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Engineering the Renaissance

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

NAE Engineer of 2020 National Education Summit
National Academy of Engineering - Refectory
Washington, D.C.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

It is a pleasure to be with you, today, continuing the important work of transforming engineering education for the 21st century — transformation driven by the changing global environment in which the engineering profession and engineering education are embedded.

The release, today, of the final report of the September 11th Commission underscores much of that new environment, and national security continues to engage our attention.

Although the context of the report is homeland security, the issues it raises are global — for national security and global security are inextricably linked.

The United States, and other nations of the world, can increase their own security, and contribute to a collective global security, through scientific discovery and technological innovation. Discovery and innovation form — have always formed — the basis for the solutions to many of the world’s multiple and complex challenges — health, security, quality of life, and a thriving market economy between and among nations. As the speed and pervasiveness of communication and transportation technologies have brought the world’s people ever closer, expectations rise. Unless and until more nations develop the tools to solve their own issues, join the global economy, and share in the benefits thereof, global stability inherently is threatened.

Our own national security is impacted by several other forces. Our scientific and engineering workforce is aging. The K-12 education system has failed to engage our young people or, in many places, to educate them well. Their performance and interest in study and careers in science and engineering are diminishing, with the result that we are not replenishing the technical professionals upon whom our nation relies. At the same time, new national visa policies are exacerbating a trend which already had begun years before—namely, fewer international students and scientists coming to the United States. For years, this important source of talent has supplemented our domestic science and engineering workforce in specialized areas, and continues to do so. The infusion of international students has given our own university programs a diversity and multiculturalism which expands the experiences of our graduates, adding value to their degrees. At the same time, our own demographics are changing, so that a majority of our young people fall into categories traditionally underrepresented in engineering and the sciences — some 30 percent of the population comprises underrepresented minorities. When we include women—another underrepresented group—we arrive at the underrepresented majority. Unless we find ways to reach out to these nontraditional groups and encourage their participation in science and engineering, we may find ourselves, as a nation, underrepresented, globally, in these professions.

This is because other nations are rapidly and steeply boosting investment in their domestic intellectual capital, producing scientists and engineers at a significantly greater rate than in the past.

Another factor concerns federal investment in research. We know that discovery and innovation are the seeds of industry. We know that sustained federal support for research across scientific disciplines is a critical component of economic growth, jobs creation, American prosperity, and homeland security. In recent years, basic research, performed at leading U.S. universities, has created 4,000 spin-off companies which have hired 1.1 million people, with annual world revenues of $232 billion.

Federal agencies support a majority of the nation’s basic research and 59 percent of the research activities of U.S. colleges and universities. The World Wide Web, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and fiber optics are three examples of undergirding technologies for the modern economy, which started as university-based research projects, or which supported such projects.

The research paid off handsomely, and lives today, having given birth to entire economic sectors. Yet, the Federal investment in research, measured as a share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has declined by more than one-third since the 1980s.

The pre-9/11 report of the Hart-Rudman Commission concluded that inadequacies in our nation’s research and education pose an enormous threat to national security, greater than any potential conventional war. Moreover, it will be impossible to keep fueling the nation’s economic engine, and maintain its security, if the combination of current international migration trends and domestic education results continue.

How do these global and national forces impact the engineering profession and, especially, what do they tell us about how we must educate our future engineering professionals?

The corporate world has been clear that new global conditions and the world market require a new type of engineer. Whereas, previously, engineers were assigned specific design problems to solve in singular areas, today, science and engineering, in the corporate world and in research, are moving strongly toward multidisciplinarity and integration. The engineers of the future will, of course, need communications skills, the ability to work in teams, the capacity to think in terms of complex systems, but also, to relate effectively to other cultures, and to converse in multiple languages.

