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Perspectives on Diversity: Engineering in the 21st Century

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

ASEE Engineering Deans Institute: "EDI 2007 — Diversity in Engineering"
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Monday, April 16, 2007

Thank you for the privilege of addressing this distinguished gathering. As the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I am honored to have been invited to speak with you today.

Reading through the "Tracks" of the conference is like scanning the formula for diversity throughout the U.S. engineering education system. Virtually every facet is accounted for — economic imperative and our need for innovation, under-representation in the engineering profession, the urgent need to recruit, retain, and graduate our increasingly diverse K-16 student populations, the need to introduce aspects of engineering throughout primary and secondary school, enabling these new populations to envision themselves as engineers, the graduate school pipeline, and the crucial faculty recruitment and retention component.

That you are here speaks volumes about the urgency of the issue, its collective concern to educators, and about your commitment to engineering, its future, and the future of our nation and the world.

This morning, I will begin with the broadest contextual framework for the issue, which reaches beyond our classroom walls, outside our campus perimeters, and, ultimately, across national borders. I will touch on the "Quiet Crisis" as it has evolved, and where the issue stands now. And, I will review some of our actions at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute both in the Rensselaer School of Engineering and across the Institute as a whole.

There are two contexts for discussion of diversity — one more national (i.e. U.S.-centric) in focus, and one more international in focus — although national concerns, usually, are expressed in terms of comparisons with global trends. All are linked, ultimately, to increasing global integration.

Therefore, it is best to begin with the big picture.

The movement toward global integration is rooted in human motivations as old as history — the urge to explore, to discover, to trade, to gain new knowledge and to experience new cultures. For centuries, countries have sought the means to do these things better, accelerating the movement of people, technology, information, and ideas. Advances in transportation, and in communications technology have greatly facilitated trade and information exchange, and have begun, truly, to interlink the planet.

With the advent of fiber optics, PCs, cell phones, and broadband, countries, commercial enterprises, and even individuals have gained a level of access to one another that has leveled the playing field as never before. The development of "flat world protocols" — work flow software, supply-chaining, in-sourcing and out-sourcing, seamlessly connected Web applications — has opened up a universe of equality in which anyone with ingenuity and motivation can compete, regardless of ideology, ethnicity, gender, or geographic location. . .

We have made great strides, globally, since the 1960s. Average life expectancy has increased from 37 to 67 years; child mortality rates have been halved; small pox has largely been eradicated and the incidence of polio greatly reduced; fertility rates have been reduced so that today there are 3.5 births per woman in developing countries, rather than the six in the 1960s.

In that same time, science has improved crop yields so that grain production has tripled. Scientific discovery and technological innovation have enhanced products and services, energy production, transportation, and information technology, which itself undergirds nearly every other sector — from financial markets to national security.

As a consequence, the world economy has expanded by a factor of seven.

. . . Except that the world is more asymmetric than ever before.

There are serious imbalances. From 1950 to 2000, the world population rose from 2.5 billion to 6 billion people, and may top 9 billion by mid-century. Water use has tripled. The demand for seafood has increased fivefold. The number of automobiles grew from 53 million in 1950 to 539 million in 2003. We are just beginning to comprehend the environmental impact on the planet of this phenomenal growth.

Global distribution of wealth, consumption, and opportunity remain severely disproportionate. The wealthiest 20 percent consume 80 percent of the resources. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people die every day from malnutrition, contaminated water, or diseases which would be easily preventable, or treatable, if their living standards were on a par with the developed world. Two-fifths of the world's population lives on less than $2 per day. One in four has no access to modern energy services. Nearly one billion are illiterate. More than 850 million go to bed hungry. For these people, the opportunities afforded by globalization and flat-world protocols have little meaning.

All the while, advances in communications and media coverage make the asymmetry highly visible.

The convergence of technological advances, on the one hand, and asymmetric development, on the other, can produce unprecedented instability. Old rivalries, and ethnic and religious tensions, which can simmer for decades, can begin to rise — resulting in conflicts. These tensions can be made worse by poor governance, whatever its root, which then can lead to the repression of civil liberties, human rights abuses, and the breakdown of social institutions.

I believe that we understand that asymmetry, if not redressed, always will come back to haunt us.

Engineering and engineering research, of course, extend great hope for applications which will better balance asymmetries.

On the other hand, a number of economies, especially in Asia (with China and India being the outstanding examples), are definitely on the rise. They have recognized, and are emulating, Western models of economic development — driven by innovation, rooted in science and technology. These countries are making major investments in the development of their human capital, especially through science and engineering education.

The focus and rise of these economies are causing increasing disquiet in the United States about the number of scientists and engineers being produced in this country, and about the relative under-performance of K-12 students in science and mathematics, particularly in comparative international testing.

