Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education

2017 Gordon Prize Acceptance Remarks

Julio M. Ottino
May 30, 2017

Receiving this award is an incredible honor, and I share it with many people.

In cases like this, one is supposed to say something about how the idea emerged. With this there is the temptation to beautify the path of how things came about, describing things – to paraphrase someone famous, Hermann Helmholtz – as a smooth royal path rather than as a shaky ladder. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, when reaching the top kicking ladder altogether, erasing all the trail of missteps, errors, and difficulties, and often presenting things as epiphanies.

I do not believe in epiphanies, at least I cannot tell you I have ever had a clear one. I have had two, maybe three good ideas in my career. But for me, ideas emerge in a kind of cloudy state, with lots components, some very amorphously defined, that sort of dance in your brain. Sometimes you have to let them self-organize, and at some point there is one piece, no more special than the others, that makes the picture more complete. In this case, it was coming up with the name Whole-Brain Engineering.

When I first began as dean, the school was largely disconnected. I needed to connect the school with the larger fabric of the university. This was more than creating structures. It was about creating the right kind of people. The people are the connectors. We had to change the culture through individuals.

The quickest way to do this was to change our undergraduate experience. By integrating right-brain thinking into the undergraduate curriculum, we could excite a new generation of engineers. This is the quickest way to do anything. As I said in the video – if you give young students a match, they will bring you a forest fire.

We began to reframe engineering at Northwestern. We began to see ourselves not as a distinct school, but as part of a system – a network of disciplines and ideas. We began to intertwine learning and doing, the way things work in the arts but something more uncommon in engineering. And we began to see collaborations as investments. We targeted activities with every school at Northwestern, as well as partners outside of the University.

Now if I look at this in hindsight, Whole-Brain Engineering is really about something called complementarity or the principle of complementarity. Niels Bohr made sense of the quantum world by holding two separate ways of describing a system in his mind at the same time. Light is both a particle and a wave: light travels as a wave but interacts with matter as a particle. Both descriptions – light and wave – are correct and useful, but ultimately they are incompatible. It is about seeing two extremes at the same time.

Complementarity applies to art/science, abstraction/realism, rationality/intuition. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in your mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It is not about being able to function. It is about thriving.

This is the view from 10,000 feet, which I can have, because I am the dean. But, of course, this must translate down to the many courses, majors, research projects, and programs we have here, and for that I am grateful to the many, many people on whose shoulders I rest to be able to have this view.

For design, I thank Greg Holderfield, Bruce Ankenman, and Ed Colgate, for your original vision in incorporating design into our curriculum, and for continuing to innovate every day. I also benefited from many conversations with Walter Herbst, Don Norman, Bruce Mau, and others.

A big part of our design curriculum, the entry point to everything, is Design Thinking and Communication (formerly Engineering Design and Communication), and for that I thank Steve Carr, Ted Belytschko, and Penny Hirsch, for their hard work in helping to create this course.

Another big part of our design efforts is the student initiative Design for America, for which I thank Liz Gerber, Mert Iseri, Yuri Malina, Hannah Chung, and Aaron Horowitz.

For our entrepreneurship efforts, I must thank Mike Marasco and Mark Werwath, and for our leadership efforts I thank Adam Goodman. Joe Holtgreive has helped us to develop a truly distinctive vision of personal development.

Northwestern is a place that has been full of good partners, people who have stretched in multiple directions. Many are here today, such as Lisa Corrin at the Block Museum or Saul Morson from Weinberg, and Daniel Diermeier from the University of Chicago. In this vein I should thank also Mark Mills, of Forbes, as someone who I have exchanged views on a multitude of topics, including the very first published versions of the whole-brain paradigm.

Many of the McCormick Advisory Council members, represented here by Ken Porrello, have given many hours and words of advice as we have charted this path, and for that I am grateful. I am especially thankful to those MAC members past and present who travelled here – there are at least four from California.

I have been tremendously lucky to have an outstanding team working alongside with me. Thank you to the many members of the McCormick leadership team, particularly Rich Lueptow, Ajit Tamhane, Joe Schofer, Alice Kelley, and Wes Burghardt.

Finally, I have to thank my toughest critic, my wife, Alicia, who keeps me grounded, humble, and on my toes.

I have to conclude by thanking Morty Schapiro and Dan Linzer – they have been very big supporters of these ideas – as well as many other members of Northwestern’s leadership team, and my fellow deans, for allowing me to follow this vision not only throughout McCormick, but throughout the university.

Eventually, from one idea comes a network of ideas, and the network of ideas becomes a system and a culture. I am not going to be shy – the ultimate goal is to make Northwestern a whole-brain organization. I think that this is where we are going. This prize will allow us to keep plowing forward to make that a reality.

Thank you.