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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Engineering Education: Finding the Road to Change"
American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference

Chicago, IL
June 19, 2006

Good morning everyone. I'm delighted to be with you once again to discuss our shared commitment to strengthening U.S. engineering education.

Let me begin with a cautionary tale from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As Alice came to a fork in a road, she saw the Cheshire cat in a tree, and asked:

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where --' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
'-- so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'

Like Alice, those of us committed to engineering education have come to a fork in the road. The question is whether we are headed to a definite destination, or, instead, are simply content to keep on walking long enough to get somewhere.

In my remarks today, I want to emphasize a framework for determining our direction. For some time now, articles and reports have stressed the need to reform engineering education to meet the new challenges of the emerging global innovation system. ASEE has been prominent in leading efforts to promote reform. There are shining examples of university programs that embody exciting new models of engineering education.

Valuable as these are, progress also requires that all of us take steps to revitalize and reshape our own institutions. When it comes to adaptation and innovation in engineering education, failure to act is an act of failure. Radical change will continue to disrupt the status quo. The critical difference today is that these transformations may not occur here, in our own backyard, in our own nation; and change may not move in the direction we foresee or desire.

Certainly other nations are acting with determination to realize their own vision of the future, including how to educate the engineers who are central to their own technology-driven societies.

I returned a few weeks ago from China, where I was present for the opening of the NSF Beijing office. I talked with many Chinese scientists, engineers and officials, including Premier WEN Jiabao.

I heard that China aims to reach 90 percent literacy among all Chinese students in the near future. A longer term goal is to ensure that all students complete high school, and that 50 percent of those go on to earn their baccalaureates.

These are ambitious goals, worthy of the significance these youngsters have for greater prosperity in the years ahead. Latvia already graduates more than 50 percent of its college-age cohort, with Lithuania and Australia close seconds at 47 percent. U.S. figures for bachelor's degrees have remained fairly steady for some years at around one-third of the college age population, about 415,000 in 2002. That should raise consternation and concern in all of us.

Of the 3 million students worldwide who earned a first university degree in science and engineering fields in 2002, half graduated from Asian universities, more than 600,000 of them in engineering. Students across Europe (including Eastern Europe and Russia) earned about 930,000 degrees, and students in North and Central America earned almost 600,000. The U.S. numbers are 415,000, with about 61,000 in engineering.

The recent study conducted by faculty and students in Duke's Master of Engineering Management Program, is the most recent shot across the bow in the "numbers" war. The study points out that the education of all engineering graduates in China and India is not comparable to the world-class education students receive in the US. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that U.S. universities maintain world leadership in science and engineering education.

We know that the "numbers game" cannot be our only, or even our central concern, although we can and must do better in attracting students to engineering careers. In particular, we must increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups in engineering. And we must continue to be at the forefront in attracting engineering talent from around the world.

The more important question may be what kind of engineers will we need in the future, and how can we prepare students today for the challenges ahead?

One conceptual framework for answering this question is "collaborative advantage." Over a decade ago, Harvard Business School sociologist and management consultant, Rosabeth Moss Kantor, identified collaborative advantage as a key strategy in a highly competitive environment. "In the global economy," she writes, "a well-developed ability to create and sustain fruitful collaborations gives companies a significant competitive leg up." Her study of international corporations yields three fundamental aspects of successful business alliances:

  • Although most alliances provide benefits for the partners, successful ones also provide an "option on the future, opening new doors and unforeseen opportunities."
  • Legitimate collaboration involves creating new value together, in contrast to a tit-for-tat exchange of value that already exists.
  • Successful alliances do not flourish within "command and control" systems; they require a rich environment of interpersonal links that enhance learning.

It may seem paradoxical that collaborating more with competitors is a winning strategy. At the very least, every nation collaborates in order to compete. In our era of high-velocity change, just keeping up with new science, engineering and technical developments requires a staggering level of global communication.

