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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"Visions for Engineering Education"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
IEEE Interdisciplinary Conference
EE&CE Education in the Third Millennium
Davos, Switzerland

September 11, 2000

We are gathered here to discuss what EE&CE Education will be like in the Third Millennium. That's a real challenge because it's difficult to predict what engineering will be like twenty years from now, let alone fifty or one hundred years. Let's start by referring to two papers from the proceedings of the IEEE, spaced almost four decades apart.

In 1962 Maurice Ponte, an IEEE (then IRE) Fellow, published a paper entitled "A Day in the Life of a Student in the Year 2012 AD." In his paper, considered rather farsighted at the time, Ponte predicted that miniature algebraical computers would replace slide rules, and that students would receive satellite transmission of engineering courses from "virtual universities."

He also predicted that university cafeterias would serve perfectly balanced, nutritious - but tasteless food. And - get this - he foretold that university laboratories would have "perfect equipment." You see " society had finally been realized that the most productive investment was that applied to the teaching of the young." Oh - if it were only so!

Thirty-seven years later, just this past year, Ponte's paper was followed up with another predictive paper by Lee & Messerschmitt, entitled "A Highest Education in the Year 2049." Here the vision is striking, with predictions of "cyber" universities and artificial universes, enabled by high-definition three-dimensional telepresence. This paper also envisions global education villages that are not just about interdependence but "mutual provenance". It discusses software as the new "literature" and universities offering courses in "network ontology" and "software linguistics."

What is the reality here? In envisioning what may be, perhaps we can turn to Peter Drucker for some wisdom.

In an interview three years ago with Forbes magazine, Peter Drucker was asked about his reputation as a futurist and forecaster. He quickly corrected his questioner: "I never predict. I just look out the window and see what's visible -- but not yet seen."

His point was that, in trying to imagine the world of the future, we need to look around us as well as look directly ahead. We need to learn to read patterns and trends from the larger context to envision the future.

Understanding the larger context in which we work - the sector, the society, and even the time in history - gives us a path for imagining the future. This is a subtle skill students must be helped to develop in a world now impacted by fast-paced innovation.

The change engendered by fast-paced innovation alters our familiar landscapes forever. Eventually, it reshapes our expectations in harmony with the future that it has created. And yes, it lays down a new set of rules. Let me illustrate what I mean with an example.

Recently Danny Hillis, computer philosopher and designer, who pioneered the concept of parallel computing, and in 1996 became the vice president of research and development at The Walt Disney Company, related this incident from his past.

"I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, 'Where are they all going to go? It's not like you need a computer in every doorknob!"

Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He noticed that the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards that you slide into slots in the doors. There was indeed, "a computer in every doorknob," as well as sensors and actuators - and other hardware to make the computer's software sing. Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors, but right there in the midst of a computer conference two decades ago that insight was in short supply.

Part of the explanation for very smart people making, what in hindsight, are not very insightful comments, is that, even as prognosticators, we tend to think of what is in front of us but not what is also around us.

Today, we see that technological innovation is occurring at a breathtaking pace. Industrial cycles appear to be getting shorter and shorter. And as information increasingly becomes the currency of everyday life, we watch this whole pattern accelerate.

In a recent speech, U.S. Joint Economic Council Chief, Alan Greenspan, said the "phenomenal performance of the U.S. economy, with its strong growth, low inflation, low unemployment, and high business profits, is due in large part to technological innovations that have caused productivity growth to accelerate". Recent studies indicate that new technology was responsible for a whopping 64% of U.S. productivity gains made during the past five years.

We see evidence of this all around us. The microelectronics industry alone accounts for millions of jobs around the globe. Information technology has literally transformed all sectors of life, leisure, and the economy. The most talented and highly skilled workers in every country comprise the modern phenomenon of a global and mobile workforce. They can easily gravitate to where the best jobs are located. But information technologies have also made it possible for them to stay home and yet work abroad.

