Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
About RPI Academics Research Student Life Admissions News Tour
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Office of the President
Cabinet and Deans
Board of Trustees
The Rensselaer Plan
The Rensselaer Plan 2012-2024
Accomplishments Towards The Rensselaer Plan
State of the Institute
* *

A Bridge to the Future: The New Engineer: Demographic Issues and BEST Practices

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

Engineer of 2020
National Academies Conference Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Some miles south of here, there is a bridge that we at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are especially proud to claim as part of our heritage. It is the Brooklyn Bridge. It was designed by John Augustus Roebling. When completed in 1883, the uninterrupted span vaulting the East River between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan was an engineering marvel. The towers that hold the bridge stand on immense pneumatic foundations, which rest on the riverbed — a technology then in its infancy. John Roebling's patent for the in situ spinning of wire rope was a decisive breakthrough in modern suspension bridge technology.

When John Roebling died during construction, his son, Washington A. Roebling, an 1857 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, assumed oversight, and when Washington Roebling also became an invalid, Emily Warren Roebling, his wife, assumed the role of chief engineer. Already well-educated, Emily Roebling learned higher mathematics, the calculation of catenary curves, materials strength, stress analysis, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction. On site daily, she supervised construction, relaying the details of progress back to her husband. As adviser, aide, and emissary, her participation was responsible for the successful completion of the gigantic enterprise.

The essential role that Emily Warren Roebling played is a useful symbol for us today. It demonstrates the need for talent — wherever it resides.

As you undertake your assignments today — envisioning the future of engineering and developing future scenarios — one of your most compelling challenges will be how to interest, attract, and nurture future Emily Warren Roeblings, and how to include ethnic and minority groups who have been underrepresented in engineering, as well.

Your challenge is to engage talent from every sector, across the spectrum, wherever it resides. For indeed, the demographic reality is this: when you combine these groups — ethnic minorities, women, and persons with disabilities — you have a majority of the population. This new majority comprises the engineers of the future, and the future of engineering.

This is your challenge, and I offer you my thoughts today, as this also is my challenge.

First, I will review for you the demographics that should dominate your discussions.

Next, I would like to summarize the work of groups that already are working on ways to tap this talent pool — to prepare them to pursue careers in science and engineering. The work of these groups will help to inform yours.

Then, I would like to touch on some of the new realities in engineering — certain to expand in the future — which should guide your work.

And, finally, I would like to touch on some educational directions for this broadened pool, making a case for including liberal arts in engineering education.

Ultimately, I hope to leave you with a sense of urgency, and an understanding that immediate action is essential, because there is a quiet crisis building in the United States — a crisis that could jeopardize the nation's pre-eminence and well-being. The crisis stems from the gap between the nation's growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technologically skilled workers, and its production of them. It has been mounting gradually, but inexorably, and if permitted to continue, it could undermine the global leadership America currently enjoys.

As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s retires, our colleges and universities, simply, are not graduating enough scientific and engineering talent to replace them. This gap represents a serious shortfall in our national scientific and engineering capability. And, engineering is an essential linchpin.

We have assumed American strength and preeminence for many years, but that assumption was shattered almost a year ago on September 11th. The hard questions asked since then have centered on our capacity to fight terrorism. But the focus on intelligence capabilities and defense preparedness should not overshadow the more fundamental question: Is the United States investing in the human capital to remain the world's most productive economy, while at the same time, meeting a formidable new national security threat?

The Council on Competitiveness studies the nation's capacity to support high-wage jobs and to compete successfully in global markets. Its work shows the degree to which scientific and technological talent contributes to national economic performance. Regression analysis and quantitative modeling pinpoint a few critical factors that correlate highly and positively with economic strength. They include:

  • The size of the labor force dedicated to research and development and other technically-oriented work,
  • The amount of investment directed at research and development,
  • The resources devoted to higher education, and,
  • The degree to which national policy encourages investment in innovation and commercialization.

Council researchers also point to a growing number of countries capable of world-class innovation. Beside Japan and Europe, several nations are emerging as new centers of innovation. They include Scandinavian countries, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland, and Israel. Others are making great strides in educating and training their own scientific and technical talent, including India, China, and Malaysia.

These economies are further bolstered by an increase in access to capital and the burgeoning global information infrastructure.

Although the U.S. enjoys the strongest national economy with the largest per capita income, we also harbor a critical vulnerability. The source of our innovative capacity and technological ability is thinning. A quarter of the current science and engineering workforce — whose research and innovation generated the economic boom in the 1990s — is more than 50 years old and will retire by the end of this decade.

