Tomorrow's Mechanical Engineers:
Reengineering versus Repackaging
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Mechanical Engineering Undergraduate
Education for the Next Twenty Years
October 7, 1996
My thanks go out to Nam and everyone on the organizing
committee for inviting me to join you this evening
here in Boston. I remember from my own stay at MIT
the many charms of Boston in October--the fall colors,
the crisp air...and the exciting cognitive discomfort
of sleep-deprived learning. It was Thomas Wolfe who
wrote, "All things on Earth point home in old October:
sailors to sea...hunters to field and hollow, and
[paradigm-shifting engineers to MIT]."
I of course don't mean to force a new institutional
allegiance on any of you. It is nevertheless our own
good fortune, and I would add our nation's good fortune,
that Nam and his colleagues have given us this chance
to collectively explore the future of mechanical engineering
Today's speakers have emphasized the need for more
integrated, holistic approaches to engineering education.
H.G. Wells tells us that "after people have repeated
a phrase a great number of times, they begin to realize
it has meaning and might even be true."
In that spirit, I intend to further expand on these
themes. Yet my goal is to apply them to three seemingly
distinct yet actually inseparable topics: how we educate
engineers, how our society can ready itself for the
emerging age of "distributed intelligence," and finally,
how we make decisions and set priorities at the National
By linking these three different topics, I want to
emphasize that your efforts here at this workshop
extend well beyond mechanical engineering. Indeed,
I believe your work will help to set a new standard
of leadership for the science, as well as engineering,
The title of my talk is Tomorrow's Mechanical
Engineers: Reengineering versus Repackaging.
It is inspired by a famous New Yorker cartoon that
dates from the late 50's. A salesman was pitching
his product, a brand of laundry detergent, claiming
it was better than ever. The box said, "new and improved"
in big, colorful letters. A skeptical customer then
asked, "What's so new and improved about it?" To which
the salesman confidently replied: "The box, we put
the words new and improved on it."
As we all know in our society, internal substance
is many times masked by an attractive, but nonetheless
meaningless, external facade. In engineering education,
we know that "new and improved" must mean more than
just repackaging students or rearranging courses.
What is needed is in fact much more in keeping with
terms like reformulating, redesigning, and even reengineering.
In an increasingly competitive world, engineers need
to make the right decisions about how enormous amounts
of time, money, and people are tasked toward a common
end. To be successful in today's world, engineers
need more than first-rate technical knowledge. Engineers
put all knowledge--technical, societal, and contextual--to
work for society. In doing so, they provide us with
the opportunity to create jobs and shared wealth.
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 holistic education.
Achieving this goal, however, is no trivial task.
We all know it requires more than repackaging and
clever labels. Yet we must also avoid adopting fads
and flashes-in-the-pan based on the mindless philosophy
of "out with the old, in with the new." Addressing
this dilemma requires a change--a fresh focus on the
integrative nature of engineering.
If you are a baseball fan, you know that the major
leagues are now enthralled in their post-season. That's
kept a few of us up late at night, and it can also
provide insight into our common challenge in engineering
education. In his book, Beyond the Culture Wars,
Gerald Graf juxtaposed baseball and the modern university
to develop an apt metaphor for the traditional, reductionist
approach to teaching and learning.
It is as if you were to try to learn the game of
baseball by being shown a series of rooms in which
you saw each component of the game separately:
pitchers going through their windups in one room;
hitters swinging their bats in the next; then
infielders, outfielders, umpires, fans, field
announcers, ticket scalpers, broadcasters, hot
dog vendors, and so on....you get no clear idea
of what the game actually looks like or why the
players do what they do.
Graf, of course, is speaking of universities generally.
His critique applies equally well to majoring in English
as it does to engineering. Yet these challenges are
perhaps most acute in engineering, because the ability
to forge connections and integrate knowledge form
the heart and soul of the professional engineer--and
mechanical engineers in particular, as pointed out
by speaker after speaker in today's workshop sessions.
Consider, for example, the emergence of terms and
topics such as "mechatronics" and "microelectromechanical
systems." These are some of the new ways we describe
our work. They arise entirely from connections across
seemingly disparate areas. Engineering education cannot
ignore its inherent dependence on connections and
integration. In fact, these should form the functional
core of an engineering education.
