Next Generation Engineering: Innovation Through Integration
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
NSF Engineering Education Innovators' Conference
April 8, 1997
Historically, education for doing engineering has
been a response to workforce needs for each new
technology that appeared on the economic scene.
But technology needs now change so quickly that
engineering education must be more than a response;
expertise in a single discipline, or technology,
is no longer the holy Grail for either a rewarded
or rewarding career. The modern engineer needs
to be educated to thrive through change; else,
the engineer will become a commodity on the global
market instead of society's enabler of wealth
creation. The former is bought cheaply; the latter
is more dearly valued.
Engineers must be enabled to grasp the
opportunities for innovation rather than simply contribute
to enhancing productivity. Innovation results when
new knowledge is applied to tasks which are new and
different, yielding brand new enterprises and delivering
new products and services and new jobs. Innovation,
especially through engineering enterprise, is at the
core of a healthy economy. This element of innovativeness
lies at the core of 21st century engineering competence
whether, for example, the project is a physically
big complex thing like a smart bridge or a tiny complex
thing like a smart micromechanical system.
Given this capability, what are the fresh
career paths? Well, no longer do they layer directly
on traditional disciplines. Rather, next generation
engineering career paths embrace complex systems issues.
Examples include the issue of sustainability -- avoiding
environmental harm, efficient use of energy and materials,
and life cycle engineering; infrastructure systems
renewal; micro/nano systems which are simultaneously
small in size and large in capacity and becoming ubiquitous
to all product development; megasystems -- extraordinarily
large, complex and risky engineering projects and
enterprises; living systems engineering -- a dimension
beyond bioengineering; smart systems that learn from
their environment and adjust operation and even repair
themselves; and creative enterprise transformation
How do we prepare our students toward
this end? 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 we move
into a remarkable era we might dub as "knowledge and
What does the phrase "era of knowledge
and distributed intelligence" really mean? I like
to describe it as an era in which knowledge is available
to anyone, located anywhere, at anytime, and an era
in which power, information, and control have moved
away from centralized systems to the individual.
For example, over the span of just a
few years, computers have moved from air conditioned
rooms to closets to desktops and now to our laps and
our pockets. So, too, has the scope and scale of telecommunications
enhanced our intellectual, business, and politically
connectivity. 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
Along with this explosive change in enhanced
computing capability and computer communications,
the past half century has witnessed a flurry of intense
technological change at and across the boundaries
of all fields of human endeavor. Indeed, technological
change has been elevated to prime status as driver
of economic and cultural change.
There is much evidence supporting the
notion that technological innovation is central to
wealth creation and economic growth. Many studies
indicate that over the past 50 years, technological
innovation has accounted for over one-third of U.S.
economic growth. We must take this evidence seriously
as we think strategically about the future, especially
for those of us concerned about creation of knowledge
and its use.
The noted management guru, Peter Drucker
notes that the source of wealth is knowledge, a human
activity that yields wealth in two essential ways,
productivity and innovation. 1
He points out that knowledge applied
to tasks we already know how to do is productivity,
while knowledge applied to tasks that are new and
different is innovation -- the process of creating
new enterprises and delivering new products and services.
Within this context of productivity and
innovation, engineers will play an ever more significant
role. The true wealth 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 in doing
so, enable a huge potential for the private sector
to create wealth and jobs.
To be personally successful in today's
world and simultaneously promote prosperity, engineers
need more than first rate technical and scientific
skills. In an increasingly competitive world, engineers
need to make the right decisions about how enormous
amounts of time, money, and people are tasked to a
common end. 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 engineers
to have a broad, holistic background. Since engineering
itself is an integrative process, engineering education
must focus on this end.
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 view their work from a systems approach,
effecting connections, and within the context of ethical,
political, international, environmental, and economic
considerations. To better illuminate this, let's for
a moment 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 which involves delving into the secrets of
the universe to discover new knowledge. The U.S. excels
at this paradigm and must continue to sustain and
nurture this rich intellectual infrastructure.
The essence of engineering, on the other
hand, is the process of integrating all knowledge
to some purpose. As society's "master integrators,"
engineers must have the functional background to provide
leadership in nurturing the concurrent and interactive
process 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, the engineer must be adept at "correlating
exactitude with chaos to bring visions into focus."