This cohort is not being replaced in sufficient numbers. For two decades, the U.S. college-age population declined by more than 21 percent, from 21.6 million in 1980 to 17 million in 2000. According to data compiled by the National Science Board, graduate and undergraduate student populations in engineering and the physical sciences — and even in the computer sciences — are static or declining. The same trend holds true for undergraduate and graduate degrees granted to American students in these disciplines. The only positive trajectories have been in the life sciences, as I am sure you are aware.

While these trend lines may be flat or declining, the demand for technological workers — even in a weak economy — is projected to remain, although the mix of desired background may shift.

These trends and projections have not made headlines because the nation has not yet felt the pinch. Our failsafe has been foreign workers on H1B visas - as many as 195,000 per year. But this protection may be at risk. While other nations ramp up production of their own scientists and engineers, the U.S. has been experiencing a 15 percent decline in the number of foreign-born doctoral students since 1997, reversing a decade-long increase. And, in the aftermath of September 11th, the inflow of foreign talent may be constrained by security concerns.

The response is clear. The United States must uncover its own talent within its own emerging demographics. Today's workforce of scientists and engineers no longer mirrors the national profile. White males comprise nearly 70 percent of the science and engineering workforce, but just over 40 percent of the overall workforce. White females, on the other hand, make up about 35 percent of the overall workforce, but no more than 15 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Similar disproportion holds true for African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons with disabilities who make up 24 percent of the population, but only 7 percent of the science and engineering workforce. As I suggested at the beginning, taken together, women and under-represented groups make up a half to two-thirds of the population of the United States and comprise the nation's new majority.

Many have championed increasing the numbers of underrepresented groups in science and engineering for decades, making limited headway.

Two years ago, however, the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development issued a report that marked a significant shift. Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology, the Congressional Commission's report, made the case for bringing traditionally underserved groups into the mainstream. This case used to be made in terms of affirmative action, casting the argument along social or moral lines. Land of Plenty, on the other hand, contends that because women and underserved groups comprise the nation's majority, the challenge is no longer either a social or even moral responsibility. It is a national economic imperative, and, after September 11th, a national security imperative.

Land of Plenty spells out issues that must be addressed along the full spectrum of workforce development to increase participation of under-represented groups. These start in grades pre-K through 12, where an alarming number of African American, Hispanic, and Native American youngsters start behind, and stay behind. Only a relative handful graduate from high school with the skills needed for further study of science and engineering. Girls, who complete high school with the same achievement in mathematics and science as boys, nonetheless face a host of pressures that deter many from continuing. Under-represented groups, who stay the course to higher education, disproportionately drop out of science and engineering majors. Comparable problems of retention and advancement persist in graduate school and beyond.

Consequently, under-represented groups do not participate in the science and engineering labor force in proportion to their numbers in the overall population.

Yet, it remains true that we could avoid the projected gap, if the intellectual talent inherent in this new majority were identified, nurtured, and encouraged.

The United States has met comparable challenges before — during World War II, the ensuing Cold War arms race, and later, the space race.

The latest threat to American interests has sharpened the focus on these issues. Federal and quasi-Federal agencies including the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the Government/University/Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) are calling for action.

A growing number of university leaders have acknowledged their responsibilities to improve a pre-K through 12th grade mathematics and science feeder system that does not measure up to the nation's needs. Major foundations and corporations also recognize the challenge and are ready to do their part.

I am privileged to be involved with several organizations working on this challenge. One of them is BEST — Building Engineering and Science Talent — a nonprofit organization with short-term funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce (specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology), Defense, and Energy. BEST's three-year mission is to develop and execute a national action plan.

This month, BEST will report to the Congress on what kinds of programs really work to develop the science and engineering talent of under-represented groups from primary and secondary school, through undergraduate and graduate programs, and into the workplace.

In addition, BEST hopes to stimulate leadership and the national will to make serious progress over the next decade. There is no quick fix for under-representation. Scientific and engineering talent must be nurtured and developed over time.

Most of the priorities and action steps for this national strategy will emerge from a BEST national assessment of what is working and what is not working.

BEST will urge action priorities for the various sectors including the federal government, education, industry, and nonprofit organizations. BEST's recommendations — not yet completed as I prepared my remarks for today — will look something like the following:

For the federal government, BEST urges the Congress and the Executive Branch to take the lead, giving voice to the national need — and backing that voice with direction and with resources. Because federal resources are scattered throughout many agencies, an interagency initiative to align disparate efforts and to standardize criteria and accountability would enhance the value and credibility of federal investment. States and local governments should leverage federal dollars, so that federal investment does not stand alone.