These concerns exist against the backdrop of several converging trends I have spoken to over the past 4-5 years.

These trends are:

  • The aging and imminent retirement of today's scientists and engineers;
  • An insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace those who will retire;
  • A decline in the number of international scientists and students who come to the United States to study and to stay, to work and to live. This decline has arrested somewhat in the last two years, but the trend downward has occurred over a decade. This international group long has been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering enterprise, but growing opportunities for study and work in their home countries, and elsewhere, are making themselves felt here.
  • The concurrent change in our national demographics: Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of our student population. This "new majority" traditionally has been underrepresented in science and engineering. They have few role models and mentors to pattern themselves after among faculty and researchers. Yet, it is from this group that the next generations of scientists and engineers, also, must come.
  • Much of the rise in federal support for basic research in the last decade has been driven by increases in support for biomedical research. Over the same period, support for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, until very recently, has been in decline. More recently, NIH support for biomedical research has plateaued. Since research and education potentiate each other, this too can have a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

These factors comprise the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a physicist or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries and initiatives which keep our economy thriving, maintain our standard of living, enhance our security, and mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

There has been some debate over the actual status of the "Quiet Crisis" in the engineering profession the United States. A study by researchers at Duke University distinguishes between the number and quality of graduate engineering degrees awarded in China and India, as compared with the United States. It challenges the notion that the U.S. currently is falling behind, but confirms many overall trends.

The study verified that, collectively, China and India graduate 12 times as many engineers as does the United States. However, the definition of "engineer" and the quality of education varied widely between and among institutions of higher education in these two countries and the United States, muddying comparison. The team's analysis of salary and employment data found that there was no current shortage of engineers in the United States.

However, other trends pertain. According to the 2005 Annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, PhDs in science and engineering rose 6.5 percent in 2005, surpassing the previous 1998 high. However, international students accounted for most of that growth. Overall, the number of U.S. citizens earning doctorates has declined. The percentage of doctorates going to U.S. citizens fell to just under 61 percent. In 1975, it was 82 percent.

And, confirming the new majority and our need to focus on students traditionally underrepresented in engineering and science, for the fourth year in a row — the majority of all doctorates were earned by women, and women accounted for 39 percent of the doctorates in science and engineering fields. In addition, African American women earned 65 percent of the doctorates going to African Americans in 2005.

The Duke study does not focus on the demographic bubble of aging scientists and engineers, many of whom will retire in the next 5-10 years. Some shortages already are appearing in the energy field, and in areas dependent upon U.S. citizens as employees — such as national security positions.

Exact numbers matter less than trends, and, the Duke University report suggests that, overall, there is reason for concern and for action.

The concern rests with trends that affect the nations' capacity for innovation — the kind which creates new industries, new jobs, enhances security, and provides a platform for addressing global concerns and for global leadership.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences, if we fail to act.

Two years ago, I participated with the Councils of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in discussions over the steady weakening of science and engineering in the U.S. — concern which has been echoed with growing urgency throughout the corporate, government, academic, financial, and private sectors.

At that time, the National Academies, bolstered by bipartisan requests, and the U.S. House Committee on Science leadership, gathered top science, business, and educational leaders to address two intertwined challenges linked to our nation's scientific and engineering prowess, namely — creating high-quality jobs for Americans, and responding to the nation's need for clean, affordable, reliable, and secure energy.

The result was the landmark report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which recommended federal policy changes in K-12 education, higher education, research, and economic policy.

As much as any similar effort, prior or since, this report garnered widespread media and leadership attention. The report, also, engaged the national conversation which I have been speaking to for some time.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress in both the House and the Senate, aimed at helping America maintain its competitive leadership in science and technology. Legislators hope to make our country more competitive in the global marketplace by increasing federal basic research investments and strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and critical foreign languages for students of all ages. Supporters are hopeful this legislation can be passed soon. However, there are many issues competing for the attention of the Congress.

Last month, more than 270 business and higher education leaders signed a petition calling on the Congress to act quickly on critical legislation which promotes U.S. competitiveness and sustains U.S. innovation leadership.

I believe it is time to move from proposals to action. This means that, as engineers and educators . . . we must be more involved in the processes of our government. We cannot leave this to others. I urge you to support these efforts, and to urge the Congress to move innovation and competitiveness from rhetoric to reality.

Addressing the "Quiet Crisis" cannot be left just to our political leaders. There is much that we can do — directly.

As educators, engineering deans and faculty are at the very core of this issue, and the conference tracks offered are the equation for change across the spectrum.

