In This Issue
Engineering Culture
March 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 1
The Bridge: Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 1997

Making Connections: The Role of Engineers and Engineering Education

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Joseph Bordogna

Tomorrow's engineers will need to use abstract and experiential learning, to work independently and in teams, and to meld engineering science and engineering practice.

Over 2,000 years ago, a well-to-do citizen of ancient Greece offered some of his real estate, a grove, to a thoughtful fellow citizen of considerable intellect. The thoughtful citizen desired to make the land a place where fellow thinkers could gather for hearty discussion on matters of common and uncommon interest. Thus did Academus yield property to Plato for the purpose of making connections to learn and create. To make connections to learn in those days, a physical place was needed to develop and share knowledge. Academus' gracious gift was well received indeed.

Plato's desire to network intelligence was but one example of similar efforts, developing independently over several centuries in a variety of cultures around the world, that marked the birth of scholarly enterprise. As time passed, connections to learning proliferated, first slowly, as armies of scriveners valiantly copied tomes that filled libraries for their patrons, and then more quickly, as technological innovation increasingly became a facet of wealth creation and daily life. The flow of commerce inexorably meshed with the exchange of knowledge.

During the past several centuries, the successive development of the printing press, wired and wireless communication, and the Internet have enabled the ubiquitous creation, shaping, and sharing of knowledge. One could argue that as a result of these developments, the capacity for universal participation in decisionmaking in politics and other spheres has risen to an unprecedented level, as has the potential for enhancing the quality of life for a broader segment of humankind. Today, a new world of robust communication lies before us, and it has all been made possible by the talents, skills, and dedicated work of engineers and scientists. How we develop and use this capacity will determine our destiny.

We are entering an age of "distributed intelligence"--an era in which knowledge is available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime; in which power, information, and responsibility are moving away from centralized control to the individual. Over the span of just a few years, the size of computers has shrunk dramatically, from something that would fill a large air-conditioned room to something that fits on our desktop, in our laps, or in our pockets. The number of Internet hosts leapt from only 200 in 1983 to 10 million in 1996 (a 50,000-fold increase!) and remains on track to continue doubling annually, according to estimates from the Computing Research Association (Cerf, 1987).

Within this context, engineers and scientists will play an increasingly significant role. Our system of education and training must therefore equip tomorrow's engineering and science professionals to shoulder growing responsibilities and pursue emerging opportunities. Recent articles in these pages have addressed this issue in the context of lifelong learning for engineers (Smerdon, 1996) and the forces of change affecting engineering education (Vest, 1995). Similarly, the recent report Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, from the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the Academies and the Institute of Medicine (1995), examined similar issues as they relate to graduate education in science and engineering.

This is a healthy discussion, one that this article aims to encourage and hopefully accelerate. By examining engineering education and exploring innovations based on integrative and holistic approaches, we can shed light on a host of key issues facing the entire science and engineering enterprise.

As engineers, we can be justly proud of the tremendous role that engineering played in enabling the Industrial Revolution and the information age. We should look forward now to enabling what is yet to come.

There is much evidence supporting the notion that technological innovation is central to wealth creation and economic growth. Many studies (National Science Board, 1996; Smith and Barfield, 1995; U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, 1995) indicate that, over the past 50 years, technological innovation has accounted for over one-third of U.S. economic growth.

Peter Drucker (1992) notes that the source of wealth is knowledge creation, a human activity that can yield both productivity and innovation. Knowledge applied to tasks we already know how to do can boost productivity, while knowledge applied to tasks that are new and different is innovation, the process of creating new businesses and delivering new products and services.

The true strength of a nation resides in its human capital--especially its engineering workforce. Engineers will develop the new processes and products and will create and manage new systems for civil infrastructure, manufacturing, health care delivery, information management, computer communications, and so on. In general, they will put knowledge to work for society and facilitate the private sector's potential to create wealth and jobs.

To be successful and to promote prosperity, engineers must exhibit more than first-rate technical and scientific skills. In an increasingly competitive world, they must help us make good decisions about investing enormous amounts of time, money, and human resources toward common ends. I like to think of the engineer as someone who not only knows how to do things right, but also knows the right thing to do. This requires that he or she have a broad, holistic background. Since engineering itself is an integrative process, engineering education must likewise be integrative.

For example, engineers must be able to work in teams and communicate well. They must be flexible, adaptable, and resilient. Equally important, they must be able to employ a systems approach in their work, to make connections within the context of ethical, political, international, environmental, and economic considerations. To better illuminate this last point, I would like to examine the innovation process, as described by Drucker (i.e., making and profiting from new things, as opposed to productivity, which implies simply making existing things more efficiently).

A critical element in the innovation process is scientific inquiry, an analytic, reductionist process that involves delving into the secrets of the universe to discover new knowledge. The United States excels at this paradigm and must continue to sustain and nurture its rich intellectual infrastructure.

