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Pathways to Progress: Enhancing Engineering Education

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

WEPAN 2008 Annual Conference
St. Louis, Missouri

Monday, June 9, 2008


I congratulate WEPAN on 19 years of challenging and successful endeavors to increase the number of women in engineering, and to smooth their pathways to achieving degrees and launching careers. Not only does this enable women to explore their own interests and abilities, it also captures valuable talent for the innovation and discovery that are critical to a thriving economy, our national security, and our global future.

One key strategy, of course, is MentorNet, the large-scale, online network facilitating developmental relationships between experienced professionals and students, especially women and minorities underrepresented in engineering and science. MentorNet, now, is celebrating 10 successful years. From the first 204 mentor-protégé pairs, mentoring has grown, now, to accommodate some 22,000 pairs.

The extensive support WEPAN has achieved from the corporate, government, and private sectors highlights the importance of the work WEPAN is doing.

I am pleased to see that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is represented among your membership. I especially want to acknowledge Barbara Ruel, who is a member of the WEPAN Board, and, at Rensselaer, directs the diversity and women in engineering programs. Ms. Ruel was honored with the 2006 WEPAN President’s Award for her work as conference program co-chair. Rensselaer is fortunate to have her.

It gives me special pleasure to be a part of this WEPAN conference with a focus on Diversity. I have three very basic reasons for this, which are, at once, both personal and professional. As a woman, as a scientist, and as the President of an institution of higher learning, it is important to me to right the circumstances for women and minority engineers and scientists, to secure their places in the laboratories, the theoretical modeling groups, the design studios, the university classrooms, the administrative cabinets, the local and national government positions — I am only getting started — where they are so needed — where we MUST have them.

The WEPAN mission is very much akin to one of my own — to make the critical contributions and special satisfactions of an engineering career, or a career in science, more welcoming to all individuals, especially groups who, traditionally, have been underrepresented in these critically important fields — women, of course, and minorities.

Indeed diversity IS the pathway to progress. A quote on the WEPAN website is especially apt. It says, in part:

“In today’s world, diversity IS strategy.”

This is not to be taken lightly. I serve on several corporate boards and chair the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board, so I am familiar with what drives our nation’s major corporations. Perhaps more than is realized, corporations globalized long ago, and as soon as they did, they understood the importance of diversity. Their corporate missions proliferate with allegiance to enhancing diversity because they know that their innovative capacity, future production, corporate success, markets, and customer base are global and, therefore, wholly diverse. And so, I am not at all surprised at the corporate support WEPAN has engendered. They support your mission. They need WEPAN to succeed.

This afternoon, I will briefly review the Quiet Crisis — the need to attract, and to engage, more women in engineering and science to sustain our national pre-eminence in science and technology, and to mitigate pressing global challenges. I will discuss new ways to prepare the next generations of engineering and science students, and strategies to achieve these goals.

While, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and especially the people who do this work, have formed the basis for our national security and economic wellbeing for decades, converging forces are interfering with our full attraction and development of these valuable professionals.

The scientists and engineers, who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, are beginning to retire. At the same time, we are no longer producing sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them. We continue to be a magnet for talented young people from abroad who come to the U.S. for advanced education and training, yet, an increasing number are returning home after their studies — some early in their careers, some later.

Our demographics have shifted. The “new majority” in the United States now comprises young women, and the racial and ethnic groups which, traditionally, have been underrepresented in engineering schools and advanced science programs. If we are to continue the economic advantages to which we have become accustomed, and assure our global preeminence and leadership, we must look to so-called “nontraditional” sources for our future engineers and scientists. We, also, must promote the special joys and satisfactions of discovery and innovation -- fostering interest in these valuable disciplines among all of our young people. We have an urgent need for our nation to tap our full talent pool, and in particular, young women and minorities.

The United States has had, and still has, great advantages: world class research universities, an entrepreneurial and risk-taking culture, strong capital markets, talent, and government support for research. Other nations have learned from us, and are emulating us. They are building their physical, research, and human capital infrastructure, and drawing talent to them. There is a global need for talent across multiple engineering and science disciplines and more. And, we cannot take our advantages for granted.

Indeed, there are abundant challenges. For decades, in our own nation, reports have warned about the conditions and shortcomings of the national infrastructure which we rely upon for the smooth functioning of our economy and our lives. As engineers, I expect many of you are aware that, not long ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” on a report card that assessed the condition and capacity of our public works. All industries rely on these systems, of course, to achieve growth and productivity.

