In This Issue
Reforming Engineering Education
June 1, 2006 Volume 36 Issue 2

Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Charles M. Vest

Engineering educators must tap into students’ passion, curiosity, engagement, and dreams.

When I look back over my 35-plus years as an engineering educator, I realize that many things have changed remarkably, but others seem not to have changed at all. Issues that have been with us for the past 35 years include: how to make the freshman year more exciting; how to communicate what engineers actually do; how to improve the writing and communication skills of engineering graduates; how to bring the richness of American diversity into the engineering workforce; how to give students a basic understanding of business processes; and how to get students to think about professional ethics and social responsibility. But for the most part, things have changed in astounding ways. We have moved from slide rules to calculators to PCs to wireless laptops. Just think of all that implies.

Looking ahead to 2020, about 15 years, and setting goals should be a “piece of cake.” But to gain some perspective, look back about 15 years, and think about what was not going on in 1990. There was no World Wide Web. Cell phones and wireless communication were in the embryonic stage. The big challenge was the inability of the American manufacturing sector to compete in world markets; Japan was about to bury us economically. The human genome had not been sequenced. There were no carbon nanotubes. Buckminster Fullerines had been around for about five years. We hadn’t even begun to inflate the dot-com bubble, let alone watch it burst. And terrorism was something that happened in other parts of the world.

So predicting the future, or even setting meaningful goals, is risky, even on a scale of a mere 15 years. Years ago, I read that Gerard O’Neil of Princeton made a study of predictions of the future and found one simple constant—we always underestimate the rate of technological change and overestimate the rate of social change (O’Neil, 1981). That is an important lesson for engineering educators. We educate and train the men and women who drive technological change, but we sometimes forget that they must work in a developing social, economic, and political context.

Opportunity and Challenge
I envy the next generation of engineering students because this is the most exciting period in human history for science and engineering. Exponential advances in knowledge, instrumentation, communication, and computational capabilities have created mind-boggling possibilities, and students are cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries in unprecedented ways. Indeed, the distinction between science and engineering in some domains has been blurred to extinction, which raises some serious issues for engineering education.

As we think about the challenges ahead, it is important to remember that students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement, and dreams. Although we cannot know exactly what they should be taught, we can focus on the environment in which they learn and the forces, ideas, inspirations, and empowering situations to which they are exposed. Despite our best efforts to plan their education, however, to a large extent we simply wind them up, step back, and watch the amazing things they do.

In the long run, making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details. In fact, that is my primary message.

When we look to engineering in 2020 and beyond, we have to ask basic questions about future engineers—who they will be, what they will do, where they will do it, why they will do it, and what this implies for engineering education in the United States and elsewhere. In the future, American engineers will constitute a smaller and smaller fraction of the profession, as more and more engineers are educated and work in other nations, especially in Asia and South Asia. In the future, all engineers will practice in national settings and in global corporations, including corporations with headquarters in the United States. They will see engineering as an exciting career, a personal upward path, and a way to affect local economic well-being.

Universities around the world, especially in Asia and South Asia, are becoming increasingly utilitarian, focusing on advancing economies and cutting-edge research. I am reminded of a two-day meeting at Harvard six or seven years ago of a delegation of presidents of American universities and the presidents of seven Chinese universities that had been chosen to be developed into world-class research universities. Among the Americans were a Renaissance scholar, an economist, a political scientist, a linguist, a mechanical engineer, and, I believe, a lawyer. Among the Chinese university presidents were six physicists and one engineer who had become a computer scientist. I tell this story to illustrate the tectonic changes taking place in the way engineers are being produced and in where engineering and research and development (R&D) are being done.

We can only thrive on
brainpower, organization,
and innovation.

From the U.S. perspective, globalization is not a choice, but a reality. To compete in world markets in the so-called knowledge age, we cannot depend on geography, natural resources, cheap labor, or military might. We can only thrive on brainpower, organization, and innovation. Even agriculture, the one area in which the United States has traditionally been the low-cost producer, is undergoing a revolution that depends on information technology and biotechnology, that is, brainpower and innovation.

