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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"Two Score and More: A Lifetime of Learning for Keeping Engineers at the Fore"

National Academy of Engineering Workshop
Lifelong Learning Imperative:
Sustaining Innovation and National Competitiveness

Hilton Hotel
Arlington, Virginia

June 18, 2009

See also slide presentation.

[Slide 1: Title Slide]

President Vest, President More, Provost Katehi, Dean Dutta, and participants in the workshop: it is a pleasure to welcome all of you to Arlington here at the height of summer.

Today's topic, lifelong learning for engineers, will heavily influence how well the US will compete in the future. While it is always vital to continue to cultivate new generations of engineers, I cannot overstate the importance to the profession, to the individual engineer, and to the nation, of lifelong learning for the young, for the mid-career, and for the most mature engineer.

The objectives of lifelong learning include to refuel, retool and reconnect—and to provide engineers an opportunity to share their insights with their peers in the profession. These activities enable engineers to contribute their finest talents to advancing innovation and competitiveness.

[Slide 2: composite of 4 photos]

The traditional fields of engineering continue to evolve while new fields of practice—nanotechnology and informatics to name just two—emerge.

Furthermore, we, like other professions, have to adapt to the shifting incentives and impediments to lifelong learning.

We, like other professions, have to adapt our lifelong learning to new demographics as more women and members of underrepresented minorities become engineers.

The meeting today is exploratory—we're here to get a feel for the factors that speed or impede lifelong learning for engineers. Our mission is "to assess current practices, to reexamine assumptions, and to outline strategies to meet unmet needs."

My personal experience leads me to suggest that our work here is not only about the professional development of engineers; it is fundamentally about the future development of the profession of engineering in the United States.

[Slide 3: Cover of Science Professionals]

Several recent studies have examined the many competing ideas about how best to provide for the undergraduate and graduate training of the engineer and scientist.

[Slide 4: Slide not available]

We can gain insights from these studies that illuminate the skills, mindsets and talents best suited for learners during the ages of 18 to around 25.

[Slide 5: The Engineer of 2020]

With over 1500 undergraduate engineering programs in the US, opportunities exist to implement pilots to test the new approaches against the old, and to detect significant changes in performance or attitude in a relatively short amount of time.

[Slide 6: Lifelong Learning Imperative]

This project is named the Lifelong Learning Imperative Project. The project is not named "Engineering Professional Development" or "Career Advancement." Nor is the project framed as a remedy to fix something that is wrong; rather, it is an opportunity for making something good even better and stronger.

The naming and the framing both matter, for names and frames determine to no small degree the form of the final product.

The scope of the Project is ambitious. This befits an enterprise of the National Academy of Engineering.

[Slide 7: 14 Grand Challenges of the NAE]

For example, the NAE currently proclaims 14 Grand Challenges facing engineers and society. Some of you here might point out that the first 14 Grand Challenges can hardly be achieved if we don’t continuously develop and make best use of the talents and aspirations of today's cohort of engineers.

I suggest the Lifelong Learning Imperative truly is a grand challenge.

Here's why: The scope is not only ambitious, it is bold. It encompasses engineers at all ages; it embraces engineering at all stages.

[Slide 8: Graph of Lifelong and Life Wide Learning]

To put this in context, an undergraduate diploma and a graduate degree each takes 4 to 5 years—but this Lifelong Learning Imperative is working on a time span that is an order of magnitude longer—40 to 50 years and more. It's like the difference between going for a long walk and going with Lewis and Clark.

This time frame implies lifelong learning not only as a student learning from a master but also as a peer sharing with peers as well as those younger in years. It includes not only keeping technically sharp, but also cultivating a seasoned savvy.

It extends the idea of learning beyond the formal career and includes the life of retirement. And I might add, some people do their best work in retirement. It implies not only the concept of lifelong learning but also the receiving and giving of lifelong mentoring.

It is vital but daunting work. It will be relatively easy to imagine new programs and approaches; it will be more difficult to prioritize them; but it will take extraordinary tenacity to test their relative effectiveness over the span of years and across the many fields and facets of engineering.

[Slide 9: Lifelong Imperative]

Leaders in the field of lifelong learning refer to the "half-life" of technical knowledge of a recent college graduate. It's a useful metaphor from physics.

But your discussions today might also reflect the business side of the engineering enterprise: you may well end up using terms such as depreciation of the technical expertise; appreciation of the managerial savvy and business acumen; valuing investments in lifelong learning; amortizing the costs, including both the direct costs and the opportunity costs; and calculating, or at least estimating, a return on investment.

There is an intriguing dichotomy to manage between employer and employee. Lifelong learning can help with job hunting for the unemployed or the underemployed, but it can also speed job hopping. Companies can be reluctant to pay for training in skills that will make the employee more likely to move to other companies. For companies who are funding lifelong learning of their employees, one challenge is to both retrain AND retain those employees.

We also have an opportunity to be attuned to the pressures squeezing the lifelong learning opportunities of engineers working in the public sector at the local and state level. As we are seeing today, these may be the most vulnerable in bad economic times and have the lowest budgets for lifelong learning even in good times.

In a competitive global economy, these financial and other factors are at play not only at the state and national levels, but also at the international level. At today's meeting we don't have representatives from other countries on the agenda. I anticipate in the months ahead many of us will be looking to models of lifelong learning in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, the Nordic countries, Japan and Australia, among others.

One challenge this project will face is the evolving view of lifelong learning as a product delivered from the learned master to the learning student, to viewing lifelong learning as a process collaboratively driven by learners.