A holistic baccalaureate engineering education should
include the connection of concepts that are often
viewed as the antithesis of each other--topics like
problem solving and problem formulation, and teamwork
and independence. As I said earlier, new does not
mean "out with the old, in with the new."
Terms like these can be viewed in the spirit of ying
and yang, where we bring them together and integrate
them. 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.
The overall objective is to develop functional literacy--or
"lateral depth"--across these and other core notions.
This concept of "lateral depth" stands in sharp contrast
to the "vertical depth" needed for good research.
As expressed by DeBono, "vertical thinking digs the
same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with
digging a hole in another place."
For an integrated task, the lateral thinker is concerned
not only with investigating a number of holes in some
depth, but also with developing connections among
them. Both approaches are needed when tackling open-ended
This same thinking extends to countless other topics
shaping the national agenda. That is why the implications
of our efforts here extend well beyond mechanical
The very same forces prompting us to reexamine engineering
education--from global economic forces to the increasing
power and ubiquity of computer-communications systems--have
also brought a full plate of challenges, opportunities,
and new ventures to our society. Our era has been
dubbed the "information age," but the jury is still
out on whether we are ready for it as a society.
We know from the work of Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate
economist and National Science Board member, and others,
that scientists and engineers were central to enabling
the industrial revolution and the period of progress
in the post World-War II era. Many credible studies
indicate that during the past half century, technological
innovation has been responsible for roughly 40 percent
of the productivity gain here in the U.S.
We are now being called upon to provide even greater
leadership in this emerging age of fast-paced technological
change and intellectual connectivity on a grand scale.
We should now look forward to enabling and shaping
what is yet to come--even though we don't quite know
what it is.
In a trilogy of speeches delivered in February of
this year, Vice President Gore suggested the metaphor,
"distributed intelligence," to describe a new age
of intelligent systems. It is a complicated metaphor,
based on applying the principle of parallel processing
to social challenges and economic progress.
Distributed intelligence rests upon the notion of
giving people the ability to communicate virtually
instantaneously with each other via different media,
as well as giving them access to the information they
need and to the tools they need to transform that
information into useful, productive knowledge. One
could say that this involves all of society getting
wired, except that it won't always involve wires.
This may yield an age in which the sharing of information
is instantaneous and ubiquitous.
To pursue these kinds of emerging opportunities, NSF
is exploring frameworks for the development and deployment
of new ideas and technologies for research, education
and for society as a whole, using academic science
and engineering as a testbed.
The best way to get you a sense of what we are considering
is to review a few of the monikers we are using to
describe the cutting edge and to think about what
to do. I use the term monikers because we are still
exploring what terms best capture these exciting concepts.
- We've dubbed one area, Knowledge Networking,
and it includes such topics as multi-media environments,
resource sharing technologies, digital libraries,
- A second set of topics is clustered under the
heading, New Challenges for Computation. Data-mining,
visualization, pattern recognition are some of
the key challenges here. One of the central program
elements in this is the new Partnerships for Advanced
Computational Infrastructure program, the follow-on
to the existing supercomputer centers program.
The third area we are exploring
is Learning and Intelligent Systems. This
includes knowledge-on-demand pedagogies, collaborative
learning across physical and virtual communities,
and developing learning technologies that
are based on insights into learning and cognitive
I won't go into great detail here on any of these,
but I do want to touch upon the challenges they present.
Learning and Intelligent Systems, for example, presents
us with a fundamental challenge: Can we create an
entirely new system of learning? Can we develop new
tools and techniques that actually augment the capacity
to learn and create--for both humans and machines?
I should add that the wording in that question is
carefully crafted. Some of my colleagues argue we
should just say our ability as humans
to learn and create. It's more than just that. Machines
themselves can be creative, as well as helping us
A related challenge is to better enable the creative
capabilities of all citizens through a more facile,
symbiotic relationship with the computer-communications
systems rapidly enveloping all of us. For engineers
and scientists, the result may be a whole new way
of pursuing research, effecting discovery, and sparking
innovation--and radically changing both the way we
educate each other and those that follow in our footsteps.
We must educate our progeny for what may be, not merely
for what is.
These are difficult challenges and questions--controversial
in fact. That's ideal in my mind, because we can learn
from each other's arguments and from the different
approaches and perspectives we bring to the discussion.
