2006 Annual Meeting - President's Remarks

October 15, 2006

National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 15, 2006

Wm. A. Wulf

It is an immense honor to welcome once again our new members and foreign members. I know you must feel honored as well; my own induction is one of my fondest memories. The academy is renewed and enriched by each new class, so please accept my sincere, heartfelt welcome. The knowledge and experience you bring to NAE enables us to continue to play a unique and invaluable role in service to our democracy. I also want to acknowledge the families and friends of the members of the new class. I know that none of those being inducted would be here if it weren’t for their support.

As most of you know, I will be stepping down from the presidency at the end of next June after 11 years. So, when I was thinking about what to talk about today, there was a fleeting temptation to reflect on the progress we have made in those 11 years. But I decided not to do that. Instead, I want to talk about what I plan to do next—and, maybe, enlist some help from you.

Along with our sibling organizations, NAS and IOM, NAE operates under a Congressional Charter that calls upon us, “whenever asked,” to advise the nation on issues of science, engineering, and health. Often our advice concerns the state of knowledge as it relates to a public policy issue, such as how engineering methods can be used to improve the delivery of health care, or if storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is safe, or whether it is feasible to service the Hubble Space Telescope robotically.

The United States is the most technologically sophisticated (and thus technologically dependent) country in the world. Consequently, many of our most important public policy issues have a significant technical component. Thus, for more than 10 years, NAE (and I) have been at the nexus of science, engineering, and public policy.

It is good that the National Academies are here to inform debates about these policies, but it is also disconcerting that the vast majority of Americans do not have the background to participate in these debates. Thomas Jefferson often said that a democracy cannot survive without informed citizens. His point was that, to be wise stewards of our democracy, citizens must, at the very least, understand the issues. It would be even better if they understood the alternatives available to address those issues and were able to evaluate those alternatives. Most Americans cannot do that for the issues we face today, such as alternative energy sources, the levees in New Orleans, the possibility of a hydrogen economy, privacy in this technological age, zero-emission cars, electronic voting machines, and on and on.

Despite efforts by the National Academies, I see policy makers every day expounding on national and homeland security, energy, and dozens of other technical issues about which they haven’t a clue! I interact with journalists who, in my view, miss the real issues in a story because they have no knowledge of technology, and thus compound their own ignorance by misdirecting the public’s attention. I put up with advocates of all stripes proposing technologically nonsensical solutions to very real problems.

I worry about people having to make personal decisions—whether or not to disarm an air bag, for example—about which they have fragmentary information and no disciplined thought process on which to rely. Mostly, these are good, intelligent people who want to do the right thing. They simply do not have the knowledge they need to function in a technological society. In other words, they are technologically illiterate! They are not dumb, just uninformed.

I’m going to be using the phrase technological literacy from here on, so perhaps I should say a few words about what it means. First, when I use the word technology, I do not mean only computers and telecommunications, even though that seems to be a common use of the word today. A flint knife was high technology in its day. The chair you are sitting on is technology. The appliances that made your breakfast are technology. The vehicles that brought you here are technology. When I use the word technology, I mean the vast array of objects and processes that humans make to satisfy their wants and needs.

Second, literacy. I am fond of a definition of cultural literacy given by E.D. Hirsch many years ago. He said that, in every society, there is a body of information that members of that society must share to be able to communicate and make sense of the world. A culturally literate person in that society knows that body of information. In that sense, then, technological literacy is based on a body of information that people must share to be able to communicate and cope with our technological society.

NAE has had a Program on Technological Literacy for much of my tenure here. Working with the International Technology Education Association, we produced a set of standards for technological literacy in K–12 that was published in 2000. We produced a report, Technically Speaking, in 2002 that defined the concept of technological literacy and made a case for why every American needs to be technologically literate.

At the request of the Department of Education, we hosted a workshop in 2004 for state education officials; about two-thirds of the states sent representatives. One state, Massachusetts, now requires that engineering and technology be part of the curriculum in all of the K–12 grades, and, as of 2004, 27 percent of states will require at least one K–12 course in technology. In April 2005, we hosted a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop to discuss existing approaches to teaching technological literacy to undergraduate students. I will just observe that not many attempts have been made, but they exhibit an amazing diversity of goals and approaches.

In 2005, I testified before the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the group that defines the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination, or NAEP. I (and others) asked them to include technology assessment questions in the science portion of the NAEP, and they have done that for the 2009 test! About 10 percent of the exam will be on technology. Even better, NAGB is conducting a feasibility study of a completely independent examination on technological literacy. That will take a while to implement, of course, so the target for the first exam is 2012. But that is real progress!

This August we released another report, Tech Tally, that addresses the question of how to measure technological literacy. A lot has been done on assessing scientific literacy, but not technological literacy. We are working on disseminating this material to as many audiences as we can. For example, in October, we will present the results of Tech Tally to the ASTC—Association of Science-Technology Centers (museum personnel), and the day after this meeting, we will present the results to the House STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) caucus.

NSF has requested a proposal from us to actually conduct an assessment of adult technological literacy. In addition, NAE member and former chair of NAE, Steve Bechtel, is funding our work on developing guidance for the creation and implementation of K–12 engineering curricula and instructional practices.

