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Designs Beyond the Pipeline: Pathways of Diversity for a Complex World

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Panel Remarks: Federal Initiatives Aimed at Increasing Diversity in the Engineering Pipeline
Forum on Diversity in Mechanical Engineering Education and Workforce
International Mechanical Engineering Congress

Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
November 16, 2003

This forum is a terrific opportunity for us to advance an important common goal. Before I speak about government contributions to capitalizing on diversity, I want to explore the context of our gathering and perhaps spark some questions for the discussion to follow.

First, our community has long recognized that broadening participation is essential to our nation's economic prosperity and security. We know that talent runs deep in America, in diverse streams of intellect and perspective. This offers us the tantalizing potential to accelerate our progress across the frontiers of science, engineering, and technology. But we have not yet learned to take full advantage of our rich human resources.

Second, we have made incremental gains: The science and engineering workforce is slowly beginning to look more like America. But advances in the engineering workforce still lag far behind our gains in the general workforce. The fact remains that years of dialogue and effort have not yet produced the surge in forward momentum that we need to reach our objectives.

Third, we live in a rapidly evolving time, with new demands on students and faculty, workers and leaders. To my mind, our dynamic social context calls for "multiple pathways" in education and workforce development, not a pipeline frequently modeled with a diminishing diameter. We need to think in terms of multiple routes and varied arrivals, with the maximum participation of our greatest source of strength - people that we have not yet prepared for the future, who are still waiting to make their vital contributions.

I have titled my remarks, "Designs Beyond the Pipeline: Pathways of Diversity for a Complex World."

To my ear, the word "pipeline" has too linear a sense about it, a static connotation that works against how the sphere of communities could be collaborating most effectively to educate our young people and help prepare the nation's workforce.

"Pipeline" describes known inputs and predictable outcomes. It suggests a safe and settled process. But there is nothing safe and settled about contemporary society, a situation too frequently referred to pessimistically as a "leaky pipeline."

Peter Senge, an MIT management guru, once remarked, "Schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line." When it comes to broadening participation, the realities of the moment and complexities of the future call for a range of diverse approaches to engineering education - not an assembly line or a pipeline.

In our present era of rapid transformation, we are struggling. The increasing complexity of change has altered the context in which we work to achieve our objectives, including our approaches to education and broadening participation. To keep pace and succeed, we must go far beyond a public pledge that invites diversity, as important as that is - we must roll up our sleeves, design strategies, and take unified action. In effect, we need to create agile reform in education and workforce development.

I propose that our community embrace a common goal: To expand the participation of domestic citizens in science and engineering, at all levels of education, as rapidly as possible.

Who is going to lead this effort, if not the engineers? We are the second most populous profession in the nation, behind K-12 teachers - a mainstream force in government, industry, and academe. We already exert a positive influence on U.S. innovation and research. We are not only believers in this cause, we know how to get things done! It's time for us to assert a larger role as advocates of diversity and agents of educational change.

We must set a more robust agenda for broadening participation. As engineers and optimists, it's our job to bridge gaps and erase the obstacles that block opportunity in education and workforce preparation. We must assert that all of our citizens are essential, and forge viable new pathways to success.

Happily, today's students are more diverse than ever. They come from wonderfully different economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. They arrive in our classrooms with varying levels of skills, and a wide variety of objectives. Many hold jobs while attending classes. Others return for retraining or to pursue a second career. Professional degrees are no longer a once-and-for-all preparation for productive work, but are now an introduction to a rigorous dynamic of shifting gears along exciting career pathways.

At the same time, society's demands on educational institutions are expanding. The expectation of society is that such institutions ought to be solving an increasing array of problems, from stimulating economic development to enabling the nation to compete in the global marketplace, and from raising our prospects for more productive and satisfying lives to strengthening our national security. Demands are increasing for different kinds of engineers for the workforce, teachers who are more skilled in content, and graduates in all fields with the skills required to succeed in an increasingly technological work environment.

This is as it is and should be. Society's demands on us arise from a desire to provide our youngsters with the skills they need to thrive, and the wherewithal to astutely define problems, solve them, and capitalize on the opportunities created. Societal demands continually reawaken us to the centrality of education for realizing our common goals.

The tempo of change in science, engineering, and technology is accelerating our rate of discovery - and expanding our understanding of nanotechnology, biodiversity, astronomy, the science of learning, and many other fields. How we prepare ourselves to create, comprehend, integrate, and exploit emerging knowledge requires a fresh perspective and the active involvement of each of us.

Our iterative education reforms must help students navigate a future in which change and complexity are the rule, and where new knowledge and technology are transformative forces. The educational paths and learning environments we design must match the 21st century challenge of a world linked globally. In this world, non-synergized differences and unwarranted divisions can have immediate and large scale consequences.

We must graduate new generations of engineers who are attuned to change and nimble enough to contribute in unexpected ways. We need engineers working on the frontiers, constantly seeking new knowledge and developing new processes. We also need equally capable engineers who can creatively and carefully turn knowledge into improved designs for society's operational underpinnings.

Diversity will be the lifeblood of our future progress and prosperity. The differences in race, ethnicity, and gender that abound in our society are a positive force for creativity and dynamism. The divisions hold us back and sap our energy until we erase them.

How we get the job done is by no means straightforward. NSF is a willing and able player, anxious to help enable those who work to broaden participation in engineering within our domestic population. Let me share some of these integrated investments with you, and emphasize what they are and are not.