The essence of engineering, on the other hand, is integrating all knowledge for some purpose. As society's "master integrators," engineers must provide leadership in the concurrent and interactive processes of innovation and wealth creation. The engineer must be able to work across many different disciplines and fields--and make the connections that will lead to deeper insights, more creative solutions, and getting things done. In a poetic sense, paraphrasing the words of Italo Calvino (1988), the engineer must be adept at correlating exactitude with chaos to bring visions into focus.

Added Value
Today's engineering students will spend most of their careers coping with challenges vastly different from those experienced by engineers of the last half-century. The intellectual skills of tomorrow's engineers will extend well beyond the traditional science-focused preparation that has characterized engineering education since World War II. The factors contributing to this new thrust include global commercial competition (a major driver for industrial organization and engineering employment); opportunities offered by "intelligent" technology; an eclectic, constantly changing work environment calling for astute interpersonal skills; and growing awareness of the need to place environment, health, and safety at the beginning of the design process.

U.S. engineering graduates should provide added value in order to compete in today's global marketplace, not only added value resulting from state-of-the-art knowledge, but also that resulting from an understanding of risk and participation in the process of engineering throughout their educational experience.

Engineers know that scientific and mathematical skills are necessary for professional success. An engineering student nevertheless must also experience the "functional core of engineering"--the excitement of facing an open-ended challenge and creating something that has never been. Participating in the process of realizing a new product through the integration of seemingly disparate skills is an educational imperative. This is the ultimate added value that enables wealth creation. In this sense, the 21st-century engineer must have the capacity to:

  • design, in order to meet safety, reliability, environmental, cost, operational, and maintenance objectives;
  • realize products;
  • create, operate, and sustain complex systems;
  • understand the physical constructs and the economic, industrial, social, political, and international context within which engineering is practiced;
  • understand and participate in the process of research; and
  • gain the intellectual skills needed for lifelong learning.

The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset presaged today's challenge in engineering education when he wrote in his Mission of the University (1930):

The need to create sound syntheses and systemizations of knowledge . . . will call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration: the genius for integration. Of necessity this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this time the [person] will be specializing in the construction of the whole.

Translating these concepts into a viable curriculum raises a core set of issues and challenges for the engineering education enterprise. For starters, it requires examining the traditional reductionist approach to teaching and learning.

Most curricula require students to learn in unconnected pieces. They take separate courses whose relationship to each other and to the engineering process is not explained until late in their undergraduate education, if ever. Further, engineering curricula usually present the set of topics engineers "need to know," leading to the feeling that an engineering education is simply a collection of courses. While the content of the courses may be valuable, this view of engineering education ignores the need for connections and integration.

And what of fundamentals? What are the basic constructs of the engineering process? What does the phrase "engineering is an integrative process" mean? Many of the components of a holistic baccalaureate engineering education are identified in Box 1. The columnar arrangement and the row-by-row juxtaposition of terms give the appearance contradiction. Moreover, the emphasis on the science base of engineering over the past half-century has embraced the elements in the left-hand column, often to exclusion of those on the right.

A holistic baccalaureate engineering education should emphasize the inherent connectivity and the complementary nature of these two sets of elements. Tomorrow's engineers will need both abstract and experiential learning, the ability to understand certainty and to handle ambiguity, to formulate and solve problems, to work independently and in teams, and to meld engineering science and engineering practice. Put simply, our aim now should be to achieve some balance between the corresponding elements in each row of Box 1.

This effort can lead us, in a scholarly way, to realizing Ortega's "construction of the whole." Certainly, today's easier access to information and improved connectivity will enable engineers (indeed everyone) to make more productive connections to learn and create. This combination of access and connectivity may well prove to be the key enabler for Ortega's vision.

Engineering education should therefore shift emphasis from course content (and the consequent filtering out of students) to a more comprehensive view, a view that focuses on the development of human resources and the broader educational experience in which individual courses and experiences are connected and integrated. This intent is made more facile in an era of knowledge and distributed intelligence.

Thus, a vision of engineering education for the 21st century can be based on developing, in as individualized a way as possible, the following capabilities (National Science Foundation, 1989) in each student:

  • Integration: recognition of engineering as an integrative process in which analysis and synthesis are supported with sensitivity to societal need and environmental fragility.
  • Analysis: critical thinking that underlies problem definition (modeling, simulation, experiment, optimization)--derived from an in-depth understanding of the physical, life, and mathematical sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences.
  • Innovation and synthesis: creating and implementing useful systems and products, including their design and manufacture.
  • Contextual understanding: appreciating the economic, industrial, and international environment in which engineering is practiced and the ability to provide societal leadership effectively.