First, let me talk abut engineering research and its role. At Rensselaer, a multidisciplinary research focus on energy addresses one of the asymmetries — the need for global energy security. Rensselaer research ranges from fuel cell high temperature membranes and cost-effective hydrogen production, storage, and transportation to solid state lighting and photonics. It includes active building envelopes which integrate thermoelectric and photovoltaic technologies into a building's exterior surfaces. In a breakthrough last month, Rensselaer researchers developed a material through which light passes with little or no reflection, which could improve solar paneling, thereby capturing more of the sun's energy, and losing less to reflection. The energy and related research ranges from systems engineering techniques for chemical, biological, and biomedical systems, to synthesis strategies for pollution prevention and integrated resource recovery, as well as heat and mass integrated power generation and refrigeration cycle synthesis. Of course, time does not permit me to be comprehensive.

Rensselaer is but one research university, and energy security is but one of the global imbalances requiring multi-and interdisciplinary approaches. To carry out extensive research, on the scale which the global challenges present, requires the most potent innovation, if we are to offer mitigation, and hope. This demands the human intellectual power of an engineering and science workforce sufficient to the challenges ahead.

This requires new innovative education.

In speaking of education, I, again, begin with the broader view. The aims of education are to enable and to serve. Education enables the individual to focus and to work with the mind, to encompass complexities, to expand life possibilities.

How, then, are we to educate our students for the practice and application of engineering within the global environment of the 21st century? How do we educate young people to a global view and an approach which will give them the motivation and capability to address the imbalances? How do we sort the complexities and weigh the moral and ethical issues which arise? How might institutions of higher education reevaluate their aims and purposes to address both national and global challenges?

In every discipline, we must graduate young people:

  • With strong analytical skills, who can understand and solve complex problems;
  • With multicultural understanding, who can operate in a global context; and
  • With intellectual agility, who can see connections between disciplines and between sectors — across a broad intellectual milieu.

We must do a better job of teaching our students — and ourselves — how to be critical analyzers and consumers of information — because information, as an enabler, has sweeping implications.

We must educate our students within a fundamental discipline — engineering — but with the ability to work between disciplines, to find innovative new approaches to problems, and to value the perspectives of diversity in reaching solutions.

We must examine pedagogical approaches and learning styles. We must understand cognition patterns, and organize pedagogy to enable students to use their skills and perspectives in yet more creative ways. Clearly, information technology is a tool that can take us beyond the classroom walls — to offer our students the kind of interactive, experiential learning to which they have become habituated, in ways which enhance their cognition, their analytical abilities, and their specific knowledge.

Simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion — all are pedagogical tools that we can help us in this task.

Faculty are the agents. As the store of available and retrievable information continues to increase exponentially, faculty are the interpreters, the advisors, the mentors. Information is not necessarily knowledge, and knowledge is not always wisdom. The role of discipline-based faculty is to help students acquire the problem-solving skills, to guide them in understanding and identifying which problems are important to solve, and to help them to interpret results.

Our engineering education, however, should be cognizant of the fact that 21st century challenges are not borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, and often multilateral. They may involve a science or engineering problem, but they may have a medical component, an international law facet, a diplomacy or geopolitical aspect, an ethical challenge.

We ask a lot of our young people . . . although, sometimes, I think we do not ask enough . . . because, as they assume the reins of leadership, they will be called upon to find the political and diplomatic solutions for global challenges, but they, also, must find the technological solutions, the discoveries, the innovations upon which turn the rebalancing of the imbalances of today's world.

As each university addresses 21st century challenges to education, they will draw from their own strengths and devise their own approaches.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has long been known for its excellence in engineering. When I began my tenure, I wanted to take nothing for granted, so I asked the entire university community to review our programs to assure ourselves that we offer the very best education and research. I challenged the Rensselaer community to think as broadly as possible, and we began a transformative process.

Knowing, for instance, that genomics and combinatorics, when married with information technology, will impact the human condition as strongly as quantum science did in the 20th century, I urged that Rensselaer integrate research in the biological sciences, with engineering, the physical and computational sciences, to create a uniquely defined biotechnology agenda, particularly focused at the nanostructure level where these arenas often overlap.

With that vision, we created the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies to interface fundamental research, industrial partnerships, technological innovation, and undergraduate and graduate education and research opportunities. We opened that center two and a half years ago, and, today, 60 percent of the researchers there are from the School of Engineering.

We have echoed this thrust by bolstering science requirements for all undergraduates — strengthening students' basic understanding of the physical and biological worlds, with an interdisciplinary approach to biology, as well, targeting both biology majors and non-majors. We also are infusing entrepreneurship throughout the curriculum to help our students better understand how to take the fruits of their intellectual labors into the global marketplace or to solve big problems.

Currently, about 30 percent of all of our undergraduates participate directly in research activities. But, our Undergraduate Plan (part of The Rensselaer Plan) has, as a goal, increasing undergraduate research participation to 80 percent over the next five years, combining theory with experiential learning. Research provides undergraduates with the kind of open-ended problem-solving so important in industry, in real world situations, and, in preparation for graduate school as well.