The Renaissance engineer of tomorrow might be illustrated, today, by Sean O’Sullivan, an electrical engineer and a 1985 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After founding MapInfo, a leading global software company, engaging in other entrepreneurial ventures, embarking on a career in music and filmmaking, and earning a master of fine arts in film from University of Southern California (USC), Sean O’Sullivan created JumpStart International last September to help rebuild Iraq. JumpStart employs 3,500 Iraqis, including many engineers, at 65 sites in Baghdad and 19 sites in Fallujah. They demolish buildings damaged by bombing, and construct much-needed housing for the Iraqi people. The work gives Iraqis the opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of their own nation, provides tangible signs of hope, and recreates a sense of ownership, so that insurgency becomes less attractive to those frustrated with current conditions. Sean says JumpStart could be called “engineers without borders,” and he hopes to extend this work to other countries.

How do we educate young people today to have the breadth of vision, facility, and flexibility of a Sean O’Sullivan? If China is producing annually some 400,000 degreed engineers, less expensively than the 65,000 to 70,000 who graduate from U.S. universities each year, what will be the value-added of those educated in our universities? The answer rests with not just what we teach our engineers, but how we teach them.

We know, for example that we must help our students learn how to be critical analyzers and consumers of information — because information, as an enabler, has sweeping implications for a knowledge-based institution, and information — unorganized, unanalyzed, and unstructured — can be as inhibiting and obstructive as it is enabling. Professors must be tutors and collaborators, not just broadcasters.

To educate our students to work between disciplines, and in new, innovative aspects of science, as well as engineering, and technology, several factors are important: liberal arts, leadership, ethics, entrepreneurship.

During the Middle Ages, the term “liberal arts” included the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The first set comprised grammar, logic, and rhetoric — or what we would think of as mastery of thought processes through communication, organization, and persuasion. The Quadrivium consisted of the basic sciences of the day — arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy; and music.

The liberal arts combine the sciences with the fine arts, and with a broad spectrum of communication and analytical skills. What are today’s liberal arts? A true liberal education should include the hard and soft sciences, the fine arts, literature, and, in our new century, evolving forms of entertainment, information, education, and cultural awareness. The computer graphics design skills needed to produce movies such as Star Wars, Master and Commander, and The Matrix involve both engineering and artistic skills. Many products succeed in part because of their human factors — a new element in the liberal arts. The TiVo’s remote control is a notable example. DVDs replace videotapes, not just because of richer and higher-quality content, but because of access to selected scenes, director interviews, and background information. Home theaters, satellite radio, smart phones, and iPods are allowing people to choose an immersive experience that mixes entertainment and information.

Information sources can no longer be merely informative, but must be entertaining and attractive, like the rich browser windows that come with some instant messaging programs and some Internet portals.

Why all of this? Because this is the way our children are growing up. This is the context in which we must teach them — how we must reach them. Reach them where they are.

Leadership skills promote and support practices which foster teamwork and integrity in professional and personal development, and aid in the understanding of vision, culture, and values in the corporate and public worlds. Leadership education provides models and methods for problem-solving, and enables students to test personal limits, and to explore cultural assumptions. Leadership education promotes collaboration, effective communication and feedback, conflict management, team development, and ethical decision-making. Through interactive, experiential learning, students are exposed to specific leadership theories, and they learn motivation techniques and tools to succeed in a diverse organizational culture. In short, leadership education, and the professional development which it entails, give students a head start for functioning in the corporate and the larger world.

A key phrase, here, is “diverse organizational culture.” As the corporate world responds to increasing globalization, students, today, will navigate a career in which their colleagues and peers, and their customers, are from diverse cultures and environments, and, literally, may be a world away. As corporations cast their nets wider and farther for partners, collaborators, and clients — oftentimes across continents and oceans—tomorrow’s engineers will need the skills to navigate successfully this new environment.

The Engineering Criteria 2000 of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has, rightly, required that ethics be incorporated into engineering education. How could this be otherwise in a world that has brought closer to hand key questions of the day, including sustainable development, privacy, security, resource distribution, and, of course, ethical issues such as human trials in biomedical research.

A pure engineering approach might solve numerous technical problems, but leave in its wake social and ethical issues that harm the product’s chances for success. One example occurred in 2003 when physicians at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, transplanted stem cells into the heart of a teen-aged boy from his bone marrow, to help him regenerate heart muscle. He had suffered heart muscle damage from having been shot, accidentally, with a nail gun. He improved with this treatment. When the treatment was revealed, the FDA forbade further transplantation before more nonhuman studies are done. The ability to do this procedure at all resulted from breakthroughs in basic bioscience and tissue engineering. But, it had not gone through requisite trials and FDA approvals. It was risky.