Many U.S. graduate programs, while rigorous and in-depth, are too narrowly focused to appeal to the professionally oriented engineer who is concerned with career-enabling subjects such as manufacturing, construction, systems integration, environmental technologies, quality control, safety, and management of technological innovation. Most of this content can be addressed in a master's program, but too often the program is configured as a "stepping stone" to the reductionist-oriented Ph.D.

Today, there is growing consensus that professional engineers need an integrative master's degree and that our universities need to offer more practice-oriented master's degree programs that have stronger connections to industry and to the social, economic, and management sciences. Even the doctoral degree is being challenged as too analytic and too oriented toward subspecialties. There is growing momentum, across all of science and engineering, to reorient the Ph.D. curriculum in a way that enables graduates to enjoy a broader spectrum of career opportunities, while sustaining the rich educational enhancement derived from the process of doing research. As the COSEPUP report noted: "A world of work that has become more interdisciplinary, collaborative, and global requires that we produce young people who are adaptable and flexible, as well as technically proficient" (COSEPUP, 1995, p.2).

How we might "enable the next generation engineer" is depicted in Figure 1. The complementary components of a holistic undergraduate curriculum lead to a practice-oriented master's-level curriculum and/or an integrative, discovery-focused doctoral curriculum--all supported by infrastructures for cognitive systems and career-long learning.

It is no overstatement to say that the word "potential" has never been as meaningful as it is today. Potential conveys possibility, opportunity, and capability--all of which exist in abundance as we enter an era of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Internet browsers have transformed the information superhighway from an obscure research tool to something a five-year-old can "surf." Search engines help people control the flood of information unleashed by the Web.

Moreover, what we are seeing today is only the beginning. Supercomputers are now breaking the teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks, such as the NSF-supported very-high-speed Backbone Network Service, transmit data in excess of 600 megabits per second, a twelve-fold increase over current Internet operating speeds.

If history is any guide, it won't take long for these capabilities to reach the typical user. When combined with technologies such as palmtops, handhelds, intelligent agents, and omnipresent sensors, the potential before us takes on an entirely new dimension. Information will be available in forms that make it easier for everyone to use effectively--voice, video, text, holograms, to name but a few of a universe of possibilities. Will we develop new ways to express and unleash our creative talents, talents that are now limited by our ability to interface via a QWERTY keyboard and mouse? What tools will enable us to control and master this ultrarapid flow of information? Will having the results of the Library of Congress effectively in your pocket be a blessing or a burden?

The answers to these questions begins with engineers. Our efforts and our leadership can transform this immense, unprecedented, and somewhat intimidating potential into true progress, economic opportunity, social gain, and rising living standards.

The first step must be reform of our system of education and training for scientists and engineers. Engineering and science education has become much more than a 4-year bachelor's degree or 7-year Ph.D. It now requires strengthening and continually refreshing our talents for innovation and creativity. Professional societies will need to assume greater responsibility for enabling their members to thrive through change. Universities will need to embrace new mechanisms for interacting with students, as well as for linking the creation of knowledge with its dissemination and application.

The spread of digital libraries; the onset of virtual collaboratives; the capacity to mine data with alacrity; the assurance of high-confidence systems for privacy, security, and reliability; and the creation of knowledge-on-demand pedagogies have ushered in a promising new era of discovery, innovation, and progress.

This presents the engineering community with the opportunity--and the responsibility--to sustain and expand the connections to learning and creativity that Academus launched with his gift to Plato 2 millennia ago. These connections will in no small way help determine U.S. prosperity well into the next century. Our efforts and our leadership hold the key to success.

Calvino, Italo. 1988. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Cerf, V.G. Computer networking: Global infrastructure for the 21st century. Available at:
homes/lazowska/cra/networks.html, February 18, 1997.

COSEPUP. 1995. Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Drucker, P.F. 1992. Managing for the Future: The 1990s and Beyond. New York: Truman Talley Books/Plume.

National Science Board. 1996. Science and Engineering Indicators--1996. (NSB 96-21). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

National Science Foundation. 1989. Imperatives in Undergraduate Engineering Education: Issues and Actions. Report of an NSF Ad Hoc Task Force. August. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation.

Ortega y Gasset, J. 1992. Mission of the University. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Smerdon, E.T. 1995. Lifelong Learning for Engineers: Riding the Whirlwind. The Bridge 26(1&2):15-17. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering.

Smith, B.L.R., and C.E. Barfield. Eds. 1995. Technology, R&D, and the Economy. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. Council of Economic Advisors. 1995. Supporting research and development to promote economic growth: The federal government's role. October. Working paper available: econ-top.html. March 3, 1997.

Vest, C.M. 1995. U.S. Engineering Education in Transition. The Bridge 25(4):4-9. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering.

About the Author:Joseph Bordogna is assistant director for engineering in the Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation.