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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Society Of Professional Engineers
Annual Conference
Detroit, Michigan

July 27, 2001

Good morning. I want to thank the NSPE for the opportunity to make remarks at your annual conference. Your leadership inspires us, and I am honored to be among you. Today's engineering frontier is full of potential and almost fantasy-like in scale, scope, and speed; a tantalizing prospect for envisioning spectacular new engineering wonders. I'd like to probe that frontier a bit with you today.

But before we get serious, let me share with you a tale of levity and learning to keep us mindful of our need for each other.

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height, spots a woman down below and asks, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised to return the balloon to its owner but, I don't know where I am."

The woman below says: "You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 350 feet above mean sea level and 30 feet above this field. You are at 40 degrees north latitude, and 75 degrees west longitude."

"You must be an engineer," says the balloonist.

"I am," replies the woman. "How did you know?"

"Well," says the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost."

The woman below says, "You must be a manager."

"I am," replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

"Well," says the engineer, "you don't know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise, which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault."

We often teach each other through our humor. Humor can help breach barriers to the connections necessary to embrace the frontier to our purpose.

Collaborations and partnerships are burgeoning in every sector and institution for good reason. Everybody on a team brings a unique perspective and contribution to the mix. Partnerships bring to bear collective talent so that we can all contribute to the improvement of our society and we can all benefit.

I am delighted to be here in Detroit where collaboration abounds. And I am excited to be among industry innovators and engineering educators, and, indeed, among engineers and managers. That's a sure-fire combination for getting things done.

During many visits to Detroit in the past, I have witnessed the "can do" attitude by the collaboration known as the Greenfield Coalition. Greenfield is an NSF-funded Engineering Education Coalition, based in Detroit and composed of a group of universities and manufacturing companies, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and Focus Hope.

As most of you know, the goal of the Greenfield Coalition is to establish a new paradigm in manufacturing engineering education. The impetus for the Greenfield project was the sense that most academic studies in manufacturing engineering were devoid of real manufacturing experiences. By integrating actual manufacturing experiences into the academic program and expanding learning with web-based tools, Greenfield is reinvigorating manufacturing education and through Focus: Hope's Center for Advanced Technologies, delivering it to a student body which is 95 percent underrepresented minorities.

During this past year, Greenfield implemented the first of its computer-based manufacturing case studies. The case study supports a course in Engineering Economics. The e-learning tool provides students with a problem in a production line that produces pulleys. Students work collaboratively in groups to determine the root cause of the problem, explore potential solutions, and recommend a course of action to management.

New times require new thinking and the "can do' spirit in Detroit seems to be a good place to prove it.

In today's age of fast-paced scientific discovery, spectacular technology, grand engineering achievement, and increasingly complex societal systems, we have learned that everything is connected to everything else.

And we have also learned that the best way to move ahead is in partnership and collaboration. You know better than I do that well-conceived teams and collaborations are an effective means to sense an issue, solve a problem, move an idea forward, or develop a strategy.

The distinguished participants on today's program are well practiced in the art of building bridges, not only to new frontiers but also to diverse partners. It was exciting to serve on the private sector/government Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) with the major automakers. That collaboration made real mileage, no pun intended, toward the goal to develop a new fleet of vehicles that conserves energy, protects the environment, and meets consumer needs.

My remarks today are concerned with another group of "majors," the five major capabilities for the next couple of decades. They are key capabilities that contemporary and future engineers will need to understand.

The theme for this conference suggests a new and very different engineering workforce. "Engineering a New Workforce...The Changing Face of Engineering" is right on target in two respects. It encompasses the skills and work that will define the "new engineer," and it addresses who will comprise the future engineering workforce. I will focus most of my comments on the former, the skills and work of the 21st century engineer.

Your conference theme is in consonance with NSF's strategic intent to invest in people, the ideas they generate, and the tools they need to do their work along the frontier of all fields of science and engineering. In sum, we focus on developing a world-class science and engineering workforce. The Greenfield Coalition investment is an example of this intent.