To succeed, we must do two things: (1) discover new scientific knowledge and technological potential through research and (2) drive high-end, sophisticated technology faster and better than anyone else. We must make new discoveries, innovate continually, and support the most sophisticated industries. We must also continue to bring new products and services to market faster and better than anyone else, and we must design, produce, and deliver to serve world markets. We must recognize that there are natural global flows in industry, that, the manufacture of many goods will inevitably move from country to country according to their state of development. Manufacturing may start in the United States, then move to Taiwan, then to Korea, and then to China or India. These megashifts will occur faster and faster and will pose enormous challenges to our nation.

Our companies already know this, but it often seems that the public and the body politick are still largely in denial of this reality—a very dangerous situation. If we continue to deny the realities of globalization or, worse yet, retreat into protectionism, then we won’t do the very things that will enable us to lead and benefit from this brave new world.

Meeting these challenges will require an accelerated commitment to engineering research and education. Research universities and their engineering schools will have to do many things simultaneously: advance the frontiers of fundamental science and technology; advance interdisciplinary work and learning; develop a new, broad approach to engineering systems; focus on technologies that address the most important problems facing the world; and recognize the global nature of all things technological.

We mustn’t deny the realities
of globalization or retreat
into protectionism.

Scale and Complexity
There are two frontiers of engineering, each of which has to do with scale and each of which is associated with increasing complexity. One frontier has to do with smaller and smaller spatial scales and faster and faster time scales, the world of so-called bio/nano/info. This frontier, which has to do with the melding of physical, life, and information sciences, offers stunning, unexplored possibilities, and natural forces of this frontier compel faculty and students to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries. This frontier meets the criterion of inspiring and exciting students. And out of this world will come products and processes that will drive a new round of entrepreneurship based on things you can drop on your toe and feel—real products that meet the real needs of real people.

The other frontier has to do with larger and larger systems of great complexity and, generally, of great importance to society. This is the world of energy, environment, food, manufacturing, product development, logistics, and communications. This frontier addresses some of the most daunting challenges to the future of the world. If we do our jobs right, these challenges will also resonate with our students.

New Systems Engineering
I first heard the term “systems engineering” as a graduate student in a seminar about the Vanguard missile—the United States’ first, ill-fated attempt to counter Sputnik by putting a grapefruit-sized satellite into space. An embarrassing number of Vanguards started to climb and then blew up, which Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found amusing. In fact, the Vanguard rocket was assembled from excellent components, but it was designed with insufficient knowledge of how the components would interface with each other. As a result, heat, electrical fields, and so on, played havoc with them. The system needed to be engineered. I found this very interesting, but then, like most students of that era, I pursued a career in engineering science.

Today, many of our colleagues believe we should develop a new field of systems engineering and that it should be central to engineering education in the decades ahead. In 1998, MIT established an Engineering Systems Division, which reflected a growing awareness of the social and intellectual importance of complex engineered systems. At the time, a large number of faculty members in the School of Engineering and other schools at MIT were already engaged in research on engineering systems, and MIT had launched some important educational initiatives at the master’s and doctoral levels. The Engineering Systems Division, which provides administrative and programmatic coherence for these activities, is intended to stimulate further development.

MIT, of course, is famous for spearheading “engineering science,” which revolutionized engineering in the post-World War II era. In fact, in my view, the pivotal moment in MIT’s history was when President Karl Compton realized that we could not be a great engineering institution if we did not also have great science. This realization started the institution on a path that ultimately led to the engineering science revolution.

Another pivotal moment in MIT’s history occurred half a century ago when a faculty commission (headed by Warren K. Lewis) considering the nature of our educational programs told us we had to develop strong programs in the humanities and social sciences (Committee on Educational Survey, 1949). Perhaps that set us on a path toward the twenty-first-century view of engineering systems, which surely are not based solely on physics and chemistry. Engineers of today and tomorrow must be prepared to conceive and direct projects of enormous complexity that require a highly integrative view of engineering systems.