It may be even more worthwhile to consider a bolder initiative similar to the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 when Congress found "that an educational emergency exists and requires action by the federal government." NDEA provided support for graduate education in the sciences and engineering, targeted to the best students. Many of the current senior people in science and engineering gained advanced degrees through NDEA support. This is the generation about to retire.

But whatever action is taken, Congress and the Executive Branch cannot simply re-divide the pie. New resources must be allocated, and programs, that are proven effective, must be expanded, such as NSF's five-year $1 billion Mathematics and Science Partnerships and Pell-like financial aid grants for under-represented students.

In the education sector, universities must re-evaluate their roles in educating teachers of science and mathematics, to improve undergraduate retention rates, and to improve collaborations with two-year colleges and minority-serving institutions (HBCUs, HSIs, TCs). We can strengthen the university presence in elementary and secondary mathematics and science education. Universities also can develop alternatives to the traditional admissions processes and make special efforts to prevent attrition. A great barrier to inclusion is the absence of role models — in teaching and in research. Again, university leadership must commit to transform the composition of their junior and tenured faculties.

Industry must be involved, as well. Corporations can strengthen their presence in pre-K through 12 mathematics and science education. Several have set good examples, but this kind of commitment must become the norm. The report recommends increasing internships and professional development opportunities (especially if they are linked to overall financial aid packages for underrepresented groups), expansion of the teacher corps to draw participants into teaching from industry, and the use of technology to aid classroom teachers. In addition, discipline-based teacher models that enable scientists and engineers to transition between industry and teaching have great potential. Companies that invest in university-based research should make clear that increased diversity enhances the value of collaboration, and will affect the selection of future partners. And, although the business case for diversity is widely accepted and discussed, the highest executive levels in corporate America still need to require an energetic recruiting policy in order to enable scientists and engineers from under-represented groups to participate in the growth of their enterprises at the highest levels.

The report lays out roles for nonprofit organizations — foundations, professional societies, community-based agencies, advocacy groups, and others. These groups could collaborate, combine assets, and work toward a more positive public image of science, engineering, and technology; making technical careers more attractive to all Americans, especially the under-represented; put diversity front and center on their agendas; help university departments reduce attrition; and prepare future faculty.

These are just a few of the recommendations that BEST will make to Congress at the end of this month.

Some efforts like this were once referred to as "affirmative action," a term that eventually acquired pejorative meaning. The urgency of the current situation is an "opportunity." Its obvious demographic solution is our "affirmative opportunity."

We must seize this opportunity forthwith.

At this point, I would like briefly to move into an area which you — perhaps more than others — know well — the changing nature of engineering and what these changes imply.

In certain critical areas of the sciences and engineering, the most intriguing discoveries are occurring on the very edges where traditional disciplines overlap and combine to stretch knowledge into entirely new frontiers, new forms, even new sciences.

Blending the biosciences with information technology, for example, has given us biocomputation and bioinformatics, which are essential for interpretation in burgeoning fields such as genomics. And, blending the biological sciences with engineering principles has enabled bioelectronics and biomechatronics.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 (published by the National Science Board) acknowledges this trend especially in today's national and international research alliances, and states: "...research is increasingly multidisciplinary, requiring specialized knowledge from a broad range of fields."

An example is nanobiotechnology, which draws from materials science and engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, and biomedical engineering, among others. Work in nanobiotechnology can range from nanostructured biological materials, to nanostructured biomimetics, to the creation of surfaces which affect and control protein folding - important in understanding certain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, ALS, and Cruezfeld-Jakob or ("mad cow" -like) diseases.

Another example of multidisciplinarity, going beyond engineering to foster creativity and innovation is used by a large American toy manufacturer, which has initiated a new design development process. Employees from disciplines such as engineering, design, marketing, and even copywriting temporarily leave their desks, move out of headquarters, and collaborate on new toy designs. The group absorbs lectures by improvisational artists, Jungian psychoanalysts, architects, even experts in brain wave frequencies. Out of this has come new products, including a building activity set aimed at drawing girls into building blocks and construction toys, a segment that traditionally has been geared almost exclusively to boys.

I believe we can assume that the trend toward multidisciplinary approaches will continue. And so, to prepare young people for the new science disciplines of the 21st century, and for these more integrated modes of thinking, we need new ways not only to involve our young people, but also to educate our young people.