Fundamentally, scientists and engineers are innovators. They are always changing the present to become the future. A few years ago, the Economist magazine did a study on "innovation." One of the sidebars in the report said, "Innovators break all the rules. Trust them."

Innovation sits side-by-side with discovery and learning in NSF's vision statement. The vision is direct and crisp: enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation.

Engineers are inherently innovators because the nature of engineering is problem identification and solution at its most sophisticated. In any era and in every era, engineers design and build the structure and the infrastructure of society. They use the materials of their time to create the world of that time.

We still appreciate the structure and beauty, the function and form, of the Great Wall in China, the Aswan Dam in Egypt, the Roman aqueducts, the Greek temples, the European cathedrals, the tall ships - and now everything from the slimmest chips to the behemoth Space Shuttle and the international space station. We are on the threshold of an era that sounds more like science fiction in scale, speed, scope, and insight.

The National Science Foundation has zeroed in on a group of emerging fields and trends that possess over-arching potential - the five major capabilities I noted a few moments ago - that help to connect and expand the core science and engineering disciplines and further enable industrial productivity and innovation.

We refer to them in our strategies and budgets as nanoscale, terascale, cognition, complexity, and holism. In many ways they will impel us to redesign our society. The engineers and companies that get in on the ground floor of these capabilities will be at the forefront of next generation changes in technology and society. I'll address each of them individually.

We use the term nano to express nanoscale science and engineering, things in the realm of a billionth of a meter, which is the width of five carbon atoms. Nano's focus is at the molecular and atomic level of things - both natural and human-made. It was a brief twenty years ago, with the invention of the scanning/tunneling microscope, that we could first observe molecules on a surface. Now the micro world is becoming a nano world.

As you know, nanoscale is three orders of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made devices. Nanotechnology gives us the ability to manipulate matter one atom or molecule at a time. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Individual atoms are a few tenths of a nanometer.

To use another comparison, biological cells, such as red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. Micro-electromechanical systems are now approaching this same scale. This suggests a most exciting prospect. We can now envision building a "wish list" of properties into structures large and small.

Let's look at a few industries to see what nano might hold for their futures. In the automotive and aeronautics industries, we can foresee nanoparticle reinforced materials for lighter bodies, external painting that does not need washing, cheap non-flammable plastics, and self-repairing coatings and textiles.

Nanotechnology research will explode our design capability with its potential to develop new, more affordable ways to make bulk materials with unique electrical, chemical, and mechanical properties.

For example, electrodes based on carbon nanotube fibers may make it possible to design new alkaline fuel cell systems able to "burn" reformed hydrocarbon fuel. This would precipitate major improvements in cost, efficiency, and lifetime of fuel cell automobiles. Undoubtedly such development would have quantum positive implications for global fuel availability and environmental impacts.

In the electronics and communications industries, recording in all media will be able to be accomplished in nanolayers and dots. This includes flat panel displays and wireless technology. An entire range of new devices and processes with startling ratios of improvement await us across communication and information technologies. It will be possible to vastly increase data storage capacity and processing speeds. This will be accompanied by both lower cost and improved power efficiency compared to current electronic circuits.

In the field of chemicals and materials, we foresee more catalysts that increase the energy and combustion efficiency of chemical plants, super-hard and tough (not brittle) drill bits and cutting tools, and "smart"magnetic fluids for vacuum seals and lubricants.

In the burgeoning areas of pharmaceuticals, health care and life sciences we will see new nanostructured drugs and drug delivery systems targeted to specific sites in the body. Researchers anticipate biocompatible replacements for body parts and fluids, and material for bone and tissue regeneration.

In manufacturing, we have most often thought in terms of scale - large scale. With nano capability we can expect precision engineering based on new generations of microscopes and measuring techniques, and new processes and tools to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Nanoscale innovations will transform the whole concept of manufacturing engineering.