This example shows why science and engineering practice will be impacted by the convergent forces of inter- and multidisciplinarity, interactivity, and ethics. Indifference to such issues is more difficult to sustain when people from several fields are working together in a joint endeavor. Furthermore, a coalescence of varying perspectives often helps to highlight, and to clarify, issues and potential ethical questions — questions which might escape notice, or mention, among same-discipline colleagues.

I also expect that ethics content and concepts will be sought after by students themselves, as they are included in undergraduate research and design teams, and learn, through experiential education, what awaits them in real-world situations.

Entrepreneurship involves the ability to move discoveries and innovations from the research or design lab into the marketplace.

Rapid technological change and the emerging global marketplace are increasing opportunities, and the need, for scientific and technological entrepreneurship. Understanding how to recognize and assess market opportunities, and economic forces, and to execute successful business plans will give tomorrow’s engineers the tools they will need to function as leaders in the new environment.

In four-year engineering degree curricula--already filled nearly to capacity--how are we to engage undergraduates in still more? Indeed, can a four-year undergraduate engineering curriculum hold more?

We need to consider the possibility of changing the first professional degree from an undergraduate degree to a graduate degree. If engineers are being asked to know more, to offer more skills, and to provide more value when they enter the workplace, is it not our responsibility to see that students are prepared and educated appropriately? Should the first professional degree be at the Master’s level? And, given the pace of technological change, should there be more doctoral level education offered, and encouraged, with the concomitant research focus?

Certainly, the four-year degree must be focused on ensuring that students have a grounding in the basics of their disciplines, in ethics, in interactive, team-based problem-solving, and in the new basics in other fields required of today’s engineers. Graduate education is necessary to give students more advanced knowledge, and to afford them the opportunity to work on really hard, open-ended problems, and to be able to define problems themselves through research-based engineering.

We all speak of our need for Renaissance engineers. What we actually do in the university is most crucial in this regard. Universities must better prepare engineers for the new realities. This has an impact both on the way we teach, and what we teach.

With all of this in mind, Rensselaer, this fall, is transforming the first year of its engineering program. A new course, called “Engineering Discovery,” takes a hands-on, “minds-on” approach to introducing students to the discipline.

The goal is to enable students to answer the following questions:

  • What does an engineer do and how does an engineer think?
  • What makes engineering challenging and exciting?
  • How is the fundamental body of knowledge in science, mathematics, and the social sciences and humanities used in the practice of engineering?
  • What basic skills are required of all engineers?
  • What kind of an engineer do I want to be?

While the traditional fundamental concepts and principles of engineering will be taught, the emphasis, also, will be on the social sciences, humanities, communication skills, ethics, professionalism, social awareness, teamwork, and leadership—all which are the new fundamentals of engineering.

Students, also, will have the opportunity to delve into the kinds of hands-on projects usually reserved for upper level students. Although late in its inclusion in the curriculum, a new first-year biology requirement for all undergraduates at Rensselaer will further prepare these new engineers for a multidisciplinary world. And, they will be mentored by faculty with experience as working engineers. In a sense, all the elements of the four years of undergraduate engineering education are highlighted in this course, so that first-year students are exposed to the demands — and the excitement — of engineering.

The term “self-authorship” has been used to describe the process by which students are encouraged, and supported to take control of, and responsibility for, their own education. This idea undergirds our first-year program. The classroom-based experience must change, as well, to facilitate this. “Situated learning theory” posits that learning must extend beyond the instructor and the classroom, and into the community and other spaces where students construct their knowledge.

For students, these are intellectual, creative, and physical spaces. I believe we should blur the lines between academic, community, and living spaces, just as we are blurring the lines between the disciplines. Then, we, also, should encourage engineering students to go beyond the campus, to pursue entrepreneurial and community-service experiences, as well as enriching travel, and study in other disciplines, especially the liberal arts.