But information is the least to be gained. As Kanter discovered, fruitful collaboration produces benefits that flow to all the parties that cannot be obtained by any of them separately. It strengthens bonds of understanding across disciplines, sectors and cultures. And importantly, it lays the foundation for as yet unknown opportunities for further collaboration.

NSF-grantees, Leonard Lynn and Hal Saltzman, have been conducting a major study of the "new" globalization of engineering. They think of the current global context as "third- generation globalization" -- requiring responses to competitive market pressures that differ from those that served the US well in the 1980's. They believe that the United States should move "toward an approach in which leadership comes from developing and brokering mutual gains among equal partners. Such "collaborative advantage" … comes not from self-sufficiency in technology, but from being a valued collaborator at various levels in the international system of technology development."

Collaborative advantage raises the question of what kind of engineers can flourish in the context of third-generation globalization. More important for our purposes, what education do we provide that will ensure that they are well prepared to lead?

I often talk about the recent sea change in the way science and engineering are conducted. This involves more interdisciplinary work, greater collaboration, and a trend toward international participation in research projects. These "boundary-crossing" experiences require more than technical knowledge and skills. They rest on well-honed "collaborative competencies" that include the ability to cooperate and communicate across disciplines, distances, and cultures.

More than most, engineers need these skills to become valuable leaders in the new global innovation system. Those who are "cyber savvy" to a high degree will have an enormous leg up in becoming these leaders.

In light of these comments, I think it's appropriate to tell you what NSF is doing. Three overarching strategies contribute to a framework that can support world class research and education.

The first is the development of cyberinfrastructure. Information and communications technologies have enabled us to scan research frontiers at velocities that are orders of magnitude faster than ever before. These tools are not simply faster -- they are also fundamentally superior. They have raised the level of complexity we can understand and harness. That capability is growing at a breathtaking pace. Just consider two revolutionary innovations in our toolkit: computer simulation and modeling.

Cyberinfrastructure will take research and education to an entirely new plane of discovery. If we combine new capabilities in information and communications with sensors and satellites, and improved visualization and simulation tools, databases and networks, we will leave our familiar landscapes in the dust.

In the next decade, excellence in cyberinfrastructure may well determine which nation sets the pace in global education excellence. NSF has made the development of shared, broadly accessible cyberinfrastructure a top priority across all disciplines.

The second strategy is to promote and support innovative collaborations. NSF has always been a pioneer in developing and supporting innovative collaborations and partnerships. The Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers and the Engineering Research Centers are two early and successful efforts. The Small Business Innovation Research program was born at NSF, and then spread rapidly to other agencies.

Today, collaboration among multidisciplinary teams, often geographically distributed, is a feature of the research enterprise worldwide. International collaboration is accelerating, now that barriers to communication have largely disappeared. NSF is strengthening its international outreach in both research and education.

Third in my list is what I call "strategic experimentation." In emerging areas of great promise, there are always a variety of platforms and methods -- often of equal merit -- that might prove fruitful in discovery. A narrow focus at this stage is risky, because betting on a single thread could delay progress in the field.

Simply put, we cannot predict which approach will eventually yield results. But we can assemble a portfolio of high quality projects that approach the same frontier from different directions. Results provide feedback that then informs the next round of experimentation in an iterative process that is familiar to everyone in the science and engineering community. NSF uses this strategy to identify and support research with the potential to transform entire fields and disciplines of science and engineering.

This triumvirate of strategies is familiar territory to the research community. But what about education? It isn't difficult to see that these approaches are equally relevant to education research and practice. NSF embraces these approaches to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, as well as to research.

I think it is clear, however, that the extraordinary creativity and productivity now evident in research is not matched in our educational enterprise. There is a certain rigidity of form and devotion to traditional culture, a distrust of experimentation that has kept much of education locked into a nineteenth century "chalk and talk" paradigm.
William Wulf and James Duderstadt have warned that "the capacity to reproduce with high fidelity all aspects of human interactions at a distance could well eliminate the classroom and perhaps even the campus as the location of learning." I wonder how many of us have seriously considered this possibility. Even fewer, I suspect, have taken the next step and actually thought about what strategies are needed in a world where this is a possibility.