Making things is one of humankind's most noble attributes. Making things well is nobler still. Nanocapability will enable manufacturing to achieve even nobler ends. Keep in mind that when a business enterprise can change manufacturing processes and product design to meet the big directional changes in society, it is a pioneer. This is an emerging field and the brass ring awaits the early bird.

The new nano capability brings together many disciplines of science and engineering to work in collaboration. Its scope and scale create an overarching, enabling field, not unlike the role of information technologies today.

The expansion of our nanocapability will depend on insightful researchers envisioning - imagining - its possibilities - talented people with good ideas throughout academe and industry.

The envisioners in the computing field have had a passion for speed akin to racecar drivers. They dreamed of what we now know as terascale computing.

Terascale is shorthand for computer-communications technology that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.

In the past, our system architectures could only handle hundreds of processors. Now we work with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet. Crossing that boundary of 10^12th - one trillion operations per second - launches us to new frontiers.

Take for example protein synthesis within a cell. It requires 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to fold into its functional conformation. However, it takes 40 months of processor time on current systems to simulate that folding. With a terascale system, we reduce that time to one day -- one thousand times faster. Think what that means for the task of functional genomics, that is, putting our DNA sequence knowledge to work.

When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability in any area we give researchers and industrialists the mechanism to get to a frontier much faster or, better yet in terms of NSF's mission, to reach a frontier that had been, heretofore, unreachable, as well as unknowable.

The revolution in information technologies connected and integrated researchers and research fields in a way never before possible. The nation's IT capability has acted like 'adrenaline' to all of science and engineering. A next step was to build the most advanced computer-communications infrastructure for researchers and educators to use, while simultaneously broadening its accessibility. We refer to the major elements of this system as the 4Ts:

  • Teraops - computational power
  • Terabits - a broader band network
  • Terabytes - hefty storage or memory
  • Terainstruments - the interfaces to the system

Our vision here is to reach terascale competency and catapult capability into a whole new era of science and engineering. In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or era" for science and engineering ... and a freshly robust national "cyberinfrastructure."

But, who will put all these tera and nano components and ultra-fast reactions into a coherent picture?

Even the best tools are useless without well-trained people who have the capacity to pose challenging questions, conceptualize critical issues, identify opportunities, and employ their skills to derive answers.

This brings me to the third capability we intend to expand, cognition. Most of us would simply say learning. Learning is the foundation territory of all other capabilities, human and institutional. Our understanding of the learning process holds the key to tapping the potential of every child, empowering a 21st century workforce, and, in fact, maintaining our democracy.

From the last 30 years of research, we know that people, both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge in different ways, and in more than one way. So the "science of learning" is a critical inquiry into how people learn.

Because of new tools and interdisciplinary research, our understanding of the learning process has changed dramatically in the past two decades. A rich science base in cognitive science has been developed jointly by linguists, psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists, engineers, and neuroscientists. We need to put this knowledge of learning to work.

Research in learning has built a growing body of knowledge; however, experts believe that it's only the tip of the iceberg. But I know that one of their findings already resonates with most of us.

From studies of people who have astute expertise in areas such as chess, physics, mathematics, and history, we have found, not to anyone's surprise, that being an expert does not guarantee your ability to instruct others about the topic. If our nation is to live up to its potential and continue to be competitive, we have to be able to provide the best instruction for every student and worker.

From a very different perspective of learning, the advent of non-invasive imaging technologies such as the PET scan and MRI, has allowed neuroscience researchers to directly observe the process of the brain learning.

Through these observations they were able to see that, indeed, practice increases learning and, moreover, that learning changes the physical structure of the brain. With changes in structure, the brain reorganizes itself. From this work we also know that different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times.

Many of the new educational technologies have features consistent with basic principles of learning. The interactive feature helps students learn by doing, receiving feedback, and refining their understanding. Technologies help people visualize concepts that are difficult to grasp. And the most obvious, technologies provide access to a universe of information that includes digital libraries, real-world data, and a panoply of people for both information and feedback.