Our engineering graduates must have added
value in order to compete in today's global marketplace.
Yes, added value resulting from state-of-the-art knowledge,
but even more -- added value garnered by probing the
darkness in search of light; added value enabled by
understanding risk; and added value gained through
understanding and participating in the process of
engineering throughout their educational experience.
We all acknowledge 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 entire concurrent process of realizing a new
product through 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
- design -- 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 in which engineering
- understand and participate in the process
- gain the intellectual skills needed for lifelong
Translating these concepts into a viable
curriculum raises a core set of issues and challenges
facing the academic enterprise. For starters, it requires
examining the traditional reductionist approach to
teaching and learning.
The philosopher, José Ortega y
Gasset, presaged today's challenge in engineering
education when he wrote in his Mission of the
"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."
Most curricula require students to learn
in unconnected pieces -- separate courses whose relationship
to each other and to the engineering process are not
explained until late in a baccalaureate education,
if ever. Further, an engineering education is usually
described in terms of a curriculum designed to present
to students the set of topics engineers "need to know,"
leading to the conclusion that an engineering education
is a collection of courses. The content of the courses
may be valuable, but this view of engineering education
appears to ignore the need for connections and for
integration -- which should be at the core of an engineering
And what of fundamentals? What are the
basic constructs of the engineering process? What
does the phrase "engineering is an integrative process"
mean? In the chart displayed
on the screen 3,
many of the components of a holistic
baccalaureate engineering education are identified.
The columnar arrangement and the row-by-row juxtaposition
of terms give the appearance of contradiction. Moreover,
the emphasis on the science base of engineering over
the past half century embraced the elements in the
left-hand column -- but 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
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 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.
While I have focused my remarks primarily
on undergraduate education to this point -- what can
we say about graduate engineering education, and beyond,
in the context of an engineer's responsibility to
"construct the whole?" 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 level engineers need an integrative Master's
degree and that our universities need to offer more
practice-oriented Master's degree programs - with
stronger connections to industry and to the social,
economic, and management sciences. A variety of investments
have been established over the past decade toward
Even the doctoral degree is being challenged
as too analytic and too sub-specialty oriented. There
is now great call across all of science and engineering
to reorient the Ph.D. curriculum to enable graduates
to enjoy a broader spectrum of career opportunities,
while sustaining the rich educational enhancement
derived from the process of doing research.
How we might enable the next generation
engineer is depicted on the screen. The complimentary
curricular components of a holistic undergraduate
curriculum lead to a practice-oriented master's level
curriculum and/or a integrative, discovery focused
doctoral curriculum -- all supported by infrastructures
for cognitive systems and career-long learning.
Let's look more closely at this thing
called "cognitive systems." It is no overstatement
to say that the term "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. Browsers -- be they Mosaic, Netscape,
Explorer, or others -- have transformed the Internet
from an obscure research tool to something a five-year-old
can "surf." Search engines such as Altavista and Yahoo
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 (vNBS) - transmit data in excess of
600 Megabits per second (Mbps), 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 and knowledge would 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 ultra-rapid flow of
information? Will having the proverbial Library of
Congress in your pocket be a blessing or a burden?
In conclusion, the answers to these questions
begin with us. 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
for human civilization.
The first step toward success in this
endeavor rests with our system of education and training
for engineers. Engineering education has become much
more than a four or five year bachelor's degree or
seven year Ph.D. It now requires developing our ability
to strengthen and continually refresh our talents
for innovation and creativity. Professional societies
will need to assume greater responsibility for enabling
their members to thrive through change. Universities
will be presented with 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 --
all these, and their integration, have ushered in
a promising new era of discovery, innovation, and
This presents us with the opportunity
-- and the responsibility -- to sustain and expand
the connections to learning and discovery. These connections
will determine our destiny in the next millennium.
Our efforts and our leadership hold the key to success.
Let's make these new connections to learn and create
and lead engineering education to its next dimension!
Paraphrasing the words of Peter Drucker as quoted
in the March 10th issue of Forbes magazine,
"just look out the window and see what's visible --
but not yet seen."