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"Designing the Future: Education and Engineering for a New World"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, IEEE Deans Summit II: Fostering Campus Collaborations
Miami, Florida
January 10, 2003

Thank you, and good morning to all of you. I am honored to be among the participants in this Summit that brings together some of the leading thinkers in the education and engineering communities. This is a splendid opportunity to explore common ground and to discover new ways to work together.

As I was thinking about my remarks for today, uppermost in my mind was the question of how educators and engineers together could capitalize on their common - and not so common - perspectives. Bringing our two communities together is a smart thing to do. We have a great deal to learn from each other, yet institutional boundaries have kept us apart far too long.

This division has not always existed. Both education and engineering have deep roots in our history as a nation. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, each in his own way, recognized that discovery and innovation are the twin pillars of a democratic society. "Enlighten the people generally," Jefferson said, "and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day."

Their times, like our own, were ones of extraordinary progress. They integrated the new political and social thought with the science of the day, and put it into practice. Our nation's founders were collaborators and innovators of the highest order. They anticipated the transforming effect that knowledge can have on every citizen and every aspect of society.

There are analogies to our own circumstances. The bonds of tyranny and oppression have not vanished entirely, but they now take more subtle and complex forms. We view discovery and innovation, resting on the solid bedrock of education, as our way through contemporary difficulties - to greater economic prosperity, social well being, and enhanced security.

Today I want to focus on the overlapping roles and responsibilities of educators and engineers in the continuing progress of society. I see this as an opportunity to explore elements of a framework for crossing boundaries and working together. And so, I have titled my remarks, "Designing the Future: Education and Engineering for a New World. To put some meat on the "bare bones" of the framework, I will turn, in my later remarks, to several freshened National Science Foundation program investments to illustrate some directions for productive collaboration.

Although we may be accustomed to thinking of each other as denizens from separate - and convivial -- camps, much more unites us than divides us. We can easily identify our commonalities in an academic setting: We both aim to prepare students for a life as productive professionals, and at our best, to engage them in the larger life of society as a whole. This focus has not changed substantially since Jefferson expressed the conviction of his times that education is a necessary complement to liberty.

In our present era of breathtaking and rapid transformation, however, we are struggling. The increasing pace and complexity of change have forever altered the context in which we work to achieve our objectives.

Our students are changing, and what they require of us in the way of learning is evolving with amazing speed. They are more diverse. They come from differing economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. They arrive in our classrooms with varying levels of skill, and a wide variety of objectives. Many hold jobs throughout their schooling. Others return for retraining or to pursue a second career. Professional degrees are no longer a once-and-for-all preparation for productive work, but are now an introduction to a rigorous process of life-long learning. We hear complaints from secondary school teachers who cannot keep up with the newest advances in their fields. We hear anecdotes about engineers whose professional store of knowledge, if not refreshed, is soon exhausted!

At the same time, society's demands on educational institutions are expanding. The expectation of society is that we ought to be solving an increasing array of problems, from stimulating economic development to enabling the nation to compete in the global marketplace, and from raising our prospects for more productive and satisfying lives to strengthening our national security. Demands are increasing for a different kind of engineer for the workforce, teachers who are more skilled in content, and graduates in all fields with the skills required to succeed in an increasingly technological work environment.

But this is as it is and should be. Society's demands on us arise from a desire to provide our youngsters with the skills they need to thrive, and our society with the wherewithal to solve its problems and capitalize on its opportunities. They come from a reawakening -- one that would resonate with the founders of our nation -- to the centrality of education for realizing our common purpose. Increasing expectations are a healthy sign that our core values have not changed.

The rapid tempo of change has forced us, all too often, into a reactive mode as we confront these new pressures and challenges. How we prepare ourselves to create, understand, integrate, and exploit new knowledge requires a fresh perspective and the active involvement of each of us.

Of course, the preparation I refer to is simply "education", and the process involved is "learning." In our multiple roles as educators, workers, researchers and innovators, we are the ultimate drivers of change. More and more we will need to anticipate and guide change in order to design a future of our choice.

That brings our central issue into the spotlight. How can we design educational paths and learning environments that will suit our 21st century needs?

Before tackling that question, I want to say a few words about the concept of "design." By "design" I mean what the architect and ecologist William McDonough calls the "manifestation of human intent." Speaking of ecology and economy, McDonough poses the following problem.

"If someone were to present the Industrial Revolution as a retroactive design assignment, it might sound like this:

Design a system of production that

    ... puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year

    ... puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved

    ... results in gigantic amounts of waste."

    ... And so on.