Several weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured a piece titled "Scan This Book!" by writer Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired Magazine. Kelly discusses the current clash between traditional publishing and publishing in the open environment of the Internet. Kelly has no doubts about the eventual outcome of this struggle. Paper copies of books will decline even as the text lives on -- accessible, searchable, linkable, and free. As Kelly says,

"In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to one billion people on earth, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge."

This may seem extreme. But the possibility should not be hard for the science and engineering community to grasp. As Kelly points out, "Science is on a long-term campaign to bring all knowledge in the world into one vast, interconnected, footnoted, peer-reviewed web of facts."

One reason that science and engineering research are currently experiencing such a profound outpouring of new knowledge may well be the natural consonance between new communication and information tools and this much older open, freely accessible model of scientific process. The two fit together as hand and glove. Of course, cyber tools enable research and education in other profound ways as well.

Many have forecast similar transformations as the full force of information and communication technologies sweep across outmoded institutions, and generate the "perfect storms" that could crumble the foundations we blithely take for granted.

Will America's universities be among these catastrophes? My answer is, no. There is still ample time to respond decisively to the changing landscape. More important, if we begin now, we can shape that landscape through important innovations in education. In other words, U.S. engineering education can lead the pack. That beats walking long enough until we arrive somewhere, anywhere.

To do so, we need to think strategically about the future. That will include an assessment of the power and potential of new technology for engineering education. That will force us to look for new models, and to consider the changing context of education. We also need to determine what is vital and valuable in our current arrangements, as we open the remainder to experimentation and adaptation.

There is an additional reason to be optimistic. Survey information is beginning to paint a picture of America's young "millennials" -- the generation born between 1982 and 2000. These youngsters are now enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools. The oldest among them have already enrolled in post-secondary institutions.

This generation was first scrutinized by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book, Millennials Rising. Here is how they characterize these young people: "They will rebel against the culture by cleaning it up, rebel against political cynicism by touting trust, rebel against individualism by stressing teamwork, rebel against adult pessimism by being upbeat, and rebel against social ennui by actually going out and getting a few things done."

According to Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, this is "the biggest and most diverse generation in American history... 36 percent of the total population and 31 percent minority." He describes this generation as... special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured, and conventional."

He adds an important characteristic to this list, derived from Pew research on Internet use. This generation is tech-embracing. As he says, "They are not all tech savvy...in the sense that they all know what's going on "under the hood" of their gadgets..., but they have a unique attachment to the communications power of these new technology tools." These youngsters are "digital natives in a land of digital immigrants."

Whatever one makes of the broad characterization of "millennials," the Pew data on Internet trends is a place to start when considering the future of engineering education. It is simple sense, when considering how to reform engineering education, to begin by looking at how kids today actually behave and what attitudes they have.

Corporations have learned that they ignore customer attitudes at their own peril. If we genuinely want to prepare today's students to be world-class engineers, we should consider the possibility that we need to reform education to better suit their experience and the global context in which they will live and work. That is, to teach them what they need to learn rather than what we want to teach. An additional consequence, perhaps unforeseen, might be that more of today's youngsters will find the prospect of becoming an engineer more appealing.

As Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." I would add, it is also never easy. Setting a direction for engineering education will not be easy or simple, and our first efforts to find true north are not likely to be the final solution. We will need a positive, open attitude toward experimentation with new directions in engineering education. We will need perseverance to confront the "stickiness" of traditional culture in academe. We will need to understand exactly what youngsters today bring to the table -- and do a better job serving them a wholesome meal.

Some look backwards to an era when great individual inventors, such as Edison and Ford, were national celebrities, and consider that period to be the peak of engineering in America. But I like to think that our golden age of engineering lies in the future. If we can succeed with our young people, I believe anything is possible.



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