We have to have a way to argue vigorously and forcefully,
while not letting our personal human sensitivities
get in the way.
I like to tell people that one of NSF's jobs is to
promote intellectual eclecticism. Reductionist approaches,
if uniquely prescribed as the system
of acceptable academic progress, can yield homogenization
of a sort--and mute the fruits of eclecticism. You
may have heard Peter Medawar's famous quote, "the
human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats
a strange protein; it rejects it." The same thinking
applies to other subjects as well.
This brings me to my final point. This spirit of integration
and connections has taken hold at NSF, which directly
affects your efforts in mechanical engineering education.
If you were to review the strategic plan developed
at NSF two years ago, you would find the vision statement
crafted for the Foundation. That statement is worth
reading, and running a keyword search on it can speak
volumes about the thinking of our community which
led us to this point. You see words like "catalyst,"
"partnership," "connections," and "linkages," especially
linkages between discovery and learning.
We open the vision statement with a famous quote from
Antoine de Saint-Exupery--"As for the future, your
task is not to foresee it, but to enable it." This
is an important quote, because it makes clear that
NSF does not seek to lead or direct, but rather to
enable and empower by working through partnerships
that move us forward collectively as a community.
This vision is brought to life in an innovative set
of programs appearing across the Foundation.
- One example is the GOALI program, a.k.a. Grant
Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry,
which gives faculty and industrial colleagues
more flexible ways to partner with each other.
- There is also the CAREER program--shorthand for
the Faculty Early Career Development program.
This responds to numerous reports documenting
the pressures felt by newly-appointed faculty
to link their teaching and research more effectively.
CAREER is now our principal means of supporting
new faculty (of any age), and it has been elevated
to a Presidential-level award for the most distinctive
These same themes of connections, linkages, and partnerships
echo throughout other programs that many of you know
first hand, such as the Engineering Education Coalitions,
the Engineering Research Centers, as well as the Science
and Technology Centers and the new Recognition Awards
for the Integration of Research and Education. We've
also launched a program to foster the institution-wide
reform of undergraduate science and engineering education.
The creation of these programs tells only one part
of the story, however. The scope of the changes underway
at NSF cuts to the core of the most fundamental aspects
of our decision making. It specifically has compelled
us to thoroughly rethink how we set priorities.
If you follow science and technology policy, you know
that priority setting has historically focused on
examining tradeoffs along a number of specific dimensions.
- The most common are disciplinary tradeoffs--physics
versus chemistry, civil versus mechanical, and
even science versus engineering.
Others include people versus
facilities and basic versus applied research
(as if we know the difference), analysis versus
synthesis, hands-on versus abstract/learning,
hard versus soft, and so forth.
Striking the so-called "best" balance among these
tradeoffs often becomes an exercise in frustration:
it alienates us from each other; it consumes inordinate
amounts of time; and it effectively transforms integrative
decision-making into an exercise in reductionism.
Today, we know that these incremental and reductionist
approaches are not the right approaches
for the times in which we live.
As we approach the 21st Century, our world will be
faster, more complex, and more connected. And more
exciting and more challenging. Solutions to tomorrow's
problems will require the contributions of many disciplines
and points of view. All of our frameworks for decision-making--from
policy setting in Federal agencies to designing curricula
for undergraduate engineers-- should reflect this
Let me leave you therefore with a quote that presaged
today's integrative innovations in all of the topics
I have discussed. In the 1930s, the philosopher Jose
Ortega y Gasset, wrote in his Mission of the University:
"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."
Based on what I've seen and heard throughout the day,
it is clear that this "genius for integration" is
already at the forefront of our thinking. This used
to be an abstract concept, but now it is coming to
life in redesigned courses, reformulated programs,
and reengineered approaches to policies and priorities.
Nowhere is this more important than in undergraduate
education for mechanical engineers--most of whom will
earn their living by "specializing in the construction
of the whole."
The engineering community is already well on its way
toward making this happen. Indeed, by the time this
workshop concludes tomorrow, I fully expect that we
will have taken great steps to secure the shared wealth,
prosperity, and progress that can be created only
by tomorrow's mechanical engineers.
Thank you again for inviting me to join you this evening.