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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Society of Black Engineers
Orlando, Florida

March 28, 2002

Good morning. I want to honor tradition here today because we all stand on the work of those who came before us. And I also want to stand at the frontier with you and share what we think may be coming . . . and try to integrate the two.

It's a great pleasure to be here today. I want to thank the NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) for the opportunity to make remarks at your annual conference. There is nothing more exciting than when engineers come together. Who knows what we'll innovate by the day's end.

I am also especially delighted to see my good friend Gary May. I've known Gary since he was in college. And it's been a pleasure to watch him flourish over the years both personally and professionally.

His dual commitments then - when we first met - of becoming a great engineer and attracting others into the field remain a guiding light for me and many others.

Gary's efforts no doubt exemplify the NSBE founders' intent to improve the recruitment and retention of black engineering students.

The founders recognized the need to diversify the engineering field nearly three decades ago. All of us understand that the need to educate and address the potential of all African American students still exists today.

Diversifying the engineering workforce is vital to our nation's continuing prosperity and ability to compete. Our economy is rooted in science and technology and cannot sustain itself, let alone be robust, without a cadre of world-class engineers.

The engineering workforce is the driver of society's technological engine, an awesome responsibility. We will not be able to address this responsibility without diversifying the pool of science and engineering talent. This broadening of participation must come from The Land of Plenty, our mostly untapped potential of underrepresented minorities and women - America's "competitive edge" for the 21st century.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity, one that we must meet with commitment.

By broadening participation of underrepresented minorities, our engineering workforce will be ever more capable and competitive. Industrial innovation will be ever more robust from the benefits of diverse perspectives from a diverse set of engineers. Society will be served ever so much better.

I should like to make the case for these claims by addressing with you this morning five key elements underlying the swift current of change in which we are engaged today at the forefront of science and engineering:

  • Cacophony and complexity
  • Heterogeneity and holism
  • Cognition
  • Nano (meaning a billionth)
  • Tera (meaning a trillion)

These are shorthand for the new capabilities in science and engineering we believe will transform society. These are underpinnings for engineering careers in all disciplines during the next couple decades.

Let's start with cacophony and complexity. Cacophony is typically defined as "disharmony" but for our purpose, it describes a bantering of ideas. Cacophony is a wild discussion, brain storming, or heated debate that leads our thinking to new places, breakthroughs, and intellectual disruptions.

Cacophony's companion is complexity. 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 . . ."

You need cacophony to understand that complexity can hold 'a space of opportunity,' a place to make a marriage of seemingly unlike partners or disparate ideas. You need cacophony to identify how to mobilize that locus where chaos can be reshaped or transformed. The awareness of 'complexity' makes us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our science and engineering knowledge but in our industrial and academic institutions as well.

If we operate with this awareness we will be able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories which have so much potential. Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder in a field, as windows of possibility.

Now, let's take a look at heterogeneity and holism. The dictionary defines heterogeneity as diverse, varied, and non-homogenous. Heterogeneity depicts teams of diverse professionals - maybe for example engineers, chemists, programmers, psychologists, and social philosophers - addressing a common problem.

The growing diversity of the U.S. population offers us a unique advantage to marshal the perspectives and wisdom of different cultures, thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors.

Holism, the companion of heterogeneity, 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. Something new happens in this integration process. A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.

Although holism, the process of integration, 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.

To gain the most powerful advantage from holism we need to have heterogeneity of participants. We need diverse perspectives, different beliefs, varied cultures, numerous approaches in training, and maybe even rule breaking across the board. This is a formidable task but it is probably the surest path to innovative solutions. The goal is to bring the intellectual chaos and disorder together in a new way to form a different and unique "whole," to create a distinctly different harmony. The frontier of engineering presents an unimaginable set of opportunities; engineers have a responsibility to create a symphony from these which will enable us to enjoy a better society. This certainly is a task for which engineers are well prepared.

The third key capability, cognition, is central to all we do. It is the very beginning of the engineering process. The dictionary defines cognition as the mental process by which knowledge is acquired. Most of us would simply say, this is 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, redesigning education from K through 16, and, even in maintaining our democracy.

The social philosopher and leader, Marian Wright Edelman wrote in her thin volume, The Measure of our Success, ". . . America cannot afford to waste a single child." President Bush calls his education initiative, "no child left behind." 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.

We know that cultural experience, social interaction, and communal participation are primary forms of learning.

We know that more than any other species, humans are configured to be the most flexible learners. Humans are intentional learners, proactive in acquiring knowledge and skills.

And, it turns out that we are more successful learners if we are mindful or cognizant of ourselves as learners and thinkers.

Cognition is a critical inquiry into all aspects of how people think and learn. It is the underpinning of a new age of smart machines as well as enhancing every citizen's ability to learn and create.

To date, our knowledge of the "science of learning," is just the tip of the iceberg of what we have yet to learn. Our ultimate goal is truly [not] to waste a single child and to teach and train a workforce that is well prepared and can adapt and change. NSF has launched two new investments toward this end: the Math and Science Partnership Initiative and the Science of Learning Centers program. We look forward to NSBE's interest in these activities.

Of the five capabilities that form the cluster of my remarks, the remaining two are advanced technologies - nano and tera. Without the least exaggeration, I can say that they will catapult us into a new and unimaginable era.

Nano is short for nanoscale science and engineering and it has the potential to eclipse everything we can do in manufacturing today - from airplanes to pharmaceuticals. It takes us to a design realm three orders of magnitude smaller than what we can handle today.

At nanoscale, things are portrayed at the molecular and atomic level of things, both natural and human-made. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Until the scanning/tunneling microscope was invented twenty years ago, we could not observe molecules on a surface. Now, our micro world is becoming a nano world.

We will connect nano-machines to individual living cells. Nano capability will allow us to build a "wish list" of properties into structures large and small. For land vehicles and airplanes, nano-particle reinforced materials will allow lighter bodies, self-repairing coatings, and non-flammable plastics.

In electronics and communications, it will be possible to vastly increase data storage capacity and processing speeds. This will produce lower costs and improved power efficiency as compared to current electronic circuits.

In pharmaceuticals, health care, and life sciences, we will see 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.

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

Enter terascale computing, the fifth of the capabilities, a power-driven tool that will boost all disciplines and give wings especially to our nano pursuits.

Terascale computing is shorthand for computer-communication technology that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing capabilities. In the past, our system architectures could handle only 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.

When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability in any area we give researchers and industrialists and scholars 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. Terascale computing will launch us to frontiers still without names.

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 is to build the most advanced computer-communications infrastructure for researchers to use, while simultaneously broadening its accessibility. NSF is busy pursuing this goal as we speak.

Together, these five capabilities will have increasing impact on the nature of society in the 21st century. We know how the recent revolution in information technologies has already connected and integrated researchers and research fields in a way never before possible. Integration of these five capabilities will have a "wow" effect on all that we do.

By now, some of you must be thinking, how do you get on this train? A good part of this scenario has to do with perspective - the way we think about things. Attitude, approach, and astuteness will count a great deal. Putting together teams of people that can elucidate each other's thinking instead of just agreeing with it will be critical. Create a brouhaha of thinking. Take educated risks. Believe in yourselves.

NSBE has the opportunity and the pioneer spirit to tap into these new ways as you continue to evolve in response to the changing needs of society. Just look at how you've grown from six founders to the large, respected organization that you are today.

It is going to be exciting to see now how you will flourish and lead us into the robust engineering future lying before us.



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