We can all take pride in the fact that electrical, electronic, and computer engineers have greatly aided this phenomenal economic and social transformation.

But we can't simply rest on our laurels. A recent Economist article on Innovation speculates that our current industrial cycle - the one powered by digital networks, software and new media - has already run two-thirds of its course, with only another five or six years left to go!

What will drive the economy during the remainder of the 21st century? I will discuss some possibilities with you shortly but first let's take a closer look at this process we call "innovation".

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. He points out that knowledge applied to tasks we already know how to do is productivity, while knowledge applied to new and different enterprises and delivering new products and services is innovation.

Now let's take a brief look at the components of innovation and how they work together.

As the figure illustrates, the process of innovation depends upon a mutual, synergistic set of interactions that include not only science, engineering and technology, but social, political and economic interactions as well.

The key components of innovation are (1) the creation of new knowledge, and access to it; (2) a technologically-literate workforce prepared to capitalize on new knowledge and (3) an infrastructure that enables innovation to occur.

The U.S. National Science Foundation's just completed five-year strategic plan uses this concept as a conceptual framework. NSF's vision is clear and simple: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation." By design, this vision captures the dynamism that has shaped NSF. It's no accident that terms like discovery, learning, and innovation are all resting side-by-side in the same set of words. These concepts must be integrated in thought and action.

To move toward the realization of this vision, NSF has three strategic goals.

They are summed up by three key words: People, Ideas, and Tools. You can see that these three goals encompass the essential elements of innovation.

NSF is all about science and engineering. They are quite different processes. Science is the process of discovering and creating knowledge. Engineers share in this process, but they are also responsible for applying new knowledge to create what has never been: the innovative integration of ideas, devices, and systems to implement change.

Imagining is at the very heart of innovation. As we learn to read that larger context which I have been discussing, imagination allows us to envision and project a new future. As Albert Einstein often said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

There is another important aspect of "innovation," which I will call, for want of a better name, "breaking the rules."

In 1999 the Economist magazine did a study of innovation in industry. A sidebar to the text read, "Innovators break all the rules, trust them." In this sense, innovation is the task of breaking the economic rules and being rewarded, over and over again.

The "rule-breaking" theory of economics was actually developed in 1942 by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter. He described the hallmark of technological innovation as "the perennial gale of creative destruction," or in today's holistic thinking, "the great lever of creative transformation."

According to Schumpeter, a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted and transformed by technological innovation. History is replete with examples. Transistor technology disrupted the vacuum-tube industry, the CD killed the needle in the groove, and the Internet is challenging the traditional retail and broadcasting industries.

As would be expected, such disruption causes painful losses in the process of making stupendous gains. In fact, the disruption caused by an innovation can bring down a whole industry, while simultaneously creating new opportunities for growth.

An amusing example of this process concerns how the invention of the light bulb led to Ivory soap. In the later part of the 19th century, Procter and Gamble's best seller was candles. But the company was in trouble. In 1882 Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb. The market for candles plummeted since they were now sold only for special occasions. The outlook appeared to be bleak for Procter and Gamble.

But then a forgetful employee at a small factory in Cincinnati forgot to turn off his candle machine when he went to lunch. The result? A frothing mass of lather filled with air bubbles. He almost threw the stuff away but instead decided to make it into soap. The soap floated. Thus, Ivory soap was born and became the mainstay of the Procter and Gamble Company.

Why was soap that floats such a hot item at that time? In Cincinnati, during that period, people bathed in the Ohio River. Floating soap would never sink and consequently never got lost. So, Ivory soap became a best seller in Ohio and eventually across the United States.

It is useful to remind ourselves that in every era, new enabling technologies quickly influence our methods of commerce, of manufacturing, of service, and even the very social order of our society.

