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Engineering Education in the 21st Century

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

Society of Women Engineers
Birmingham, Alabama

Saturday, October 11, 2003


Thank you, Sandy (Sandy Wood, SWE Board of Directors, Region D, and Conference Planning Committee Education Track Chair), for your kind introduction. It is an honor to be here this morning, among friends and colleagues.

In addition to the impressive turnout of women engineers, I am delighted to see that this conference attracts a large number of students from secondary schools, and institutions of higher learning throughout the region and across the nation. Indeed, there are six students here from my own university — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I would like to recognize them. They represent our future. To all the young people who are with us, I remind you that your participation here is vital. You are the future of the science and engineering professions. Your presence here, and at similar conferences elsewhere, positions you for leadership roles in tomorrow's technological workforce, and we need you, as you will soon hear me describe. In addition, I urge you to take note of, and to draw strength from, the many marvelous success stories that surround you here. Engage this network of inspiring mentors.

It is fitting, I believe, that we gather in Birmingham, which has seen much social change over the past four decades, and today is an emerging center of science and technology. The Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, boasts one of the world's largest x-ray crystallography facilities, staffed by 20 Ph.D.-level crystallographers. And, the Birmingham-based Southern Research Institute's work in proteomics is helping scientists to understand how proteins interact and control cellular processes in the body so that we may develop customized therapeutic and diagnostic drugs.

Less than two hours north of here, NASA scientists and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are doing extraordinary things. They are unlocking new information on the structure and evolution of the universe. Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, they have scored many scientific firsts, learning new details about distant galaxies and planets and observing such exotic phenomena as exploding stars, quasars, and black holes.

But Shuttle Mission STS-93, the flight that placed the Chandra observatory flawlessly into position in 1999, notched perhaps its most important first — one especially relevant to this conference — several days before the space telescope was actually deployed. For, STS-93 was under the command of Air Force Colonel Eileen Marie Collins, the first woman to serve as a NASA Shuttle Commander — who was recognized last night with the Resnick Challenger medal.

Certainly, Colonel Collins is a role model for all women and all Americans for her courage, knowledge, skill, and achievements. But I cite her here because, in many ways, I believe she personifies the 21st century technologist — expert in a range of subjects, versatile, experienced, and articulate.

  • She is educated in mathematics, economics, operations research, and space systems management.
  • During her career as an Air Force pilot, she has logged more than 5,000 hours of flight in 30 different types of aircraft.
  • She has served as a member, and a leader, of numerous teams tasked with solving complex problems related to space research, travel, and exploration.
  • She also has carried out a variety of assignments as an astronaut, culminating in that of Mission Commander of STS-93.

In short, she has blended her innate talents and acquired skills to serve herself, her communities, her society, and her nation. Tomorrow's scientists and engineers will likely be asked, and be expected, to be equally versatile and flexible — equally disciplined and determined.

This morning, I would like to review the status of the science and engineering workforce in the United States today, and what that portends for higher education, and to ask the question: "Is America prepared to identify, educate, and deliver talent such as your own and that of Colonel Collins in the numbers that will be required?"

Related to this question of preparedness, I reference Colonel Collins' employer — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an agency that personifies the challenge that confronts virtually every scientific institution in America whether it be in government, private industry, the research community, higher education, or the non-profit sector. The challenge is to maintain America's technological leadership in the world.

Today, scientific agencies, like NASA, will soon see their most experienced scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians leave to retirement. During the next few years, many of the people who put Americans on the moon; sent successful probes to Mars, Jupiter, and beyond; and designed, built, and launched Chandra, Hubble, and other technological marvels will depart.

A recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office reveals that fully 15 percent of NASA's current scientific and engineering staff is already eligible to retire. During the next five years, that number will increase to 25 percent. NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, testified before the Congress earlier this year that his agency's scientists and engineers, aged 60 and older, outnumber those aged 30 and younger by a factor of nearly three to one.

The same story is playing out at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an important participant in this conference. A recent internal workforce assessment project, looking out to the year 2020, made some startling discoveries about the relatively short term.

Nearly 80 percent of the agency's Senior Executive Service employees — virtually its entire leadership cadre — will be eligible to retire by 2005. When we broaden the cohort to include senior scientists at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels, we find that 60 percent will be eligible to retire by 2005.

The problem is not limited to government agencies. Private industry and the non-profit sector, as well, are facing similar challenges. We also are confronting it in the world of science and engineering education. The Glenn Commission — known formally as The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, and chaired by former Astronaut and Senator John Glenn — identified an impending demographic shift in which two-thirds of the nation's mathematics and science teaching force will retire by 2010.

Nor is the problem limited to retirements. The demographics of the student population are changing, and fewer students are choosing to study engineering and science.