One of the important things we did in 1999 was to compile a list of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century—“greatest” being defined in terms of impact on people’s lives, not technological gee whiz. The list is stunning! My grandfather was a teenager in 1900, and looking at the list I am awestruck by how different his life was from mine. In 1900 barely anyone had electricity or an automobile, and there were just a few tens of miles of paved road in the entire United States. The first airplane had not been flown. The average life expectancy was 46 …now it’s76, largely thanks to clean water and sanitation. There was no radio or television, and few people had telephones. Of course there were no cell phones, computers, or Internet. Fifty percent of Americans lived on farms; now only 2 percent do because of agricultural mechanization. And the list goes on! With the support of Bob Pritzker, that list was transformed into a coffee-table book. And now, even as we speak, it is the basis for a PBS television show in the making.

Other NAE members have also been working to inform the public. For example: Sam Florman and Henry Petroski are great popular authors on engineering. John Leinhard produces short pieces on engineering for NPR. David Billington teaches the most popular course at Princeton on engineering. Elsa Garmire is writing a college text on technological literacy. And Francois Castaing has led the transition of the Detroit Science Center to emphasize engineering and technology.

In short, both the organization and NAE members have been active and, I think, effective in working to improve the technological literacy of Americans. However, I often feel that this exercise is a bit like steering a supertanker. One has to have the helm over hard for a long time before the bow swings. But I think it’s beginning to move!

So, now to the point I said I was going to make at the beginning of this talk—what I am going to do next. I plan to return to the University of Virginia after a leave of 11 years. And when I do, I am going to develop an engineering course for liberal arts majors!

My objective will be to give students the knowledge and mental tools they need to be good citizens in a technology-intensive democracy—to make them technologically literate. My objective will not be to make them into engineers—so no equations, for example. It’s the concepts behind the equations that matter! I plan to use contemporary public policy issues as a context for discussions of engineering concepts.

You may be wondering why my focus is on an engineering course for liberal arts majors rather than on a science course. It’s because engineering is usually most relevant to public policy. I am fond of the contrast that Theodore von Karmen made between science and engineering. He said, “Science is about understanding nature, about understanding what is. Engineering is about creating what has never been.”

Public policy questions are most often about whether there is a technological solution to some problem. The public policy question about global climate change, for example, is not about whether anthropological CO2 is causing climate change. Although that would be nice to know, even if we had a 100-percent certain answer, that wouldn’t fix anything. The real question is whether we can create technology that will enable us to continue our present lifestyle while reversing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And, if we can’t create that technology, or if it is already too late, can we create technology that will enable us to survive in a radically altered environment?

Let me give you a quick example of the kind of issue I want students to be able to analyze and what they need to know to do that. Some years ago, given a rather dire air pollution situation, California mandated that a certain percentage of cars in the state had to be “zero-emission” (i.e., electric) vehicles. Should other states also adopt this policy?

To the non-engineer, the notion of zero-emission cars sounds appealing. To the engineer, however, the question raises at least two red flags. First, electricity has to be made somewhere. A zero-emission car is part of a larger system that includes an electricity generation plant and transmission lines. Maybe a zero-emission car will just move the emissions from the location of the car to the location of the generating plant. Whether you view that as good or bad probably depends on where you live.

Second, nothing works perfectly (that’s the essence of the second law of thermodynamics). Maybe the imperfect conversion of the chemical energy in coal to electricity will add to the losses in the transmission line, which will add to the losses in charging the car’s batteries, which will add to the imperfect conversion of electricity into rotary motion. Thus, when you add these up, the result may be lower efficiency than if you simply burned gasoline directly. If so, that would mean zero-emission cars will add more emissions to the atmosphere than gasoline-powered cars.

Well, maybe, and maybe not—we’d have to do the computations to find out. The point is that informed citizens, faced with a public policy question like this one, ought to at least know enough to ask these questions. To do that, they don’t need a B.S. in engineering. In this case, they only need to be aware of two things: (1) everything is embedded in a larger system, and policy questions like this must take a “big enough” part of that system into account; and (2) nothing works perfectly, and if you string many imperfect things together, you may make things worse!

Informed citizens don’t have to be able to do the calculations of the overall efficiency of the system supporting the zero-emission car. If they ask the question, we can find an expert to do the calculation. Thus, I will consider the course a success if, at the end, students (1) recognize the technical information they need to inform themselves on a public policy issue, (2) know how to find that information, and (3) reach reasonable, informed conclusions. Frankly, I hope they will also be able to recognize when a politician tries to pull the wool over their eyes with overly simplistic descriptions of technologies. Hydrogen and ethanol are two of my current favorites on that score!

An obvious question is which engineering concepts I should teach. The honest answer is that I don’t know yet, and I would be happy to get help from the engineers in the audience. I hoped there was a book on great concepts in engineering, but, if it exists, I haven’t found it yet. So, on long, boring plane rides I have been playing with this question, and I have come up with a list of candidates. It includes obvious things like design, systems, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, control and feedback, safety margins vs. fail-soft design, risk analysis and communication, and so on. But the thing about lists is that you never know what you’ve left off. So I would be grateful for your lists. Indeed I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on this subject.

In other contexts, I have observed that schools of engineering, like other professional schools, target all of their courses to their own majors. However, faced with this crucial issue—individuals need sufficient technological literacy to be functional citizens of a democracy—engineering schools have an obligation to educate every college student. So, what I am going to do next is to tilt with that windmill!

Thank you.