Considered in these terms, our design concepts appear terribly flawed. Did we intend these consequences? Clearly not. We immediately recognize an imperative to reexamine the links between design and intent. If design manifests our human intentions - which it does - then we must periodically evaluate whether our designs have given form to what we intended.

Applying this to our focus of concern in this gathering, we might come up with something like the following assignment.

Design an educational system that produces

    ... a significant number of students who need remedial courses when they enter college

    ... students whose relative performance in science and math declines between the fourth and twelfth grades

    ... students who enroll in high schools and colleges and do not graduate

    ... engineering faculty who are knowledgeable and have difficulty using that knowledge to attract and retain students

    ... K-12 faculty who are not schooled in the subject matter they are teaching

The exercise is tongue-in-cheek, of course. But I am convinced that each of us could quickly add an item to the litany.

We can interpret this thought experiment in either of two ways. We can search for something in the environment, the society, even in our students, to account for the unintended consequences of a design we believe is adequate in most ways. Or, we can take the reins in our hands and set out to design a better system.

Educators and engineers are both accustomed to thinking in terms of systems that are designed to meet specific ends. That shared perspective can help us work together to design new educational paths and learning environments to suit our 21st Century needs.

This will be a different model of education, a model suitable to a new world in which change and complexity are the rule, a world transformed by new knowledge and the technology it makes possible, a world linked globally, where non-synergized differences and divisions can have immediate and large scale consequences.

Many of you will recognize the architect Eero Saarinen as the designer of Dulles Airport, the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He was fond of quoting the advice of his father Eliel, also an architect of great distinction: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context -- a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan."

Good design requires this holistic view. As we consider educational reform, we need to go beyond a focus on issues that are close at hand and immediate. We will be better designers over time if we also consider the larger context - the chair within the room. This kind of integrative vision gives us a window onto function that we simply can't achieve by focusing in greater depth on a single issue.

It also enables us to find solutions in unlikely places. One of the hallmarks of our current age of cross-boundary discovery is the ability it gives us to shift from one context to another with agility, borrowing concepts and models along the way. So, for example, in the context of the World Trade Center, investigators were able to apply knowledge garnered from research on earthquakes and other natural disasters to studies ranging from the structural aspects of building design to the nature of human response to extreme events.

Describing the process of discovery, Bertrand Russell referred to the moment when our vision shifts and we first see the world from an entirely new perspective as the "Ah ha!" experience. These acts of imaginative insight are the rich soil in which innovation first sprouts then grows. We need more "ah ha!" moments to bring our 21st century educational enterprise into harmony with our 21st century world. Bringing innovation to education will produce a transformation as revolutionary - and as exhilarating - as the technological revolution of the past several decades.

Now, innovation is risky business. Ask anyone in the private sector these days! But it's no less necessary just because there are potential pitfalls along the way. Think of it as "adventurous" rather than "perilous." I couldn't express it any better than the humorist Will Rodgers did, when he said, "Sometimes we have to go out on a limb, because that's where the fruit is."

Innovation has a second payload. Our collaborations will yield more when we focus our teamwork on authentic innovation rather than the exchange of information alone.

With our framework in place, we can get on with the hard - and rewarding -- work at hand. Our capability to deliver the goods will depend on at least two other developments: our ability to discover fresh knowledge about how we learn, and our boldness in bringing that understanding into the classroom, the laboratory, the workplace, and the home. Making certain that these developments occur is an absolutely vital responsibility and we will need to tackle the task together.

With input from the community, the National Science Foundation has been aiming to support these developments. In our new budgets we are intensifying and sharpening that aim. Our challenge is to point investigators toward these ends, while allowing them maximum elbowroom for innovation. The lion's share of new ideas always comes from the research and education community, as it should.

One of NSF's newest programs, the Science of Learning Centers, directly addresses our need for an expanding knowledge base on learning. There was a time when the study of "human nature" was the sole province of philosophers. Today, we are on the threshold of a new revolution in our understanding of human cognition, one that will profoundly influence how we design learning environments.

With the recent integrative advances in the social, cognitive, and behavioral sciences; linguistics; psychology; neuroscience; engineering; mathematics; and computer science, the time is ripe for robust progress in the emerging field of the science of learning. Investigations in this emerging field combine new tools, new methods, and collaboration across disciplines to explore the fundamentals of how we learn, create context, solve problems, make decisions, and grasp how individual and unique learning is. The ways of taking in knowledge and processing it are almost as diverse as fingerprints. We know that education from primary to graduate has never been designed within this reality.

Following the model of NSF's successful Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers, the Science of Learning Centers will provide the critical mass necessary to drive discovery at the frontier and to move the field forward rapidly. Ultimately, we will be able to transfer the new knowledge generated to the classroom and to all facets of societal life.