As industry increasingly seeks agile and adaptive learners for its workforce, the science of learning will make invaluable contributions. Our ultimate goal is not to waste a single child and to do whatever is needed to ensure that today's and tomorrow's workers are well prepared.

This has prompted us this past year to envision a set of Science of Learning Centers. They are intended to coalesce the rapidly advancing cognitive knowledge base with IT tools of growing capability. The Centers are intended to complement our Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers.

By focusing on cognition, we will advance our capability in everything from teaching children how to read to building human-like computers and robots. Industry can capitalize on this knowledge in training initiatives, in the manufacturing process, and in the development of new products in a field that is blossoming. But, fundamentally we will help empower people and thus empower the nation, all of which can lead to wealth creation, and social progress currently unimaginable.

Now to the 4th and 5th capabilities, complexity and holism. They act as two sides of a coin to guide us in the best way to use our accumulated knowledge of science and technology to discover new knowledge and better understand how to use it.

Mitch Waldrop, in his book Complexity, writes about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos." That is, "where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either...The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo..."

This territory of complexity is 'a space of opportunity,' a place to make a marriage of unlike partners or disparate ideas. High-paid consultants sometimes refer to people who understand this territory and feel comfortable there as 'out of the box thinkers.' The consultants may use their vernacular but both Albert Einstein and the American painter Edward Hopper pegged it a long time ago as "imagination."

Today, researchers are trying to put polymers together with silicon, a marriage of opposites because plastics are chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly crystals. The result can give us electronic devices with marvelous flexibility that are also much less expensive.

The awareness of 'complexity' makes us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our science and engineering knowledge but in our industrial institutions. If we operate with this awareness we will be able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories which have potential for optimum arrangement.

Holism is the "flip side" of the complexity coin. Holism and complexity have a symbiotic relationship. Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder in a field as windows of possibility. Holism teaches us that combinations of things have a power and capability greater than the sum of their separate parts. Holism is far from a new idea. We have seen it work in social structures since the beginning of civilization. We see its power today in areas as diverse as our communities, science and engineering partnerships, and teams in any field of sports.

Something new happens in the integration process. A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction. That's probably why when economists are analyzing productivity inputs they refer to the residual, what's left after you factor in capital, labor, land, etc. as the "black box." They can't explain the dynamism or interaction of the leftovers such as R&D, education, workplace interaction, and the like. They can only recognize that something better or more enhanced comes out on the other side.

This integration and interaction works at many levels - the sociology of a team of workers can be a stimulant, with ideas firing-off in many directions. Holism creates supportive space where taking risks and challenging the unquestionable is acceptable. Holism engenders elucidation, the discovery of your own knowledge transformed by other perspectives.

Although holism is an ancient dynamic, what is new is that it can be applied to the vast accumulated knowledge of science and engineering and the new knowledge that is burgeoning as we speak.

So when we train ourselves to think about complexity and holism as two sides of a coin, we develop a pattern or attitude to search for the disordered fringes of a field and to pick out fragments of possibility. With these pieces of potential, different 'wholes' can be created in new integration. The possibilities are endless when you think about the flexible building power that nanotechnology will provide, the enormous insight from research in cognition, and the ratcheting up of speed that terascale computing offers.

Now if you take each of these 5 capabilities and you ask, what is the 'constant' or fundamental ingredient, it's the simple formula of talented people and the power of their new ideas. Innovators are never confined by what they know, never restricted by existing rules, and never afraid to propose what no one else had seen or imagined. They swing with no net but never lose sight of the ground. They created everything from Velcro to America's democracy. Any team of individuals, any corporation or any industry can do the same.

As always, throughout civilization, the human resource has been the most important resource. Engineering educators must create fresh programs that incorporate the thinking and skills of the 'big five capabilities." In turn, the new engineer will employ them to create the "intelligent renewal" of our existing infrastructure, develop a continuously adaptable cyberinfrastructure, and bring us into a sustainable future.

Thank you.



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