The Math and Science Partnership program is foremost an investment in brokering robust partnerships between higher education institutions and local K-12 schools. It is not merely an attempt to improve preK-12 math and science education, train K-12 faculty, and create innovative ways to reach out to underserved students and schools. Of course, these outcomes are desirable, but if we want to sustain effective educational pathways, a true and lasting partnership is the end game.

The same goes for a related strategic investment: NSF's G-K12 Fellows program. Sure, it's an attempt to link K-12 teachers directly with capable engineering and science graduate students, but it is also tactical glue in the strategy of developing a trusting partnership between post K-12 academe and pre K-12 academe.

At the National Science Foundation, we are introducing in the FY 2004 budget an action investment called Workforce for the 21st Century. It undergirds the Foundation's mandated mission to advance the frontiers of science and engineering and to promote high quality science, engineering, and mathematics education from primary school through graduate education. Its focus is on domestic talent and broadening participation throughout all NSF investments.

The idea is to weave together elements from our most successful programs and integrate them in practice at every grade level. We expect these new collaborations to produce results greater than the sum of the parts. The final vision is one of seamless routes of advancement for students from K-12 through postdoctoral levels.

Faculty development is also a high priority - and when I say "faculty" I mean teachers at all levels, from K to post docs. When the desire and drive of individuals are supported with multiple career pathways, the ripple effect can have long lasting impacts. Certainly an advanced degree is good for the individual, but when thousands of PhDs from underrepresented groups become next-generation faculty - and deans and university presidents -- a living legacy of mentoring and leadership takes hold within academic institutions.

One of NSF's newest and perhaps most profound frontier excursions, the Science of Learning Centers, directly addresses our need to expand the knowledge base on learning and our capacity to design learning environments. With the recent integrative advances in the social, cognitive, and behavioral sciences; linguistics; psychology; neuroscience; engineering; mathematics; and computer science, the time is ripe for robust progress in the emerging field of the science of learning.

Investigations on this frontier explore the fundamentals of how we learn, create context, solve problems, and make decisions. The ways of absorbing and processing knowledge are likely as diverse as fingerprints. The understanding we gain from the Science of Learning will enable us to create new educational pathways that encourage diversity -- in the classroom, the laboratory, and the workplace.

Engineers certainly know that innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds - from the shaping of institutions and the crafting of policies, to our perspectives on a life worth living as well as to the engineering design of artifacts and systems. As the philosopher and systems expert, C.W. Churchman, wrote: "Design, properly viewed, is an enormous liberation of the intellectual spirit, for it challenges the spirit to an unbounded speculation about possibilities." 1

Today, we focus on the common liberation that will be achieved by mentoring all of our future talent. All of us - educators and engineers, researchers and administrators, industry and government workers - belong in the vanguard of the actions necessary to fully realize the nation's "intellectual spirit."

It can only happen if we are unified and deeply committed to accelerating change. The time for prolonged discussions about diversity has passed, yet we have not heard the last of the debate. To help keep our antenna tuned to the urgent need for action, I will conclude by contrasting what broadening participation in the science and engineering workforce is NOT about - as a way of suggesting what it IS about.

First, it is NOT about the total number of engineers and scientists the nation may or may not need. More and more frequently we seem to be stymied and distracted from our diversity goals by questions about trends and statistics. Do we really need more scientists and engineers? Is the demand for them really greater than supply? Are PhDs going to go begging for career opportunities in academe, in government, and in industry?

It IS about the need to include a larger proportion of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the scientific workforce. Whatever the total numbers turn out to be, we need a robust and varied mix, and that means expanding diversity.

Second, it is NOT about the number of foreign-born students, scientists, or engineers who study or work in the U.S. They have always been a source of strength for our own society and economy, and a way of lifting human potential globally, and they are as welcome now as those who came before.

It IS about fully developing our domestic talent. In our knowledge-intensive society, we need to capitalize on all available intellectual talent to keep our nation humming. Although we are doing better than we did thirty years ago, we have not yet seriously tapped our nation's competitive "ace-in-the-hole" - women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. Now we are playing catch up in a very competitive world. We need to understand that diversity is an asset, and dissimilarity a valuable component of progress.

Third, it is NOT about keeping businesses from going abroad. Science and engineering have always been international. In today's increasingly networked world we are unlikely to staunch the flow of mobile and global enterprises, into and out of our borders, even if we wanted to.

It IS about educating scientists and engineers with a competitive edge. To be on the frontier of discovery and in the vanguard of innovation requires new capabilities and skills that are qualitatively different from production-line education that turns students into commodities bought in the global marketplace at the cheapest price. We want to create an environment that attracts an eclectic and diverse array of students to pursue studies in science and engineering, and encourages them to stay the course. We need a variety of learning paths that support creative, world-class scientists and engineers. This is the way to ensure that our nation retains its job-expansion opportunities as well as its wealth creation capability.

Fourth, it is NOT about demanding that our students learn more and more basic knowledge, or delve deeper into a specialty. This is a good thing to do, but knowledge is changing so rapidly that sticking to this path alone could be a recipe for disaster.

It IS about providing students with additional capabilities that will enable them to work across boundaries, to handle ambiguity, to integrate, to innovate, to communicate, and to cooperate. These are components of a holistic education that not only suits the engineering of our times, but also thrives on diversity.

Fifth, achieving our common goals is NOT about working from the bottom up or from the top down. Broadening participation IS about working together. Diversity IS the transformative key to the nation's economic engine and innovative capacity -- and promoting it is a national responsibility. Every sector and every citizen has something to offer.

It is my hope that the contributions of this community will help the nation to finally fulfill its potential -- and open many new paths to the future.

Thank you.

1 The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization, New York, NY; Basic Books (1971)
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