone who had a prescribed stock
of formal knowledge....Increasingly, an educated person
will be someone who has learned how to learn, and
who continues learning...throughout his or her lifetime."
Let me close by adding that whether you prefer the
older or the more modern phrasings of this philosophy,
it is clear that the ITLL gives us all many reasons
to celebrate today. In this period of transition from
an era of Cold War to an era of knowledge and distributed
intelligence, both pitfalls and possibilities abound.
We must be astute observers and students of the shifting
global landscape, and we must agree on a collective
vision and plot a path together to reach our goals.
Most of all, we must be bold and experimental in developing
and shaping this emerging era. The ITLL - and the
vision and commitment that made it possible - makes
clear that we can realize the opportunities emerging
from the unexpected twists and turns that surround
us today. It's been said that while we cannot predict
the future, we can shape it, and that is precisely
what we are doing here today.