Academics led the way in engineering science, but I don’t think we have led the way in systems engineering. In fact, as we observe developments in industry, government, and society, we are asking what in the world we should teach our students. We need to establish a proper intellectual framework within which to study, understand, and develop large, complex engineered systems. As Wm. A. Wulf (2004) has warned us, we work every day with systems so complex that we cannot know all of their possible end states. Under those circumstances, how can we ensure that they are safe, reliable, and resilient? In other words, how can we practice engineering?

Something exciting is happening, however, and it comes none too soon. Biologists and neuroscientists are suddenly rediscovering the full glory and immense complexity of even the simplest living systems. Engineers and computer scientists are suddenly as indispensable to research in the life sciences as the most brilliant reductionist biologists. The language in the life sciences today is about circuits, networks, and pathways.

It also is fascinating to participate in discussions of the role of science and biology in R&D on homeland security, or, more generally, on antiterrorism, which I think of as the “Mother of All Systems Problems.” Designing systematic strategies to protect against terrorism has about as much in common with protecting ourselves from the Soviet threat of just a few years ago as it does with strategizing against eighteenth-century British troops marching toward us in orderly file.

Here’s another example of systems engineering. Consider what IBM vice president for research, Paul Horn, is thinking about these days. His company and his industry, which produce the ultimate fruit of the engineering science revolution (i.e., computers), are morphing into a new services sector—financial services, manufacturing services, McDonald’s hamburger services. Paul Horn (2005) is asking himself if a services science is about to emerge. If a new discipline does appear, it will be a subset of the new systems engineering.

An even greater, and ultimately more important, systems problem than homeland security is the “sustainable development” of human societies on this system of ultimate complexity and fragility we call Earth. In Europe, sustainable development, ill defined though it may be, is part of the everyday thinking of industry and politicians and a common element in political rhetoric—and rhetoric is a start. I am troubled that it barely appears on the radar screen in U.S. politics. Nevertheless, sustainable development must be on our agenda for preparing future engineers.

In Europe, sustainable
development is part
of everyday thinking in
industry and politics.

I believe energy is the key, the sine qua non, to sustainable development, but I fear that we risk becoming a “can’t do” nation with respect to innovation rather than continuing in the great American “can do” tradition. The federal government has underinvested in engineering and physical sciences, and only nibbled around the edges of long-term energy supply and distribution problems. As a result, we have marginalized the field from the perspective of many bright young men and women. It seems to me that we are in a situation similar to the one we faced in the 1980s when our historically dominant manufacturing sector had become fat, sassy, and then, suddenly, uncompetitive.

We need to recharge corporate entrepreneurial and academic R&D, as well as our curricula in energy. We need to make energy an exciting, well supported, dynamic field that attracts the best and brightest young men and women and gives them opportunities to contribute and to innovate. We made this transition in manufacturing, design, and product development after being knocked down by the Japanese, and we can do it now in the domain of energy, environment, and sustainability. But the federal government and industry must kick start the change.

Delivery and Pedagogy
So far, I have suggested that engineering students prepared for 2020 and beyond must be excited by their freshman year; must have an understanding of what engineers actually do; must write and communicate well; must appreciate and draw on the richness of American diversity; must think clearly about ethics and social responsibility; must be adept at product development and high-quality manufacturing; must know how to merge the physical, life, and information sciences when working at the micro- and nanoscales; and must know how to conceive, design, and operate engineering systems of great complexity. They must also work within a framework of sustainable development, be creative and innovative, understand business and organizations, and be prepared to live and work as global citizens. That is a tall order . . . perhaps even an impossible order.

Information technology
is more or less the paper
and pencil of the
twenty-first century.

But is it really? I meet kids in the hallways of MIT (and I am sure the same would be true at other universities) who can do all of these things—and more. So we must keep our sights high. But how are we going to accomplish all this teaching and learning? What has stayed constant, and what needs to be changed?

One constant is the need for a sound basis in science, engineering principles, and analytical capabilities. In my view, a strong grounding in the fundamentals is still the most important thing we provide. I am so old-fashioned I still believe that masterfully conceived, well delivered lectures are wonderful teaching and learning experiences. They still have their place . . . at least they better have, because at MIT we just built a magnificent, whacky, inspirational, and expensive building designed by Frank Gehry, and—by golly—it has classrooms and lecture halls in it (among other things).

