In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

Note from Bridge Editor in Chief Ronald M. Latanision

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Author: Ronald M. Latanision

With this issue of the Bridge, the NAE will be in the midst of a leadership transition as Dan Mote succeeds Chuck Vest as president. I have had the opportunity to work a bit with Dan in the context of an Association of American Universities (AAU) initiative on precollege education that I chaired on behalf of the AAU presidents. I look forward to working with him once again. Chuck was president of MIT during my time as a member of the faculty and while it is tempting to mention Chuck’s reference to me as MIT’s “education czar,” I will resist. Instead, I might just mention with fondness the bets that, as alums, we placed on the Michigan–Ohio State football games: the bet included the provision that the winner choose an artifact of the winning school that the loser had to publicly display on the MIT campus for some suitable period of time. Unfortunately for me, he won most of those bets! I had to carry a maize and blue umbrella around campus—rain or shine. But on the one occasion when OSU did win, he wore a Buckeye tie to a faculty meeting! These were short interludes in Chuck’s characteristically full agenda.

I also want to thank Guest Editor Diran Apelian for his masterful work in assembling this issue of The Bridge on the subject of undergraduate engineering education. Education at every level has been important to me, personally and professionally, for a very long time. My roots are in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and the educational system in this country has been at the core of my life. I am concerned now that the intellectual infrastructure in the United States is declining in many of the engineering disciplines that are important to this nation’s future. For example, metallurgists, ceramic engineers, welding engineers, corrosion engineers, power systems engineers, high-temperature oxidation experts, cement chemists, and others are very difficult to find among undergraduate and graduate students. We continue to build engineering systems that depend on these disciplines, but the population of students and graduates in such areas is declining. Part of the decline may in my judgment be attributed to the declining research support from agencies that typically fund university research in the United States.

My years of university teaching and research convince me, in a reductionist sense, that most university departments are subject to the following sequence: (1) funding sources drive research, (2) research drives the educational program at both the graduate and undergraduate level, and (3) prospective students look at the education (curriculum) that is offered and vote with their feet in terms of their choice of major. This is in itself not a startling observation. But I suspect that engineering has taken a disproportionate hit in terms of both research funding and student interest for some time. This seems to be true in many engineering disciplines. What concerns me is that the nation’s university research enterprise is out of balance in terms of both funding distribution and direction.

Many would argue that the above engineering disciplines are mature and that there are higher priorities for research support. It’s true that quite a lot is known about the fundamentals in those disciplines, but without resources for research in a given area, why would a department hire faculty with such interest? And without faculty, there are no students to follow that path of research, and so the intellectual infrastructure that took decades to develop begins to erode. This is the phenomenon at work at this point in my view.

I do understand the need to establish priorities and I do agree that universities should be at the leading edge in terms of their research agenda, but I do not think the national interest is served when the priorities and research agenda are at the expense of disciplines that meet the demand for a workforce that can design, manufacture, inspect, and maintain engineering systems that literally support our daily lives. Power stations, bridges, pipelines, buildings, airframes, and gas turbines are still integral to the American standard of living and commercial enterprise. But US bridges and water works are aging and need attention. Airframes and power plants are being asked to perform beyond their original design life. The country needs not only the skills that address such contemporary engineering systems but also those that are likely to evolve over the decades ahead.

While the above litany represents a problem in my view in terms of engineering education, it represents a challenge and opportunity for the engineering practice. My concern is that with faculty and industrial practitioner retirements, and without the means to replenish these skills, the United States will have a serious engineering dilemma on its hands. Engineering education and research are substantially driven by external funding forces that are seemingly unbalanced.

NAE members, as the leaders of the engineering enterprise, should exercise their sense of technological statesmanship and take a long, hard look at the above issues. This would require, I believe, conversations among university executives, federal agency leadership, and science and technology policymakers that focus not just on ensuring that US research universities have sustained research support but that these funds are distributed in keeping with the national interest in the broadest sense.

I welcome your comments.

About the Author:Ronald Latanision is editor in chief of The Bridge