Students can learn the process of innovation, risk taking, and rule breaking from models taken from our collective experience and long before they are sent out into the world. Not everyone will or can think this way, and the world might be too chaotic and disruptive if they could. But we can teach and reward a path of thinking where constant filtering and extrapolation bring patterns, trends, and shifts to the forefront. We'll never build wisdom and insight until we can reach that educational threshold.

Now I want to get back to a discussion of what kind of education a 21st century engineer needs. To set a base for this discussion, let's first examine the new capabilities that are shaping the future of engineering.

Because science and technology are transforming forces, it will be the emerging fields, the unpredicted territories that will change and expand our capabilities as engineers and innovators.

Here - on this chart- are five capabilities - starting points, as I like to refer to them. Reasonable people can argue about whether or not these are the right ones- but they seem appropriate for this discussion.

Terascale - This new capability takes us three orders of magnitude beyond present general purpose and generally accessible computing capabilities.

In the past, our system architectures could handle hundreds of processors. Now, we are working with systems of 10,000 processors. In a very short time, we'll be connecting millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet. Crossing that boundary of 10^12th - one trillion operations per second - will launch us to new frontiers.

For example, the Protein Folding Problem, the Holy Grail of computational biology, has withstood countless attacks, undertaken by many bright minds and augmented by years of scientific supercomputer time.

On current systems, the simulation of one millisecond of protein folding (the longest undertaken to date) required two months. In the real world, typical protein folding times are twenty milliseconds. That means we're looking at some 40 months of processor time on current systems to run a full-scale simulation. With new terascale systems, we may be able to reduce this time one thousand fold. That means one day instead of three plus years.

NSF is currently investing in a new terascale computing system for use by academic researchers.

We have also been examining ways to enhance our investment in nanoscale science and engineering. This will take us three orders of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made devices.

To appreciate what this is all about we need to step back for a moment. One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a magical point on the dimensional scale. Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter one atom or molecule at a time. This technology could lead to amazing breakthroughs, for example, molecular computers that can store the equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress in a device about the size of a sugar cube.

Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Individual atoms are around a few angstroms in diameter -- a few tenths of a nanometer. DNA molecules are about 2.5 nanometers wide. Biological cells, like red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. Microelectromechanical systems are now approaching this same scale. This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

Next, let's turn to complexity. Mitch Waldrop writes in his book, Complexity, about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos." That is "where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either...The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo..."

If we look at science and engineering, we discern this zone of transformation at many scales, in many disciplines, and in the most unexpected places. For example, researchers are trying to put polymers together with silicon--a marriage of opposites because plastics are chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly crystals.

The result can give us electronic devices with marvelous flexibility, which can be made less expensively and, as a result, empower more people. Again, it comes down to managing order and disorder, all at once. Perhaps there ought to be a term for it - how about chaotic engineering?

The fourth capability on this list is Cognition - which the dictionary defines as: "the mental process or facility by which knowledge is acquired."

Because of new knowledge, methods and tools, I believe that we are on the verge of a cognitive revolution that may dwarf the information revolution. We are poised for many exciting new discoveries in this area. These breakthroughs will lay the foundation for progress in many areas of national importance, from teaching children how to read, to understanding learning processes; from building human-like computers and robots to designing networks and systems capable of cognition.

The last capability listed on this chart is Holism. The dictionary defines this term as: "the concept that an entity is greater than the merely the sum of its parts." It refers to new capabilities in how to put things together - how to integrate seemingly disparate things - into a greater whole. This includes social as well as physical and engineering systems.

In 1944, the 20th century philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, wrote in his Mission of the University: "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."

I believe the hallmark of the modern engineer is the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate components, and to integrate them in ways that are greater than the sum of their respective parts.

This new capability in "holism" has been enabled by advances in complexity, advanced mathematics, information technology, design theory, philosophy, and even art. Why speak of art at an engineering conference?

Because art and artists, by their very definition, breach barriers, define new perspectives, and create something greater than the sum of the parts. I believe that engineering students should be given greater opportunities to learn the path of creativity taken by artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, and architects. And, who knows? Perhaps artists can learn something from engineering.