Data from the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 show that there has actually been a slight drop in the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. in recent years. The drop from 29,000 doctoral degrees in 1998 to 27,000 in 1999 reflected surprising changes in two categories that have been traditional mainstays — white men who are U.S. citizens, and foreign-born students. And, looking at engineering enrollment at the undergraduate level provides no reassurance. The number of engineering undergraduates in 1998 totaled just under 367,000, a decline of more than 12 percent from the more than 420,000 enrolled in the mid-1980s.

Looking at the Science Board data, the most precipitous decline is occurring among the ranks of the foreign-born, historically an important source of talent for U.S. employers seeking technological talent. Science and engineering doctorates earned by non-citizens soared from about 4,000 in 1980 to about 11,000 in 1996. By 1999, they had dropped off to about 9,000.

There are at least two major reasons why this decline will continue. One is the reality of the post-9/11 world. For security reasons, the U.S. is making it more difficult for promising foreign nationals to enter the U.S. as students, or to remain here after graduation. The other is that, as developing countries invest in their own science, engineering, and technology priorities, new universities, opportunities, and incentives are attracting the best and the brightest to remain home for advanced study. And, new employment opportunities enable these students to return home after being educated elsewhere.

Prior to my appointment as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), during the Clinton Administration. During my tenure as Chairman, we instituted a procedure that nuclear power plant operators conduct "probabilistic risk assessments" on their nuclear power stations, relative to their vulnerability to a variety of risks. On occasion during my tenure, those assessments led to dramatic action in order to protect the public and maintain the reliability of the nation's electric power grid, which nuclear power plants help to stabilize.

Perhaps if we, as a nation, applied the principles of "probabilistic risk assessment" to the risks flowing from the situation I have just described concerning our technological work force, we would better understand the conditions our nation currently faces. If we do not confront this situation and take steps to mitigate it, our position as the world's leading technological society will diminish.

Consider information technology, for example. The U.S. no longer holds global supremacy in supercomputing. Japan now outperforms us in this arena. In fact, Alfred Berkeley, vice chairman of NASDAQ, testifying during a meeting of the group, BEST, which stands for Building Engineering and Science Talent, a year ago, said,

"I think that this audience should know that the technology community has been shaken to its foundation by the loss of U.S. supremacy in supercomputing. Japan now has supercomputers 30 times more powerful than ours having followed a technology path that we abandoned about ten years ago. This is an extraordinary example of what happens when you don't invest enough and when you don't build the talent to stay at the cutting edge. It's very difficult to overestimate how important supercomputers are in design, in seismic, in code-breaking, and in many of the most advanced genomic designs."

To regain primacy, we must engage, inspire, and reward our brightest minds. If we do not, we will fall behind in areas dependent upon state-of-the-art information technology, from protecting the homeland to making further advances in human genomics.

Some question that this is a concern, citing, for example, the imprecision of forecasts of occupational need. They note that the job market for many with advanced training in science and engineering is flat, and that some who invested eight-to-twelve years obtaining highly advanced degrees may currently experience difficulty finding satisfactory employment opportunities.

Yet, it is sure that our comfortable and secure way of life is built solidly upon the work of engineers over the last 100 to 150 years. And, despite the current economic lull, that paradigm can only continue. We all want the same thing, of course — namely having an engineering and scientific workforce second to none in the world.

As President of a major research university whose mission is to educate tomorrow's world-class scientists and engineers, I see a systemic challenge. This challenge requires higher education to examine, and to evaluate, its role and its approach in identifying, recruiting, educating, and delivering tomorrow's scientists and engineers. I believe transformation in higher education, reflecting and responding to these challenges, is imperative.

For one thing, the way engineers work has changed dramatically and will continue to do so. The way we teach engineering, science, and technology must reflect those changes.

In a couple of months, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time — the airplane. The Wright brothers, though lacking formal training in technology, possessed tremendous mechanical aptitude and worked essentially as aeronautical engineers to introduce America, and the world, to flight. Their approach was typical of basic scientific research and engineering innovation in those days. We describe the great breakthroughs of the period — flight, electrification, the automobile, the telephone, and others — as "stand-alone" achievements developed within discrete disciplines. They were not really.

Today — as it actually was, in a fundamental way, back then — in the most exciting areas of science and technology, quite the opposite is true. Innovation and technological breakthroughs are far more likely to be the product of convergence — accomplishments occurring where disciplines meet.

For instance, I already have mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of Colonel Collins' career in the Air Force and with NASA, and this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine, recognizing the development of magnetic resonance imaging, is another example of multidisciplinarity. The laureates, Sir Peter Mansfield, a British physicist, and Dr. Paul Lauterbur, an American chemist, blended their disciplines with those of computer science and medicine to change the face of diagnostic medicine to improve, and to save, millions of lives.

