Marshall M. Lih
Director, Engineering Education and Centers Division
Directorate for Engineering
National Science Foundation

Distinguished Guests and Esteemed Colleagues:

It is a great honor for me to stand before you this morning. I'd like to begin this conference by asking some questions. We all know that we are in the midst of a systemic and comprehensive engineering education reform, but what for? The answer seems simple enough:

  • to educate better engineers, or
  • to better educate engineers, or
  • to engineer better education;

    but, regardless how we say it, better in what way?

    Well, many of us have been going around saying that we need more holistic engineers. Yes, but why "holistic"? What can holistic engineers do that not-so-holistic ones cannot do?

    Let us first take a look at what engineers have achieved in this century. Figure 1 shows just some random examples that readily come to mind. Of course many of them have been built on the discoveries of our scientist colleagues and with the collaboration of many other technical and nonte chnical people. However, when it comes to innovating, creating, developing, designing, building, fabricating, or manufacturing them in a way that the common people can afford and enjoy, engineers have been unique, unequaled, and indispensable. (I am afraid that my bias is already beginning to show.)

    Looking ahead to the next century, or even millennium, can we expect the same kind of contributions from engineers? Of course we can; there is no doubt about it; because who else but engineers can accomplish such awesome wonders? However, please also let me suggest to you that we have an even higher and broader calling than simply making the next technological breakthrough.

    In fact, whether we even have the opportunity to make that breakthrough depends a great deal on who sits in the boardrooms and executive suites of our corporations, or perhaps even of the government. If they are populated mainly by people who have no understanding of engineering and technology, but, rather, are quick to close down their R&D laboratories just to make their next quarterly financial report look good, and collect big fat bonuses in the process, you can be sure that there won't be many more breakthroughs coming down the pike.

    As we enter an era where other nations are catching up with us or even surpassing us in many areas of technology, we can no longer employ brute force and try to steamroll over everyone else, because that simply won't work anymore. We have to play smart, to employ strategies -- strategies that are soundly based on technological assessment and forecasts, strategies that open the way for continual technological innovations, because those were what made our industries strong in the first place.

    That requires a special breed of engineer, and other professionals with engineering in their knowledge base, who can see both the forests and the trees, who can both labor on the nitty-gritty as well as have a systems view of things, who can map out corporate strategies just like generals in a military campaign (see Figure 2). We need visionaries who can see several steps ahead of our rivals. We need people who know when and how to acquire technology to strengthen our own, and when and how to block our rivals from reaching the goal first. This is just one example of the characteristics of a holistic engineer.

    There are many more reasons why we need such holistic engineering-based professionals; but I won't preach to the choir here. Please let me simply urge you, as we deliberate on the various issues and innovations, and in our day-to-day interaction with our students, to keep in mind that we need people who can lay the bricks as well as those who have a more global and longer view of things, who know what they are laying the bricks for (see Figure 3).

    We like to think that we are still getting the smartest young people into engineering, but many of them will not be coming any more if or when they get the impression that engineers just work for big corporations which are controlled by nontechnical people. Many of these smart young people naturally aspire to be such captains of the industry, and they probably see more promising paths to their goals through such fields as law and finance. If we engineers are smart enough to invent devices, products, processes, and systems, we should certainly be smart enough to reinvent ourselves to lead our corporations.

    One thing I have found rather ironic is that many of our foreign competitors who have been catching up with us thought that they were emulating us by putting technological issues high on their agendas and placing their engineers in visible and even revered positions. In Figure 4, you can readily see the snowballing effect of their best people doing great things which in turn attracts more of the best people.

    So let us give our students the best education and training possible (Figure 5), in turning out both thinkers and doers, both analysts and "synthesysts," both leaders and followers, both planners and implementors, and above all, visionaries who can integrate, which, as you will hear later, holds the key to innovation.

    Let us inspire our students to greatness by imparting some of the necessary leadership qualities (see Figure 6) to our students. This is not too much to attempt, as I know many of you personally to be caring nurturers, successful risk-takers, "hopeless" dreamers, and tough task-masters with high standards.

    Let us energize our students with many of the "E-words" listed in Figure 7, as I know is being done through many of the programs and projects represented in this conference. Let us encourage them to aim high, even though many engineers are by nature modest and low-key.

    Perhaps we even need to change the engineer's personality a bit, so that in addition to a sense of mission, they will be visionary as well as practical, and so that they will be more passionate about their ideas and their work rather than being always so cool, calm, and collected.

    Many of our graduates may go on to do things other than technical work but that is all right, and in fact should even be encouraged, because we need lawyers, economists, doctors, financiers, etc., with engineering backgrounds (see Figure 8). Indeed, I have seen how well this has worked in some of those fast-rising nations I referred to, where every place you turn you encounter engineers disguised as bankers, journalists, mayors, legislators, cabinet ministers, and the like -- not as rare exceptions, but as everyday occurrences.

    Just in case you think such an idea seems foreign, take a look at our military academies and institutes and see how many good leaders they have produced -- not just for fighting wars, but for the country in general. Engineering schools can and should do no less.

    So let this be our secret agenda for the 21st century -- even at the risk of sounding somewhat militaristic myself: To educate and equip engineers to take over our industry and then infiltrate our society and country -- because we know that engineers represent the forces of good and we are among the most intelligent and honest folks around.

    With this I wish you a successful and rewarding conference, and hopefully many more to come.