Whether we are artists or engineers, we all need to nurture the creative zones at the borders of our disciplines and fields- to be able to make connections among specialized areas of knowledge, to understand how seemingly disparate discoveries relate, and to integrate them into a broader context that will lead to deeper insights and more creative solutions.

Together, advances in these areas - tera, nano, complexity, cognition, and holism -will lay out the capacity for an integrated design field that is far beyond what is imaginable with today's technology.

What does this portend for engineering? Will engineers build increasingly smarter machines that human's can easily relate to and command? Or will the human organism begin to merge with its own machines - cyborgs and bionic parts. Progress is rapidly being made on this front- we now have artificial hearts, artificial limbs, and we are nearing artificial eyes. Whatever the case, engineering will increasingly become a biological and cognitive, as well as a physical, science.

Interestingly enough, it may be "analog" rather than "digital" electronics that enables this future. This chart shows the first page of an article in the February 2000 edition of Smithsonian Magazine.

The article describes the work of researcher Mark Tilden. At his laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he creates robots that are purely analog devices, built from a handful of off-the-shelf nuts-and-bolts components - resistors, capacitors, transistors - but wired together in complex patterns that make them remarkable. His robots can walk, crawl or tumble around in complex environments, solve problems and survive any number of conditions that their designer never taught them about.

For example, the robots learn successful movements by analyzing how the loads or stresses on their legs disturb the analog wave patterns in its circuitry. This leads the robots to move in ways that conserve energy. This is a real innovation: it disrupts today's panacea that digital cures all.

This brings us to our social responsibility as engineers. As we value innovation and exploit it as the fuel of progress, we have a responsibility to tread carefully - to explore the implications of what we do.

The French Poet, Jacques Darras, once said: "No longer must we thirst for novelty at any cost, but rather begin to develop a new sense of our own duration and of how to deal with it."

Carl Sagan, writing in 1994, also cautioned us in this same vein. He said, "This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any species, by its own voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself- as well as a vast number of others."

Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems - in his April 2000 article in "Wired" magazine entitled "Why the future doesn't need us" (see postulates: "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an endangered species."

In the article, Joy speculates that in the future- unlimited information may be available to everyone via the Internet and that many disciplines, such as biology, for example, will become "informational sciences." He observes that it is entirely possible that individuals may use the collective information of the world to do evil - for example, terrorists using genomic databases to design and unleash lethal viruses upon unsuspecting populations.

Is this just a fanciful nightmare? Well, we have already experienced what a lone individual can do with a computer virus - the "love bug" shut down many computer systems around the world and cost us billions of dollars.

But how do we prevent such things from happening? The answers may lie as much in advances in the social sciences as in the development of new technology. As engineers, we must take equal stock of the social limits--or perhaps the social effects--of our technologies. The social sciences and the technologies themselves provide us an essential means to make that assessment. That is why I believe every engineering student needs some exposure to the social sciences.

Today we have the potential to integrate our individual wisdom. By incorporating the perspective of the social sciences we can proceed more intelligently and ethically to achieve the best of many possible futures.

After all of this discussion about technological change, innovation, and new capabilities, it's time to ask the question:

  • What kind of engineer do we need in 21st century?

This chart suggests some of the core capabilities of the 21st century engineer. From this list, one gets the sense that, to be personally successful, 21st century engineers will need more than first-rate technical and scientific skills. In the global workplace, engineers need to make the right decisions about how enormous amounts of time, money, and people are tasked to a common end.

These next two charts are thoughts on what might be the credentials or skill set for next generation engineers.

Next Generation engineers will have a number of iterations in their career paths over their working lifetimes and must gain the intellectual skills needed for lifelong learning. Expertise in a single discipline or technology may no longer be the Holy Grail for a rewarding engineering 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 the market's enabler of wealth creation.

So, what are the fresh career paths for engineers? As this chart shows, no longer do career paths layer directly on traditional disciplines.