NSF has a long tradition of support for innovation in science, engineering, mathematics and technology education. Now, in the NSF priority area "Workforce for the 21st Century," we will build on what we have learned in the past to develop an even more effective, more ambitious undertaking.

This strategic priority aims to foster innovation in how we prepare students to meet the new and evolving challenges of the 21st century. At the same time, we aim vigorously to attract more U.S. students to science and engineering fields and broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities.

A new component of the effort provides support for Integrative Institutional Collaborations. Our focused aim here is to embed minority participation strategies across the full spectrum of NSF programs. That means identifying NSF's most successful programs to encourage minority participation and bringing them together with other highly successful NSF programs.

The idea is to weave together what are now separate but complementary efforts and to integrate these activities across and among institutions. These new institutional collaborations aim to produce results different from and greater than the sum of the parts. The final vision is a seamless route of advancement for students from K-12 through postdoctoral levels. Innovation is key to moving beyond our current performance to fresher, more inclusive, more productive, educational systems.

As we struggle to find a balance between continuity and reform in education and engineering, we begin to see that a "distinction without a difference" is holding us hostage to outmoded ways of thinking. The distinction I'm referring to is the divide between K-12 "teachers" on the one hand, and college and university "faculty" on the other. Another theme in our Workforce priority area, called Faculty for the Future, recognizes the entire spectrum of our educational professionals as "faculty." Early learning is as important to individual development and long-term social progress as a baccalaureate degree. We will not be able to design seamless learning paths for students until we recognize our common ground as faculty in a seamless educational community.

The Faculty for the Future program will address preparation and professional development for K-16. One component supports development of innovative approaches to the education of new K-16 faculty, particularly those aimed at attracting and retaining members of underrepresented groups. A second component provides early and mid-career faculty of Minority Serving Institutions with research-based faculty development opportunities in laboratories at research-intensive universities. We hope that host and visiting faculty members will establish long-term relationships that will strengthen the growing learning-through-research environment of the Minority Serving Institutions.

NSF will also expand one of our most successful programs, Research Experiences for Undergraduates. These awards allow individual investigators and site directors to offer hands-on summer research experiences for undergraduates. We know from past experience that significant numbers of students continue in science or engineering as a result of their participation.

This component of the Workforce priority area also furthers a key NSF objective, integrating research and education - an objective so important that we use it as a litmus test. We ask of each of the more than 30,000 proposals we receive each year: Does the proposed activity integrate research and education? If the answer is yes, it passes a critical hurdle.

I don't have to tell this group how difficult it is to attract and retain students in careers that require fluency in mathematics, science, engineering or technology. NSF will support research to determine what experiences or strategies are most effective in realizing this objective. We need a better understanding of the factors that influence career choices, and of the quality and productivity of the traditional and non-traditional paths that students use to prepare for or advance science and engineering careers.

Our two groups gathered here today understand all too well these distinctions. Collaboration can help to foster better teaching and create a collegial, integrated faculty from K through life-long learning.

To prepare students for science and engineering careers, NSF programs start with early education. The President's Math and Science Partnership program, the centerpiece of NSF's efforts, aims to "leave no child behind." We are in total agreement with this goal.

The program is linking local schools with colleges and universities to improve preK-12 math and science education, train K-12 faculty, and create innovative ways to reach out to underserved students and schools. We especially hope to develop research evidence on how to reach under-served schools and students in creative new ways. Innovation is particularly critical to the success of the Math & Science Partnership program. We have purposely established very broad guidelines in the expectation that we will receive creative responses sharply focused on needs identified by those closest to the problems.

It is no secret that NSF relies on the community's capability to generate innovative ideas. I like to think of enabling innovation as the result of ever-wider collaborations, from teams, to networks, to groups like this one gathered today, to the community of educators, engineers, and scientists nationally, and globally.

We sometimes forget that innovation is not confined to the realization of new technologies and the design of new products and new industrial processes. Innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds - from the shaping of institutions and the crafting of policies, to our perspectives on a life worth living. Indeed, it was innovation that allowed our nation's founders to design our Republic. They would have been delighted to participate in our deliberations today.

In the end, our capability to think innovatively about new educational paths will mean the difference between tinkering with the pieces and building a new engine. We may believe that this is someone else's job. But we are all in this together - educators and engineers, researchers and administrators, academe and government. We all want to be in the vanguard - to ride the crest of the wave, and not be bowled over by its force.

Standing still is not an option if we are serious about designing the future. Speaking to different circumstances, but about issues requiring equal resolution and leadership, President John F. Kennedy put the matter in these words: "… time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

None of us wants to miss the future. I have every confidence that we will all be present at its creation.

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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