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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Tomorrow's Mechanical Engineers:
Reengineering versus Repackaging

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Dinner Address
MIT Workshop
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 education.

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 Science Foundation.

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, communities.

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 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 opportunities.

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 engineering.

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, and collaboratories.

  • 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 functioning.

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 to create.

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 awardees.

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 inescapable conclusion.

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.



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