Rather, next-generation engineering career paths embrace complex systems issues. Examples include avoiding environmental harm, efficient use of energy and materials, micro/nano systems simultaneously small in size and large in capacity, smart systems that learn from their environment and adjust or even repair themselves, and creative enterprise transformation generally.

Now we get down to the really tough question: What kind of education will the 21st century engineer need?

Or, to put it another way: How do we educate our students to understand that creation of knowledge and its integration go hand-in hand as a framework for organized cultural, intellectual, political, and social evolution?

This chart suggests what should be the components of a holistic baccalaureate education. I like to think of them this way: the skills on the left help the student develop in-depth or "vertical depth" literacy, needed for analysis, research and problem solving. Those in the right-hand column develop integrative skills or "lateral depth" literacy.

As expressed by DeBono, "vertical thinking digs the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with digging a hole in another place." For an integrative task, lateral depth is concerned not only with investigating a number of holes in depth but also developing the connections among them. Both are needed in tackling difficult problems.

The engineering education program toward this end will not accrue simply through incremental adjustments in course content or rearrangement of traditional isolated segments but, rather, by broad structural and cultural changes.

This context suggests that emphasis in engineering education programs should shift from dedication to course content to a more comprehensive view, focusing on the development of human resources and the broader educational experience in which the individual curricular parts are connected and integrated, that is:

  • Place primary emphasis on the development of students as emerging professionals with the knowledge base and capability for life-long learning;

  • Engage students in engineering from the day they matriculate and make the study of engineering more attractive, exciting and fulfilling throughout

I believe an engineering student must experience the functional core of engineering, the excitement of facing an open-ended challenge and creating something that has never been. This experience should be woven throughout the fabric of the entire curriculum. Participating in the entire concurrent process of realizing a new product through integration of seemingly disparate skills is an educational imperative.

In summary, the focus for undergraduate engineering education should be the development of students as emerging professionals rather than completely trained engineers. The undergraduate engineering program should be designed…to provide the knowledge base and intellectual capability for career-long learning.

Next, I would like to discuss some specific issues that are especially critical to the future of engineering education.


We live in a time of vast, and even uncontrollable, information. "Information overload" is a term the public is only too aware of. Engineers are especially vulnerable because they have to correlate and make sense of vast amounts of disparate data. But how do we impart this increasingly necessary skill to our students?

From the Paleolithic paintings on a cave wall in Lascaux, France created in 12,600 BC, to the Summarian development of a system of writing in 3,500 BC, to high-speed information networks, to the new horizon of terascale computing, we have built today's world on accumulated knowledge and ideas. Human history has been a cumulative information age and quest. An appropriate question to ask now is -where are we on that continuum and what, if anything, is different?

Some suggest the difference is that we are literally drowning in information but we are increasingly ignoring the need to develop insight and foresight from it. To reduce that to sound-byte parlance, we have a case of too many information generators and too few information clairvoyants. We need to focus more on knowledge.

Sixty-six years ago, in 1934, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Rock",

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

What would Eliot say if he could see us now? More importantly, he seems to have laid down a hierarchy that should make us question where we are today.

In Eliot's scale, information is the lowest rung of the ladder, knowledge next, wisdom beyond that, and finally the meaning of life. To that scale, I would add the modern day concepts of data and bits.

Raw data have little value and information itself does not have much inherent value. Its value lies in how we use it to predict, prepare, progress, and to propel us into uncharted thinking. We must ask if there is a growing chasm between more and more information and our ability to find in it the patterns and trends that bring us to insight and foresight? Does all of our information merely delude us as a society into thinking that information volume automatically translates into wisdom?

If, in the education of our engineers, we are turning out bumper crops of information generators without the skills to sift and extract signs, shifts, trends, and patterns buried in this information tidal wave, we are falling far short of our task. We need to pay more attention to teaching the steps beyond information -- the steps that move us from information to understanding.