This is but one example of how a university can transform the first year of its engineering program in order to develop the Renaissance engineer, and to attract more diverse students to the field.

Making such changes will have a concomitant impact back onto universities themselves.

Today, high-performance networking, computing, and information management technologies have given us what a recent government IT research and development report calls a “far-reaching support system for human thought.” Since human thought is the currency of the university, proper utilization of the ever-growing capabilities of this exceptional support system can be a means of transformation.

Information technologies enable the infusion of a global perspective throughout curricula. For decades, the trend in both pedagogy and scientific research was specialization — knowing more and more about increasingly more specialized areas. But, just as newer international “threats” are borderless, so, too, is science and engineering likewise “without borders.” We must take our young people, in application, beyond the borders — national, as well as disciplinary — and, go beyond the question of how to do the science and engineering, to why it is important. We do, and we must, more fully exploit the Internet to allow — indeed, to push — our students to design across time zones and cultures.

We must know more about how we must educate. Today’s 6-year-olds, who will be college age in 2020, will have grown up on DVDs, MTV, video games, IM (instant messaging), text messaging, and video cell phones. We must recognize their cognition patterns, developed through highly interactive, total emersion, pervasive computing experiences, and devise pedagogies enabling them to use their skills and perspectives in creative ways. This is why at Rensselaer, we are building eMPAC—the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. It will sit at the nexus of technology and the performing arts, will be at once a world class performance and creation platform, and a research platform, where the one — the arts — will inform the other—science and engineering — and vice versa. This platform is predicated on the idea that simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion—the ability of geographically dispersed sites to collaborate in real time—all are pedagogical tools we can use.

At this point there are more questions than answers about the full impact of information technology in transforming the university. Should students pursue their degree work only at the university at which they matriculated, or pick and choose among on-line courses from a smorgasbord of universities? While resident at their home universities, or not? Does it then make sense for every university to support the full complement of disciplines, or should they share courses, seminars, discussion groups, degree programs in cyberspace? With global partners?


There is no way to know where the next technological breakthroughs will come from. We only know that they will come. And, we are wise if we create welcoming and stimulating environments for those from whom they will come.

Consider the story of longitude. The long-unsolved problem of determining one’s location at sea was solved in 1737 not by credentialed scientists or astronomers, but by a clockmaker working in isolation, away from the established thinking. The clockmaker’s technology languished unused and unappreciated over decades because the British Board of Longitude, which had offered a prize of 20,000 pounds, thought his solution too simple. Accurate measurement with a “sea clock” or chronometer revolutionized navigation at sea, and is credited with contributing to the British mastery of the oceans and, ultimately, to the British Empire. Think what might have happened if England had had the use of the chronometer decades earlier.

Longitude teaches another lesson — that when diversity is welcomed, transformation accelerates. That diversity — diversity of individuals, diversity of ideas, diversity of approach, diversity of thought — is the key.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when other universities declined to offer positions to Jewish refugee scientists and mathematicians fleeing Nazi Germany, Princeton University opened its doors. The result was a constellation of brilliance at Princeton anchored by Albert Einstein.

Talent resides everywhere — sometimes unappreciated, often unencouraged. The very group or individual ignored or neglected may make the greatest discoveries, or achieve the greatest innovations.

Our goal, then, should be to lead the way to openness, to encourage talent wherever it resides, to reduce barriers to achievement. As we, rightfully, work to remove impediments to the international flow of talent to this country, our related goal should be to find the ways to engage the full spectrum of domestic talent, including that inherent in our underrepresented majority, and to provide for them a welcoming and nurturing environment.

Such leadership will advance technologies, broaden our universities, and, ultimately, enhance our national and global security. We must move away from the kinds of unexamined postures which lead to uniform thinking, narrow constructs, to find and to implement systems which encourage the latent talent in our diverse groups to blossom and to reach fruition. Can engineering accommodate diversity in all its forms: intellectual, geographic, ethnic and cultural, and gender diversity? Can we go beyond one mold, one size fits all?

Ultimately, this reaches beyond engineering, beyond the university — to who we are as human beings.

Thank you.

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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