In another example, Nanotechnology, a truly cutting-edge example of a multidisciplinary specialty, combines traditional materials science and engineering, the extraordinary ability to manipulate molecules and atoms, and the surprises of quantum science. We are finding applications for nanotechnology throughout society — in medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, defense, national security, information systems, communications, and much more. Those who will pursue this discipline will require familiarity with a host of related subjects from biochemistry, pharmacology, and medicine to mathematics, computer science, and, of course, basic engineering principles; or, must be able to work with those who are in this field.

Biotechnology, another field of great promise, merges engineering, physics, chemistry, and other physical sciences with biology, other life sciences, and medicine. To function effectively in this complex interdisciplinary field, a biomedical engineer may require an understanding of anatomy, physiology, histology, and other aspects of medicine along with mathematics, biology, and behavioral science; or must be able to work with those who have this understanding.

These, and other disciplines of the future, require tomorrow's engineers and scientists to master a daunting array of technical knowledge. And, concomitantly, institutions of higher learning are having to respond in new ways to keep their graduates abreast of change within a discipline. But in order to achieve "world class" status in the 21st century global environment, universities need to provide their students with greater experiential breadth of preparation in a variety of non-technical areas, while still developing in them the fundamental grounding they need in a complex, evolving discipline. Students need effective communication skills, a grounding in social science, an introduction to the principles of leadership and teamwork, ethical concern for the way their discoveries impact human societies, and a deeper appreciation for cultures.

All of this portends change — significant change — in the way we prepare tomorrow's engineers. This change will take many forms, from engaging students, early on, in realistic, team-oriented problem-solving exercises to incorporating aspects of liberal arts education and culture into the traditional science and technology curriculum.

Encouraged by organizations like the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the body that accredits university-level engineering programs, and the American Society for Engineering Education, important change already is occurring.

  • Engineering sciences students at Dartmouth's Thayer School are required to fulfill requirements in humanities, social sciences, and foreign language in a curriculum that emphasizes real-world problem-solving.
  • At Northwestern University's McCormick School, first-year engineering students participate in a program called Engineering Design and Communication (EDC). From the first day on campus, they work in teams to solve real problems for real clients.
  • Smith College, the liberal arts college for women, integrates liberal arts education into its new engineering program. Next May, Smith's Picker Engineering Program will graduate the first engineering class in U.S. history composed entirely of women.

At Rensselaer, we now are requiring that all engineering students satisfy, for graduation, a biology component, as well as a leadership component of the curriculum. In addition, they, like all our students, must complete a senior research-based thesis, a major design project, or a major case-study-based project. Entrepreneurship education is built into our programs, so our students become experienced in translating laboratory discoveries to practical use. And, our students, too, work in design teams solving real problems for real clients in multidisciplinary design labs. That is but a taste.

There is more. We have embarked on a unique venture we call EMPAC — the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. Less than a month ago, we broke ground for a splendid fine arts facility, steeped in technology, in the belief that by linking scientific research and discovery with artistic endeavor, EMPAC will inspire experimentation, cross-disciplinary inquiry, discovery, and will enrich scientific and technological learning in an environment that offers diversity of thought and experience, dialogue, and exchange. As a result, students will benefit from a richer and deeper understanding of culture and society, communication and arts, as well as the roles and applications of research and technology.

EMPAC is the physical embodiment of the Renaissance that is taking place at Rensselaer — embedding in our pedagogy and our curriculum new, and essential, elements and approaches which reflect the nexus of real-world change that is now actualized in the 21st century. Given the fast-paced, competitive, global environment, these have become essential elements in the education of the engineer of tomorrow.

Leadership skills will help tomorrow's engineers to collaborate, communicate, and manage conflict in team environments. And, a solid foundation in ethics will help scientists and engineers make appropriate choices, as cutting edge technologies raise complex ethical questions.

On a number of occasions, I have discussed an impending crisis in America — a quiet crisis — which threatens our nation's preeminence and global leadership. I also have talked about how this crisis affects the education community, particularly institutions of higher education. It is a quiet crisis of undeveloped and under utilized talent.

Women, minorities, and people with disabilities represent more than two-thirds of this nation's workforce. You are part of what I call "the new majority," a talent pool that is largely untapped and significantly under-represented in science and engineering.

The Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development confirmed this point when it issued its landmark report "Land of Plenty," in late 2000. An important product of the Commission's work was creation of an organization known as BEST — Building Engineering and Science Talent.

BEST is a public-private partnership dedicated to building a stronger, more diverse U.S. workforce in science, engineering, and technology, by increasing the participation of under-represented groups. I chair the BEST Blue Ribbon Panel on Best Practices in Higher Education. We have been working very hard for the past two years assembling an extraordinary array of talent from government, industry, academia, foundations, and the non-profit sector to assess the challenge, to evaluate what works and where improvements are needed, and to offer recommended solutions. Soon, BEST will present its full report and recommendations on what programs work to identify, nurture, track, educate, and mentor this nation's full pool of talent.