This would represent an innovation that could transform the landscape of professional development, licensure, and career advancement.

[Slide 10: 12 photos of NSF directories]

At NSF, we are all about advancing discovery and cultivating innovation.

Our mission is to promote research & education in all fields of science & engineering. We advance education at every level: K-12, undergraduate, graduate, post-doc and professorial levels.

We strive to meet the nation's workforce needs, as well as the needs of the workforce who will discover, invent, design, test, assess and build the technologies that will change how we look at life and how we lead our lives.

Therefore, I'd like us to discuss together ways that NSF could play a more vigorous role in advancing lifelong learning for and with engineers.

For example, NSF compiles key statistics and indicators on research and education in science and engineering. How valuable would it be to the engineering profession for NSF to invest in tracking in greater detail the investments, the programs and the impacts of lifelong learning for engineers?

Also, NSF funds long-term studies in many areas of discovery. This project may call for a longitudinal study, covering a large number of engineers tracked over a long span of years, to assess the impacts of programs on learning, performance and attitudes of engineers over the long haul.

NSF funds innovative research and education proposals. One recent award is exploring how the methods and mindsets used in undergraduate education can encourage lifelong learning long after the student has left campus.

According to Principal Investigator Michael Prince of Bucknell University, "this study will examine how instructor choices affect a range of student outcomes related to their development as self-directed and lifelong learners."

Professor Prince reminds us that "Lifelong learning requires the development of capacities consistent with those of self-directed learners who may be characterized as curious, motivated, reflective, analytical, persistent, flexible, and independent. They possess skills in information seeking, retrieval and metacognitive awareness. Instructors clearly play a critical role in influencing outcomes...through their design and implementation of courses that foster students' transitions from controlled to autonomous learning behaviors."

[Slide 11: Merit Review Criteria]

NSF uses two criteria in evaluating all grant proposals, such as the one from Professor Prince. Those two criteria are intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Could the broader impacts criterion be developed by proposers as a route to strengthen the interplay between research projects and lifelong learning of professional engineers?

[Slide 12: SBIR]

Along similar lines, NSF also has SBIR grants—Small Business Innovation Research grants—that speed research discoveries to the marketplace.

Might SBIR-projects, especially those involving both a company and a college, be developed as a route to advance lifelong learning?

Likewise, NSF supports post-doctoral fellowships and research sabbaticals for academic faculty. How might we support fellowships or mentorships for professional engineers serving in private practice or in public agencies?

NSF continues its long-running support of research and development in the cyber infrastructure to sustain collaborations at a distance.

The cyber infrastructure enables open courseware and it advances the concept of the "Independent Individual Learner." How might the cyber infrastructure also speed the re-envisioning of lifelong learning as a process of virtual collaborations among diverse teams of professionals?

We face challenges in retooling and re-imagining lifelong learning for the engineer, with a focus on fueling innovation, strengthening competitiveness, and making better use of the national resource represented by all engineers. I'd like to share with you a half-dozen points of concern outlined by engineers who provide professional development.

[Slide 13: Points of Concern]

First, employers pay for lifelong learning. Virtually all technical non-credit lifelong learning is paid for by employers. Therefore, the training offered must meet the needs of the employers, but it may or may not by itself meet the needs of the engineer.

Second, lifelong learning is focused on today's problems. Employers tend to support learning opportunities that are directly related to an employee's current responsibilities or past challenges. The focus of training opportunities sought is usually aimed at solving a particular problem or set of problems at hand.

Third, engineers should have a "Technical Track to the Top." Training in management should supplement but not supplant training for keeping technical expertise at the forefront of knowledge. Engineering managers need technical expertise because they are often required to make and be responsible for technical decisions in areas for which they were not trained or for which their original training is out-of-date.

Fourth, the "Paradox of No Money or No Time." When times are tough, employers cut funds for education and training. When times are flush, work is a rush, and employers balk at allowing employees the time to be away for training. Due to these competing job priorities, education and training may not receive the attention that they deserve.

Fifth, the benefits of lifelong technical learning are not quantified. This is a pressing research question. Such research could be used to encourage organizations to increase the investment in their employees.

Sixth, the personal benefits of lifelong learning are often not recognized. This suggests another question for research.

These points for consideration are the distillations of discussions from one group of people active in the field. These and other points for consideration will help drive your deliberations today and your decisions into the future.

[Slide 14: Three photos of Vannevar Bush]

In considering the future, it sometimes helps to recall the past. In his biography of Vannevar Bush entitled "Endless Frontier," G. Paschal Zachary probes Bush's assessment of pivotal technological factors that helped win World War II.

[Slide 15: Quote from Zachary's bio of Bush]

Zachary writes: "Many scientists boasted after the war that radar had won it or the A-bomb had won it, but Bush refrained from identifying a single technological factor....Rather than identifying winning technologies, he identified the nation’s political inventiveness as its unique strength."

Lifelong learning engages many organizations at many levels across the nation. It may well be that our political inventiveness will again be key to ensuring our highest levels of engineering ingenuity and innovation.

[Slide 16: Sun over foggy landscape]

As I mentioned at the opening, we're enjoying the longest days of the year now. The summer solstice is on Sunday. It's a good time to look ahead, to anticipate, to start to make provisions for changing seasons. It's also a good time to consider the difference between "being an engineer" and "becoming an engineer" – and the ways that lifelong learning can make a difference in the lives of individual engineers, in the innovative and competitive capacity of our economy, and in the vibrancy of the profession of engineering.

Thank you for this opportunity to share some ideas with you, and now I would be happy to respond to your questions.

[Slide 17: Title Slide]



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