  • Bridges — of the nation’s nearly 600,000 bridges, one in four are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete;

  • Dams — the number of unsafe dams has risen by more than 33 percent in the last ten years;

  • Electric Power Grid — Construction of new transmission lines has fallen behind demand and needs an investment of $10 billion annually over the next five years to ensure reliability;

  • Rail — Class I (one) railroads currently invest about $2 billion annually for improvements, above and beyond repair and maintenance. This level of investment is not enough to keep rail from losing freight market share over the next 20 years, or taking on more freight. Indeed, shifting freight to trucks would increase shippers’ costs and result in higher prices to consumers, especially in light of the rising costs of oil and petroleum-based fuels;

  • Roads — 34 percent of America’s major roads are in poor condition, and 36 percent of the major urban roads are congested -- both adding to the nearly 43,000 traffic fatalities each year;

  • The report, also, reported on the conditions in aviation, schools, solid waste, transit, drinking water, wastewater, hazardous waste, parks and recreation, ports, and navigable waterways.

Many of these infrastructure systems spring from the 19th and 20th century industrial age, and most are reaching the limits of their capacities.

ASCE estimates that $1.6 trillion would be needed over five years to bring our infrastructure to good condition.

The 21st century resolutions for these conditions, however, require new thinking — systems thinking — to generate comprehensive, integrated infrastructure using more technology, not just cement.

Innovative companies, already, are investing in developing and commercializing technology-based solutions to some of our infrastructure issues. The GPS [global positioning system] capacity of cell phones could be utilized to alert a central control station to traffic congestion, to communicate alternate routes and ease traffic flow — or to offer carpool ridership from here to there and back again. Nissan and other automobile manufacturers are soon to introduce smart cruise controls, which communicate with other vehicles to maintain safe distances and speeds. Variants of both of these technologies and approaches already are being installed in higher-priced vehicles. At Rensselaer, researchers are experimenting with road sensors that enable safe high speed travel, plan alternate routes, and avoid accidents.

Innovative genetics firms are developing and commercializing technology-based solutions to both carbon emissions and gasoline prices. Some are investing in life forms that consume cellulose or carbon dioxide and turn it into oil or gasoline. This could become important as we look at carbon capture strategies for power generating stations and other point sources of carbon dioxide emission. Other companies are experimenting with nanotechnology membranes to desalinate water, and to mitigate the effects of pollutants. These technologies could transform dam, canal, water, and waste treatment systems.

A National Academy of Engineering (NAE) panel predicted, recently, that it is theoretically possible to scale solar power sufficiently to meet everyone’s energy needs within 20 years. Taking that literally, thin sheets of plastic with energy-converting semi-conductors printed on them in nano-ink are being developed and commercialized. If successful — and economically feasible — the innovation will turn more sunlight into electricity than existing photovoltaic systems. At Rensselaer, faculty and student researchers have developed a carbon nanotube-based thin film material which absorbs 99.9 percent of the light that hits it. This work has great implications for next generation photovoltaics, infrared sensors, and security uses.

Such developments would turn infrastructure upside down: from a top down structure with enormous generators, transmission lines, coal operations, and the like, to a bottom up network where each individual would become a generator. There are interesting parallels, here, with how the Internet is impacting music, video, movies, communications, and social networking. My own view is that, most likely, we will have a combination infrastructure system — but one begins to see the possibilities — and the challenges.

Challenges of this sort — and the need to ensure that there are sufficient engineers (and scientists) to address them — are spurring a transformation in engineering education — and along with it, transformation of engineering culture, both at the university, and in the corporate setting. It is imperative that we understand it, and that we facilitate this transformation.

These challenges — and infrastructure is merely one example — we could name many more: global energy security and environmental sustainability, cross-border infectious disease, world water and food scarcity, terrorism, civil unrest, et cetera. These challenges — highlight our need to reformulate how we educate tomorrow’s students, in general, and our engineers and scientists in particular.

As President of an institution of higher learning ñ one devoted primarily to educating engineers and scientists, I know that we must graduate young people who have strong analytical skills, who can define, understand, and solve complex problems; who have multicultural understanding, and can operate within a global context; who have intellectual agility, and can see connections between disciplines and between sectors across a broad intellectual milieu.

This requires a new approach to educating our students, especially in engineering (and science).

Four principles, taken together, engender what I refer to as globally-focused, diversity-enhanced education:

A first principle is Diversity of Approach. It must begin with disciplinary fundamentals. But, students, also, must acquire the vision, the motivation, and the capacity to work across, between, and at the intersection of multiple disciplines and sectors. Our young people must be prepared to operate in a world which will require them to reason, question, analyze, evaluate, and assess — by bringing together ideas, and people, from across a broad intellectual front.

A second principle is Diversity of Pedagogy. Education must be enhanced and expanded through the utilization of new media and tools. New technologies — such as simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion (which allow collaboration in real time across geographies), even social networks — can help today’s students extend their reach. Opportunities for undergraduate research fall into this category, as do, interactive multidisciplinary, team-based design experiences.