But even I admit there is a good deal of truth in what my extraordinary friend, Murray Gell-Mann, likes to say: “We need to move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.” Studio teaching, team projects, open-ended problem solving, experiential learning, engagement in research, and the philosophy of CDIO (conceive/design/implement/operate) should be integral elements of engineering education.

Two obvious things have changed: we now have information technology, and we have the MTV generation, Generation X, and beyond. So I suppose we should provide deep learning through instant gratification. It sounds oxymoronic to me, but it seems to be happening! Actually, our Frank Gehry building is about something like that.

Before I turn to the role of information technology in educating the engineer of 2020, I want to relate an interesting incident. A few years ago, two dedicated MIT alums, Alex and Britt d’Arbeloff, gave a very generous endowment, the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education, which was inspired by their desire to understand and capitalize on the role of information technology in teaching and learning on a residential campus. We celebrated the establishment of the fund with an intense, day-long, interactive forum on teaching that brought together a large number of our most innovative and talented teachers and a wide range of students.

At the end of that very exciting day, we all looked at each other and realized that nobody had actually talked about computers. Even though information technology is a powerful reality, an indispensable, rapidly developing, empowering tool, computers do not contain the essence of teaching and learning, which are deeply human activities. So we have to keep our means and ends straight.

Information technology is more or less the paper and pencil of the twenty-first century. For engineering students of 2020, it should be like the air they breathe—simply there to be used, a means, not an end. The Internet, World Wide Web, and computers can do two things for engineering schools. First, they can send information outward, beyond the campus boundary. And second, they can bring the external world to the campus. By sending information out, we can teach, or, better yet, provide teaching materials to teachers and learners all over the world. By bringing the world in, we can enrich learning, exploration, and discovery for our students.

Information technology can also create learning communities across time and distance. It can access, display, store, and manipulate unfathomable amounts of information: text, images, video, and sound. It can provide design tools and sophisticated simulations.

In addition, information technology can burn up a lot of money. To reduce the amount, we should take advantage of what the Internet and Web do best—create open environments and share resources and intellectual property across institutions. The goal of MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative is to make the basic teaching materials for 2,000 MIT courses available on the Web to teachers and learners everywhere, at any time, free of charge. And even more amazing forms of educational sharing are coming. My remarkable colleague Jesus del Alamo, for example, has established a program called iLab that allows experiments to be run via the Web. He is installing PCs in under-resourced African universities that enable students to log on and operate sophisticated and expensive experimental equipment that is physically located at MIT.

OpenCourseWare and iLab are prime examples of a snowballing global movement toward open resources for education and for scholarly materials emanating initially from the United States and fueled largely by thoughtful support from the Mellon Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. I think educational openness and global sharing emanating from the United States is a very good exercise in public diplomacy; it contributes to the global common good in new and recognized ways. Our nation needs this at this moment in its history.

In my view, openness is creating a global meta-university, a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of Web-based open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be either constructed or enhanced. Like the computer operating system LINUX, knowledge creation and teaching at each university will be elevated by the efforts of individuals and groups all over the world. It will rapidly adapt to the changing learning styles of students who have grown up in a computationally rich environment. But the biggest potential winners are clearly in developing nations.

Danger of Complacency
In the past 15 years, the number of engineering and computer science B.S. degrees granted in the United States dropped from about 110,000 to a low of 88,000, although it has recently rebounded to about 109,000 (NSB, 2006). We must double and redouble our efforts to make our engineering schools and our profession attractive and fully engaging for women and for currently under-involved minorities. We need equity and full participation in our engineering workforce, our faculties, and our leadership.

In this global knowledge age—with its serious problems and great opportunities—we need the best and brightest to enter engineering schools. And we need a larger percentage of them to earn Ph.D.s in areas of engineering that can lead to innovations that will keep us free, secure, healthy, and thriving within a vibrant economy.