We, also, plan for every undergraduate to study abroad, thereby preparing our students for global leadership. Opportunities could include international co-op, research, and internship experiences, study abroad at other universities, and summer overseas semesters led by Rensselaer faculty.

In engineering specifically, our investment has expanded exponentially, garnering federal and state commitments, and collaborative corporate partnerships.

  • Research expenditures have increased by 58 percent in the last 2 years.
  • We hired 12 new engineering faculty last year, and will add another 14 this year, growing to 175 engineering faculty members in the next 4 years.
  • Our undergraduate engineering applications are at an all time high.
  • With our goal of 5 graduate students per faculty member, our doctoral student numbers are increasing.
  • As a result, our rankings have risen steadily.

The School of Engineering now offers 13 undergraduate degree programs. The depth of choices include aeronautical, biomedical, chemical, and civil engineering, computer and systems engineering, electric power and electrical engineering, engineering physics, environmental engineering, industrial and management engineering, materials engineering, mechanical and nuclear engineering. For several years, Rensselaer, graduated more undergraduate nuclear engineers than any other university in the country. We still rank near the top in bachelor's level nuclear engineering graduates.

A half billion dollar gift of software and services from PACE, a consortium led by General Motors and its suppliers, is providing our students with the latest computer-assisted design and prototyping software used in industry and at leading R&D centers. Freshmen are using it, today, in the core engineering curriculum.

The new Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) is a $100 million partnership with IBM and New York state. Opening soon, it is creating one of the world's most powerful university-based supercomputing centers. This opens many possibilities and great opportunities for our engineering research and education.

The response to our transformation has been extremely heartening. Over five years, our engineering applicants have increased 98 percent, with the number of women applying increasing 115 percent, and number of underrepresented minorities applying increasing 143 percent. The SAT average for admitted engineering students increased 45 points during this time. And, 78 percent of accepted engineering students are in the top 10 percent of their class.

To have a sufficient number of engineering undergraduate and graduate students, to increase the domestic supply, and to reach the "underrepresented majority," we must reach back. Therefore, we have invested in a variety of pipeline programs for middle and high school students and their teachers.

Of course, there are not enough faculty, administrators, upper-class, and graduate-level students of underrepresented groups sufficient to serve as role models and mentors to encourage these students and to mark career paths for them.

At the faculty level, some institutions are stopping the tenure clock for women, instituting gender-bias training, implementing policies to make academic careers more family-friendly for women and men, and examining the full career spectrum to find out where and how the academic system might be made more welcoming of diversity.

We have begun a university-wide initiative to encourage equal representation of female educators in influential, high-ranking positions. Through the implementation of faculty advancement coaches, pipeline searches to recruit senior women from industry or national labs, mentoring programs, and faculty workshops, the program seeks to support women along the academic career path from junior positions toward tenure and full professorship. The program is called RAMP-UP (Reforming Advancement Processes through University Professions) and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). We hope that our RAMP-UP program will serve as a national model for advancement reform at other universities and institutions.

Revising underlying administrative policies and programs to encourage and support women and underrepresented groups is a concomitant requirement. As one example, we recently implemented a graduate student maternity leave policy-enabling a graduate student to keep her fellowship until she returns from childbirth leave back to her program.

Whether efforts such as these succeed depends, as we know, on the degree to which the highest levels of the university are committed to implementing meritocratic practices which support diverse faculty and students institution-wide. I know we all agree that increasing diversity is key to the future of scientific discovery and innovation in the United States. This requires a corresponding commitment from our highest level academic leadership — from Presidents and Provosts — and from you — the Deans.

To close, I reiterate: to address national and global challenges, we must tap the complete talent pool — both genders, multiple ethnic groups, and cultures. We do not know from whom the next great idea will come. Therefore, we cannot overlook one-half to two-thirds, or more, of our population, and expect to succeed as a society and as a global leader.

The bottom line is that in a global discovery and innovation ecosystem, diversity is a cardinal value — in thought, in research approach, and in fact. Corporations, in large part, do not need convincing. Many multi-national companies have developed policies to assure the hiring of people whose gender, race, cultural background, and intellectual diversity reflect the constituencies, communities, and global marketplaces, which they serve, and whose unique perspectives enhance collaborative endeavors.

When considering diversity, then, it is critical to keep the larger, global perspective uppermost in mind. Diversity is integral to all aspects of the education which we offer, to our transformational endeavors, to our future as universities, to our students as leaders, to our nation and its competitiveness, to the health and welfare of our world. As the acknowledged focus at the leadership level, and imbued throughout each sector, at every echelon, diversity will increase our richness, and unfold unimagined innovation to rebalance the globe.

The task before us, then, must be undertaken across the broadest spectrum. It cannot be left to our political, government, or administrative leaders alone. It takes all of us to make critical change.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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