A third principle is Diversity of Outlook. Students must be exposed to diverse cultures and lifestyles, to experience and absorb the associated differences in thought, approach, and practice; in order to build multicultural sophistication and understanding, and a global perspective; in order to operate within a global context, collaborate across borders, and recognize unforeseen opportunities. Twenty-first century challenges are seldom borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, often multilateral. They may involve a science or engineering problem, but they may have a medical component, an aspect of international law, a diplomatic or geopolitical factor, perhaps an ethical challenge. As students are faced with the flattening world — with the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces, they must be prepared, to thrive, to contribute, and to lead within this context — bearing all of these things in mind, and having them reflect how they go about addressing challenges, or bringing together and motivating others to do so.

The fourth principle is Diversity in Fact — where all of our young people — young women and students of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, are encouraged and inspired to achieve at the highest levels. Education always has been the pathway to a better future. We must enhance and increase programs that support the study of engineering and science by students from all backgrounds. We must inject fresh thinking and new perspective into addressing challenges, whether in basic research, artistic creativity, or engineering design. This is especially true if one is to lead a global, multi-national organization, or to solve a problem in a different cultural context. WEPAN has been focused on this particular aspect of diversity for some time.

At Rensselaer we are engaged in an educational transformation with the four concepts of diversity-enhanced education as a guide. One aspect of that educational transformation is the Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons program (or REACH).

One of the first of its kind in the nation, REACH is an ambitious, forward-thinking program that will expect and facilitate every engineering student at Rensselaer to complete an international experience as part of his or her undergraduate education. This may be through formal study abroad programs, international internships, overseas research fellowships, or programs like Semester at Sea.

REACH will kick off in the next academic year with at least 100, and a target of up to 25 percent of engineering juniors participating. That percentage will increase gradually through 2015, when REACH will be fully implemented, and all engineering juniors will be expected to participate in an international experience.

REACH builds upon early undergraduate engineering international programs at Rensselaer, but this is a far expanded and ambitious program. REACH also benefits from our long-standing architecture study-abroad program, where junior architecture students spend a semester abroad in Rome, Turkey, Shanghai, and next year ñ India.

I cannot leave this section without describing, briefly, for you a completely unique program and center we are establishing at Rensselaer. The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), which officially opens in October, will be home to a unique nexus of science, engineering and the arts. It is an experimental “performatory” — a performance space and a research laboratory — equipped with state-of-the-art technology and linked to the Rensselaer supercomputer ñ the CCNI (Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations) ñ one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

To fully describe the intellectual, research, and artistic vision of EMPAC would require another couple of luncheons. But, it suffices to say that this inimitable program, set within a one-of-a-kind facility, will engage students in yet broader endeavors, stretching them, and expanding their understanding of the arts, engineering, science, the creative process, and intellectual challenge, and help to prepare them to be global leaders. It will engage both left brain and right brain simultaneously, and encourage holistic approaches to creativity and problem-solving. It will allow artistic creation and basic research utilizing EMPAC’s unique visualization, animation, simulation, acoustics, haptics and other capabilities. It will allow us to probe cognition and learning at the intersection of the virtual and physical worlds, to create sentient synthetic beings in three dimensions, to create and put on world-class time-based artistic performances, to study interacting proteins in 360 degree projections, to experience being in the middle of a tsunami.

These kinds of academic changes will alter the prevailing culture of these fields, make it more inclusive and diverse, and attract more of today’s young people to these dynamic disciplines and their intersections. We believe it will be inviting and exciting for all of our students, and especially our women students, while creating more effective and impactful global leaders.

Of course, change must come to the academic faculty culture, as well, and we know that, just as there are too few women engineers, there are even fewer female engineering faculty — so essential to modeling career paths for young women.

University administrative policies that support women faculty members, and strengthen the transparency and fairness of the tenure process are important, and support at highest administrative levels is critical to enhance and speed success.

Rensselaer has made — and will continue to make — a concomitant commitment to a breadth of systemic, university-wide approaches to advance women and diverse faculty in academic engineering and science careers. We are carrying out this commitment by increasing awareness and understanding of the issues, improving social and support networks, mentoring, and peer review of faculty women. We are taking steps to reduce attrition, increase representation of women among the senior faculty and administrative ranks, make advancement processes more transparent and fair, and carefully monitor and evaluate our performance.

RAMP-UP is the Rensselaer program, funded by an ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation, to reform university advancement processes to increase the participation of women in engineering and science, particularly in the senior ranks. Using a model of self-regulation, RAMP-UP puts the work of reforming academic advancement squarely in the hands of the self-regulating mechanisms found at all levels of the university: at the level of the individual, the department, the schools, and the administration.