At Rensselaer, students regularly work together in interdisciplinary teams in our multidisciplinary design laboratory, a format that is helping to transform the learning culture. In this laboratory, professors interact more as coaches than lecturers and work side-by-side with students solving real-world problems, often posed by industry. Their solutions, drawn from a variety of disciplines, have potential real-life applications and result in alpha prototype designs that are relevant to the real world.

But I believe we may need to go farther yet, which leads me to talk about liberal arts and engineering.

Engineering education began in America under circumstances that differ substantially from those of the other leading professions. Medical schools, for example, were established by individual physicians, and then loosely affiliated with universities.

By contrast, engineers were first trained by apprenticeship, particularly on canal construction projects. Eventually, engineering schools were sponsored by the federal government (the U.S. Military Academy in 1802) and land-grant colleges (beginning in 1862). They were also advanced by public-spirited citizens, as well as from within established universities.

Sylvanus Thayer, for instance, who introduced a formal engineering curriculum at West Point in 1817, later endowed a graduate school of engineering at Dartmouth College, intending that students enroll in the Thayer schools program after obtaining a traditional college degree.

Recognition of the importance of liberal studies to engineering education dates to the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges, and there has been an abiding recognition that engineers must appreciate and understand the human condition, in order to apply the principles of mathematics and science in the service of humanity. Dr. Charles Mann of the University of Chicago was one of the first to raise this issue in 1918, and he was echoed in the Wickenden Studies (1930); the Jackson report (1939); the Grinter report (1955); and the Olmsted report (1968).

Some programs have made the link — Dartmouth, of course, and most recently, the new Picker Program at Smith College, in an attempt to encourage more women to become engineers.

I think it maybe worthwhile to take cues from these programs. They seem to reflect dual needs — the need for the profession to broaden its base as engineering takes its place amid today's multidisciplinarity, and the needs of individuals, especially women and minorities, who may approach engineering from a broader perspective.

That broader perspective may be a key component to drawing a new spectrum of candidates into the engineering fields and to the future success of the profession.

Here are some of the reasons:

  • There is a growing need for engineers to communicate in order to be effective, especially in collaborations and interdisciplinary teams, where the need to understand, explain, persuade, and emphasize pertain.
  • Today's engineering graduate entering industry will spend more time explaining technology to lawyers, consumers, legislators, judges, bureaucrats, environmentalists, and the media.
  • There is a greater-than-ever need for broadly educated engineers to heighten respect for technological solutions among the general public, and to help alleviate a cultural fear that occasionally challenges progress.
  • Engineers must be sensitive to the social consequences of their work. That surely translates into ethical questions. For example, "perhaps it can be done, but should it be done?" This is an area that interests me greatly and one that could stand alone as the subject of inquiry and discussion. The fundamental message: ethics education is critical.
  • Broadly educated engineers will be better able to explain technology to fellow citizens involved in democratic decision-making.
  • This could lead to opportunities for political and policy leadership. Our society needs technologically knowledgeable individuals in its highest councils.
  • A liberal education ultimately makes engineers more creative by expanding their minds and exercising their imaginations.
  • And, finally, a liberal arts education is an end in itself, bringing the individual delight in the arts, and the insights of literature, history, and philosophy.


These are engaging times — times that compel all of us to be fully involved and aware, open to new realities and new challenges. We are offered the opportunity to design new approaches to these new realities. The events of last September lend an extra measure of urgency and a new poignancy to the work we do, but they have only sped up the process a little. We have learned some lessons earlier than we might. Action must follow.

As I close, I leave you with a few questions to stimulate action, or, at least, to contemplate.

1. Is discipline-based engineering education still relevant?

2. Is experiential learning the bridge between discipline-based education and multidisciplinary solutions to real world problems?

3. How do we structure new requirements into an already loaded undergraduate engineering curriculum? Or, do we just admit that becoming an engineer, as is the case for a physician, requires advance study — always?

4. How do we reconcile a liberal education with an engineering education, or should we?

5. Are we too limited in our approaches to the creation of the engineer of 2020? Are we merely rehashing the attempts of old?

6. How do we create a national will to address the "affirmative opportunity"?

7. Do we really believe that the "underrepresented majority" is the real talent pool from which we can/must draw?

Thank you for your attention.

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.

Page updated: 12/17/10, 6:59 PM
Copyright ©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)  110 Eighth Street, Troy, NY USA 12180  (518) 276-6000  All rights reserved.
Why not change the world?® is a registered trademark of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Site design and production by the Rensselaer Division of Strategic Communications & External Relations