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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks



Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director

September 12, 1997

(as delivered)

I am delighted to be here tonight. And I want to quickly allay your fears about being victims of a droning-after-dinner talk. I have been audience to many of them and my remarks will be in the category of brief-after-a-big-meal talk.

In fact, I hope to adhere to the advice on speeches that the comedian George Jessel would often give. He said, "If you haven't struck oil in your first three minutes, stop boring. " So this may be even briefer than I intended.

The title of my remarks, Next Generation Engineering: Critical Trajectories, Holistic Approaches, is intended to address the "new societal context" for engineering and the new directions underway for engineering education.

First, the "new societal context." 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. Or, indeed, if they are the right terms to use.

The end of the cold war, almost eight 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/Soviet rivalry of the previous forty years.

Among other things, the end of this anomalous period in world history set an already complex world economy into a state of heightened transition. We are currently immersed in a somewhat volatile but also opportunistic period that will likely continue for quite some time. The new openness in the world political and economic arena has created a system "in flux" where different leaders, as well as different losers, can emerge.

America has grappled with the threat of Japanese economic competition for over a decade but still remains fairly unsophisticated in seeing those trends in other nations. I think we are currently underestimating the technological leadership coming from companies in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan. And perhaps our most dangerous myopia is in relation to the behemoth capabilities of an emerging China.

It is also significant to note that all of these emerging economies are placing their primary educational emphasis on training engineers.

This transition period is also characterized by an explosion in the form and function of what we have termed "information technologies." The emerging economies of southeast Asia have quickly grasped the value of these technologies as a critical driver for technological and manufacturing capability.

In order for the United States to compete in the wake of such focused competition, we must forge a "critical mass" of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It should include public and private schools, colleges and universities, industry and small business, government at all levels, and the talented personnel from each sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of how we can get there.

In essence, it means going back to the precepts of Vannevar Bush that we have either ignored or forgotten. At the beginning of Bush's 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, he laid down a concise vision. He said "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team," I think that his words become increasingly prescient. It does not matter that we now talk of partnerships instead of Bush's "teams." What does matter is that we recognize the need for collective effort, for collaborations where each partner has something to offer and each has something to learn.

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.

If this is our new societal context, and I believe it is, then what does this foretell for engineering education?

We can all agree that the true strength of a society resides in its human capital -- and especially its engineering workforce.

Engineers will develop the new processes and products. They will create and manage new systems for civil infrastructure, manufacturing, health care delivery, information management, environmental conservation and monitoring, and everything else that makes modern society function.

I believe, however, that engineers must not only be the people who know how to do things right, but also those who know the right things to do. The latter is a much broader task requiring very different preparation and skills. Engineering is an integrative process but, for the most part, engineering education has not been conceived or taught as an integrative preparation.

We have been good at teaching the technical components of engineering education but we have not necessarily taught them as connected or related to each other. And we have been clearly deficient in teaching the, what I would call, the "sociology of engineering."

What do I mean by the term "sociology of engineering?" To begin, engineers must be able to work in teams; they must be able to communicate effectively; they must be adaptable. They must also better understand their pivotal role in society in order to accept the responsibility of that role.

We all know that throughout history engineers have been "agents of change." Engineers have designed, made, and built things that have consistently changed people's lives and their mode of living. We have not necessarily thought of ourselves as "civilization movers" but rather as curious and sometimes "quirky doers." We solve problems, big and small.

We also do not readily focus on the big picture. This is perhaps why we haven't always seen ourselves as agents of change. In this heady period of human history, where technological change occurs at a breathless pace with instant global repercussions, we need to help engineers to step back and consider the larger implications of what they have routinely seen as, pardon the pun, "small change."

We need to help them contemplate their work in the larger context because what they do often changes the "big picture" dramatically over time. That "big picture" encompasses economic, political, social, and ethical components.

The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset presaged today's challenge in engineering education when he 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."

Let me just say that "the whole or totality" that Ortega tells us must be constructed is not just the whole of a system or process. If we remember that Ortega was a "philosopher," we know rather that the "whole" is also of a concept or direction for moving a society toward achieving a goal that will benefit the future of that society -- that "larger whole" that is so difficult to grasp.

With the new, and I predict amazing, capabilities that such things as complex engineered systems will bring, we will have innumerable choices. If the essence of engineering is integrating all knowledge to some purpose, then we need to agree on not just the technical purpose but also society's purpose of our work.

It is important, but not enough, that engineers are taught excellence in design to achieve safety, reliability, cost and maintenance objectives. It is important, but not enough, to teach them to create, operate and sustain complex systems. It is important, but not enough, for them to understand and participate in the process of research. It is important, but not enough, for them to develop the intellectual skills for life-long learning.

As I said earlier, engineering is not just about doing things right, but also about doing the right things. All of us need to assimilate the concept that for the first time in human history the environment must be protected from humankind instead of the historical 6000-year pattern of humans needing protection from nature. Although we are still vulnerable in the wake of tornadoes, earthquakes and the like, we have, nonetheless, reached the historical juncture where the planet is vulnerable to our excesses and our power to inflict irreversible damage.

Congressman George Brown, whom many of you may know as a first-rate social philosopher and a friend of engineering, gave a speech several years ago in which he said, "What we are beginning to understand is that the path to the 21st century cannot be just an extension of the route we have taken through the 20th century. If our planet and its burgeoning population are to survive, a new societal pattern must replace our current trajectory. If we call that pattern "sustainability" what we really mean is a pattern that leads to a survivable future. And if that future is to be survivable, then we must heed the advice of the renowned biologist, Jonas Salk. He said, 'Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.'"

Engineers can be a primary force in deciding whether we reach that future, not just because we are civilization's designers but because we make a conscious choice to teach our progeny to understand that vision.

Thank you.



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