We are extremely proud of RAMP-UP. Organizers have introduced the Career Campaign Award Initiative to assist individuals in developing their career trajectory. The Pipeline Search and Departmental Cultural Change Initiatives assist departments in addressing leadership by senior women among the faculty. There are organized workshops exploring aspects of barriers to advancement, with an emphasis on communication, advocacy, and advancement reform.

We are proud that our women faculty members have seized the lead to bring this transformative program to Rensselaer. They are engaging the academic community in discussion, analysis and conceptualization of the issues, building networks, and — most of all — building trust. This is paving the way for institutionalizing change at Rensselaer, and it is influencing change in science and engineering at other universities.

To further these ends, we are moving to create a Center for Faculty Diversity, under the aegis of the Provost. Our accomplishments under RAMP-UP, and our new Center, will make our campus more welcoming and supportive for women and minority faculty members, and will strengthen our efforts to increase the number of young women and minority students on our campus, and in engineering and science.

We want, as well, to support women graduate students in the pipeline to professional and academic careers. Next month, Rensselaer will begin offering childbirth, parental, and family leave for graduate students under a new policy designed to help them pursue their academic goals while at the same time accommodating to changing family circumstances.

Annual events, held at Rensselaer and many other universities, help to encourage young women to consider a career in engineering. At Rensselaer we host Design Your Future Day annually. It brings eleventh grade high school girls, from across the nation, with an interest and aptitude in math and science, to Rensselaer for an exciting day of experiential exploration in engineering, science, and technology. Through dynamic and interactive sessions, this day is designed to spark interest in a variety of technological fields and to encourage young women to pursue them.

We, also, host an annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day, where young people and their families in our upstate New York area experience the joys and excitement of science and engineering careers.

All of this helps to build a national culture in which engineering and science — and those who do it — are valued, and supported, for the critical national — and global — contributions they make.

Last month, I attended a celebration of women in science sponsored by L’Oréal USA, where I was honored to receive the 2008 For Women in Science Role Model Award. In conjunction with UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), L’Oréal works to dispel myths about women in STEM disciplines, encourages emerging female talent, offers them substantial fellowships, and, annually, celebrates, with a major prize, the achievements of women who have dedicated their careers to scientific research.

As part of the proceedings, I participated in a panel with four exceptional women achievers in engineering and science, one of which is a 2008 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award recipient. The audience comprised primarily girls from science-based high schools in the New York City area.

One question posed to the panel was both revealing and useful. We were asked if women had any advantages in STEM fields. The panel offered these answers:

  1. Girls mature earlier — so girls can move more quickly into advanced classes.

  2. Girls are less competitive and, because they can think outside the box, they can be more innovative.

  3. Girls are predisposed to do things that help people, hence, engineering, technology, and science is a natural choice, when it is pitched to them in this way.

  4. Girls are more practical — another reason STEM professions are a natural fit.

  5. Engaging women in engineering and science engages the diversity of women’s unique — and untapped — perspectives.

And so, I would say that, if these advantages are a starting place, and diversity is a goal, appealing to those advantages is a strategy we should keep in mind.

One last, interesting item — rightly would fall under leadership. Last month, in Washington, D.C., the Georgetown Program on Science in the Public Interest hosted a Campaign Education Workshop at Georgetown University. This nonpartisan workshop was sponsored by Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA) to educate members of the scientific community about the political process, and the ways in which they can effectively participate in elections, influence elected officials, and ultimately hold public office themselves. The mission of SEA is to facilitate evidence-based decision making at all levels of government, and to build a more engaged and politically active scientific community.

It is worth thinking about. If we truly are to bring about change in the engineering and science professions, we will want to look at not only our own institutions, but, also, at public policy within all levels of government.

Two years ago, the National Academies distributed a widely cited report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” showing that America was slipping behind other countries in science and engineering, and laid out strategies for empowering America for a better future. Other entities, both before and after — in the private, corporate, government, and academic sectors — have done much the same. All of these efforts resulted in the passage of the AMERICA COMPETES Act, enacted last year. It authorized new spending levels for a host of research and education programs at the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Unfortunately, the funding authorized in the AMERICA COMPETES Act has not appropriated. So, there is a current effort to add funding for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department’s Office of Science, and the National Institutes of Health to the Fiscal Year 2008 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, but it is yet to be seen if these efforts will be successful. Interest is building, among multiple sectors, in strengthening STEM education, and in better funding for basic research, but it will take concerted effort to see programs funded at needed levels.

Increasing the number of women in engineering — and encouraging talent from all of our young people to pursue advance engineering and science careers — is, at once, complex and multifaceted.

And the lesson is both that it must be, and that it can be, and that the multifaceted aspect of the challenge lends advantage — if concerned individuals pool their various talents and approaches in a coordinated manner.

There are many advantages to being women engineers and scientists. Let us leverage them well.

Thank you very much.


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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