Higher engineering education should no more be limited to the unique transfer, around the age of 22, of a box of fixed knowledge, which can be used during an entire career. Again, we should place primary emphasis on the development of students as emerging professionals with the knowledge base and capability for life-long learning.


We know that progress in 21st century science and engineering will depend upon access to world-class tools and infrastructure. We know first that there are different kinds of infrastructure.

Facilities and equipment, and the like make up physical infrastructures. There are human infrastructures. In our S&T system, the scientists, engineers, teachers, mentors and technicians comprise this most critical infrastructure.

We know from past experience that infrastructure can either expand or inhibit our potential. An infrastructure system can provide potential in one era, but drag us into obsolescence in another era. So, in a sense, infrastructure can be thought of as "perishable."

The newest infrastructure territory is cyber infrastructure and it is fast becoming an overarching and imprinting influence on the conduct of everything from science and engineering to songwriting and shopping.

This chart contrasts the "traditional physical infrastructure" and what we might refer to as the "new cyber infrastructure."

The former includes facilities and major instrumentation and research platforms, such as telescopes, research aircraft and ships, fabrication laboratories, and atomic particle detectors and accelerators. The new infrastructure includes items such as databases, digital libraries, and network capabilities.

Now that the S&T information system has evolved through the Internet and high-speed networks, we need to think about and plan a future cyber infrastructure that is oriented to 21st century engineering education needs and goals. We should think in terms of an infrastructure that can be envisioned from whole cloth, designed for some specific long-term goals, and remain flexible to the unpredictable. It would be an infrastructure of anticipation. This will require thinking beyond the here and now, an infrastructure for the far future.


There is an old Korean proverb: Baek Jit Jang Do Mat Tul Myun Gah Byup Dah, which translates to English as: "Even a sheet of paper seems lighter when two people lift it together."

This proverb is about helping one another and working together. Even if the work may be easy and simple, as lifting a piece of paper, if you have someone to help, it would be much easier.

Partnerships are becoming increasingly important because discovery, learning, and innovation can only rarely get on without them. They bring to the table participants with different expertise and resources, and a diversity of perspectives, the latter being critical to resolving complex, open-ended dilemmas.

Many of the problems that we face today, such as preserving the natural environment, understanding the vectors of disease, and bridging the growing information and education gaps between rich and poor nations, are global problems that demand cooperation among our nations. I would add engineering education to this list. We need to work together to do the following:

In this modern era, new computer-communications are transforming the very nature of partnerships, enabling them to permute, reshape, and regenerate to stay fresh and responsive to the demands of new knowledge and innovation.

Virtual companies now exist, where the engineering, production, finance, marketing and other functions are linked together by global networks. Institutions of learning are rapidly moving to this mode, with concepts such as "virtual universities" and "global villages."

Internationally - we need to work together to create flexible processes for dialogue that expand our mutual understanding of each other's interests and generate creative ideas for new modes of international cooperation.

I put this chart up briefly because it represents some cumulative wisdom gained from our collective experiences with partnerships during the past thirty years.


In summary, I would like to leave you with a short list of what I consider to be the grand challenges for engineering education.

If we do these few things well, I believe that we will produce first rate engineers for the 21st century, and that great benefits will accrue to our global community.

In closing, I would like to offer you a quote that has very special meaning to me. It is from the poet and philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952), who once said:

To me this quote evokes some wonderful imagery. You and I cannot see very far into the future. It is indeed unknown to us, yet we suspect that it is likely to be quite different from the present.

For we - electrical, electronic and computer engineers - to prosper in this eclectic and uncertain milieu, we must become increasingly astute in making connections, establishing partnerships- and integrating the parts of the innovation process for the common good.

With the help of Santayana's torch of smoking pine, we can take that vital step into the path - into our future. But remember- we must thrust the torch forward into the path so we can see - just carrying it over a shoulder won't do.

Thank you.



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