We all know the statistical trends. The United States awards about 220,000 first degrees in science and engineering. China awards almost the same number, about 350,000 first degrees in science and engineering, having grown by almost 120 percent in the past decade. In 2002, Asian countries awarded 635,700 first engineering degrees, European countries awarded 369,700, and North America awarded 122,400.

The United States annually awards about 19,480 doctoral degrees in science and engineering, a number that has remained essentially constant for a decade. China today awards more than 7,500 doctoral degrees annually in science and engineering, an astounding 420 percent increase in one decade.

Statistics are important, but, in my view, the global challenge in engineering technology and innovation leadership is cultural. In Asia today, science and engineering “rule” for young people. These are hot, exciting, and respected fields. In Asian countries, engineering and science are understood to be the path of upward mobility for individuals and for nations. These countries are hungry, and they are not ashamed to learn all they can from the very best the world has to offer and then try to improve on it—nor would we want it any other way. They understand competition, and they are learning rapidly about innovation. The United States is still the clear world leader in science and technology, but of all the enemies our country faces, complacency is the one I fear the most.

In Asia today, science
and engineering “rule”
for young people.

We may be beginning to shake off our national complacency, however. Last fall, the National Academies’ Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the Twenty-First Century released its report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (NRC, 2006). This report outlines a federal agenda to improve K–12 science and mathematics education, strengthen our commitment to long-term basic research, and make the United States the best place in the world to study, do research, and innovate. The Council on Competitiveness framework document, Innovate America (2004), preceded this report. Building on these and other national studies, the president of the United States, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, proposed an American Competitiveness Initiative to begin building momentum for a science, education, and innovation agenda (DPC and OSTP, 2006). Hopefully, Congress will convert these urgent agendas into strong, well-funded programs.

As I said earlier, my primary advice regarding engineering education is that making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details. As we develop the concept of a new curriculum and new pedagogy and try to attract and interest students in nanoscale science, large complex systems, product development, sustainability, and business realities, we must resist the temptation to crowd the humanities, arts, and social sciences out of the curriculum. The point of my referring to the meeting of American and Chinese university presidents was to demonstrate the integral role of these subjects in U.S. engineering education. In this respect, we are different from much of the rest of the world. I believe the humanities, arts, and social sciences are essential to the creative, explorative, open-minded environment and spirit necessary to educate the engineer of 2020.

American research universities, with their integration of learning, discovery, and doing, can still provide the best environment for educating engineers…if we support, sustain, and challenge them. They must retain their fundamental rigor and discipline but also provide opportunities for as many undergraduates as possible to participate in research teams, perform challenging work in industry, and gain substantive professional experience in other countries.
My secret desire, which I hope will play out on the timescale of the next 15 years or so, is that cognitive neuroscience will catch up with information technology and give us a deeper understanding of the nature of experiential learning—a real science of learning. Then we might see a quantum leap, a true transformation in education. In the meantime, we must see to it that the best and brightest young American men and women become our students and, therefore, become the engineers of 2020 and beyond. We simply cannot afford to fail.

Committee on Educational Survey. 1949. Report of the Committee on Educational Survey to the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press.
Council on Competitiveness. 2004. Innovate America: Thriving in a World of Challenge and Change. Washington, D.C.: Council on Competitiveness. Available online at:
DPC (Domestic Policy Council) and OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy). 2006. American Competitiveness Initiative: Leading the World in Innovation. Available online at: booklet.pdf.
Horn, P. 2005. The New Discipline of Services Science. Business Week Online, January 21, 2005. Available online at: jan2005 /tc20050121_8020.htm?chan=tc.
O’Neil, G. 1981. Year 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future. New York.: Simon and Schuster.
NRC (National Research Council). 2006. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available online at:
NSB (National Science Board). 2006. Science and Engineering Indicators 2006. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation. Available online at:
Wulf, W.A. 2004. Keynote Address. Pp. 1–8 in Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop, October 14–15, 2003. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

About the Author:Charles M. Vest is President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an NAE member. This article is based on a talk given on October 10, 2005, at the NAE Annual Meeting.