I am hopeful that the BEST report will help us to coalesce the national will, and to provide a platform upon which we can frame a national agenda. Many other countries have a national strategy for building engineering and science talent. The United States does not.

On the federal front, I believe it is time for bold initiatives. I indicated earlier that many in today's graying workforce were educated during the Cold War and the Space Race. In the wake of the early space successes of the then-Soviet Union in 1957 and 1958, the Congress enacted, and President Eisenhower signed, the National Defense Education Act, a law which galvanized the national will to excel in science and technology, and which led to significant increases in the production of Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers. Further sparking the science and engineering revolution was President Kennedy's commitment in the early 1960s to land astronauts on the moon, and to return them safely to Earth within that decade. These initiatives led to greatly expanded support for the education of scientists and engineers.

It may be time for a similar national commitment predicated on a challenging national goal, to ignite young people across the country and to tap the vast resources of the under-represented communities, and to revitalize our scientific and technological prowess through education. Such an effort would have to involve new investment, but should be supplemented by matching contributions at the state and local levels and the private sector. And, we can certainly do a better job of maximizing the benefits of existing federal programs that may be working but are scattered and, perhaps, less effective than they could be. An interagency initiative involving key agencies such as the National Science Foundation; the Departments of Defense, Education, and Energy; NASA; and others could be formed to ensure better alignment of on-going efforts, and to enhance results.

Educational institutions need to play a much more active role in pre-K through grade-12 mathematics and science education. An example of what I am talking about would be programs focused on secondary school students in low-income school districts who receive instruction by university staff in algebra, chemistry, physics, and trigonometry throughout the academic year and, more intensely, during the summer. These programs can include a residential component and mentoring, as well as seminars on college financial planning. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is leading just such an effort in the Capital Region of New York State. At the same time, leaders in higher education need to expand the diversity of both teaching and research faculty in science and engineering.

Programs such as Teach for America are promising and worthy of expansion. Under this program, thousands of recent university graduates — a virtual national teaching corps — spend two years teaching in economically deprived schools serving low-income populations. If more volunteers earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics would share their enthusiasm for their disciplines with these young minds, more promising students would learn the same thrill of scientific discovery and share the same sense of awe that propelled us into technological careers.

Just as institutions of higher education need to play a more active role, so must private industry. There is great potential for programs that enable talented teachers to sharpen their technical skills and re-ignite their enthusiasm for science and engineering by, for example, funding summer positions in industry. Similarly, scientists and engineers employed in the private sector should be given incentives to enter the classroom, and to bring their sense of excitement and awe directly to students. Finally, private industry can exert the same kind of pressure that government can to foster a more diverse technological workforce by insisting on diversity as a criterion for decisions on sponsored university-based research.

A priority for the non-profit sector — including foundations, professional societies, and institutional advocates for underrepresented groups — is to work collectively to improve the public image of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Foundations that support school reform, for example, could do more to focus on improving the teaching of science and mathematics. Professional societies could redouble their efforts to improve the diversity of their memberships.

The crisis we face may be a quiet one, but it also is a critical one. We must prevail, and we must engage the "new majority" in science and engineering education as a vital component in our strategy. Through the efforts of BEST, a variety of commissions, and many individual organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers, we are making important progress.

Which brings me back to you — especially the young women in attendance at this meeting.

We have a lot to do. Many of you are at the beginning of your careers. Much has changed over the years — especially here in the United States. Not so rapidly elsewhere. In coming to Birmingham, I literally flew from Tokyo, where I was speaking with Japanese nuclear officials on their civilian nuclear power program — especially its regulatory aspects. The Japanese had invited me because of problems in their nuclear power programs and because of the fairly sweeping regulatory changes I was able to implement as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — changes to which some attribute the rebirth of the nuclear industry here in the U.S. Now, I do not, and cannot, take all the credit, but the Japanese wanted to talk with me about change. One aspect of change — needed change — involves women. In Japan, in the nuclear arena, there are essentially no women directly involved — only a handful; and no women in leadership positions.

On the other hand, as validated by the women who were honored by SWE last night — it is good that you are here — in this place, in this time.

The possibilities are boundless. So to the young women in the audience: I want you to think about leadership — what it means for you. There are many ways to lead:

  • In a high level corporate management or executive position;
  • As a university president;
  • As an entrepreneur;
  • In teaching others;
  • In public policy.

Always aim for the greatest challenge; reach as high as you can; do your best; do not be afraid to take risks — or to move — to create the career you seek.

My father used to say two things:

"The way to get your next best job is to do as well as you can in the one you are in."
and
"Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops. And at any rate, you will get off the ground."

The message — if you do not aim high, you will not go far.

The challenges ahead remain significant. Addressing them will be exciting. I urge all of you to participate in the discoveries, the developments, the debate, the deliberations, and the solutions.

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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