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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Unexpected Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Keynote Address
Dedication of Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory
University of Colorado
Boulder, Colorado

April 24, 1997

Good afternoon and thank you. President Buechner, Chancellor Byyney, Dean Corotis, students, faculty, friends, and distinguished guests, I want to begin by thanking the entire university, and the College of Engineering and Applied Science in particular, for being wonderful hosts these past two days and for allowing me to share a few thoughts with you on this day when we are all "touching the future."

It is also a special pleasure and an honor for me to join Norm Augustine and Joel Birnbaum on the program for today's celebration.

I can't say enough about Norm Augustine and his contribution to both engineering education and to U.S. science and engineering generally. No one individual is doing more today to build bridges between academe and industry, and that's just one element of his leadership and contribution. Norm also just led a top-to-bottom review of NSF's operations in the Antarctic. The Antarctic is a true scientific treasure-trove - a veritable bounty for everything from solar neutrinos to Martian meteorites. Norm's work has positioned the U.S. Antarctic Program to remain a mainstay of U.S. science and engineering for many generations to come.

I think I also speak for future generations when I say that all of us owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Joel Birnbaum for Hewlett-Packard's many contributions to research and development in the U.S. For starters, if it were not for the generous support provided by Hewlett-Packard and David Packard himself for construction of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory, it's doubtful that we would even be gathered here today. My hat's off to you as well.

I also want to tip my hat today to the people of Colorado, the university, and especially to the students here. At NSF, we are passionate advocates for investments in the future. The wealth of support provided by Colorado's taxpayers and through the tuition surcharge that the students themselves initiated both give me great comfort regarding our nation's future course.

As I was thinking about what to say this afternoon, I was reminded of another story about setting the right compass heading in life. This story is from my days in the Navy. I took a course in celestial navigation. This was long before GPS. After completing the course, one of my classmates was eager to show off his new knowledge to some friends who were visiting the base.

"That's Regulus," he said confidently, "and there's Polaris, the North Star." His friends were impressed, and then one of them pointed to a bright light on the horizon and asked what it was. "That's Venus," my classmate replied. "Note the steady light typical of planets."

Their awe quickly turned to amusement, however, when "Venus" slowly drew nearer, turned, and began to lower its wheels for landing.

In recent years, many of us have found our most confident pronouncements turned askew by unexpected turns of reality. This brings me to the subject of my talk. My remarks this afternoon are entitled Unexpected Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities. A number of unexpected twists and turns have caught our society by surprise in recent years. My intent today is to help all of us appreciate the opportunities emerging from these twists and turns, particularly as they relate to engineering education. In fact, nowhere is the promise and potential contained in these opportunities more apparent than it is today, as we stand before this new and visionary home for teaching and learning.

Although many of us use terms like "post-cold war economy" and the "information age" with frequency and ease, we have not necessarily paid enough attention to the far reaching implications of their meaning - particularly for research and education. Indeed, I would submit that we can't even be sure if these are the right terms to use.

The end of the Cold War, just seven years ago, was unpredicted. It did not even show up on the radar screens of foreign policy experts and political gurus. It caught the world by happy surprise. No one, however, had imagined or planned for a global landscape without the Free World versus Iron Curtain rivalry of the previous forty years. And, certainly no one had given serious thought to how this enormous change would influence the way we prepare our youth for the workforce.

We are now living in the infancy of what scholars and song writers all term the "Information Age," despite the fact that there are no adequate definitions of what an information age means. We may, in fact, face an era quite different from the word "information" that we are using with impunity. The period before us is much more than computing power, digital transmission, global communication, and multimedia integration.

For starters, we no longer live in an era where academe can provide an autonomous career sheltered from society's needs and problems. We no longer live in a time when U.S. industry believes it has nothing to learn from other nations or other sectors, an attitude that persisted for too long. We no longer live in the luxury of succeeding on first-rate higher education and mediocre K-12 education. We no longer live in the industrial age when a modestly-skilled assembly-line workforce could propel the nation.

Today's engineering students will spend most of their careers in the 21st Century coping with challenges vastly different from those experienced by engineers of the last half century. The intellectual skills of tomorrow's engineers will extend well beyond the traditional science-focused preparation that has characterized engineering education since World War II. Global commercial competition is now a major driver for industrial organization and engineering employment. Intelligent technologies now enable us to be more creative and "work smarter." The ever-expanding infrastructure of our society demands new talents for handling complexity, risk, and uncertainty. The eclectic, constantly-changing nature of our work environment calls for astute interpersonal skills. And, all of us have become increasingly aware of the need to place environment, health, and safety at the front end of the process of design.

Our engineering graduates must provide a real 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 what is truly the "functional core of engineering." That is the excitement of facing an open-ended challenge and creating something that has never been. One imperative is that students participate in the entire concurrent process of realizing a new product by integrating seemingly disparate skills. This is the ultimate added value that enables wealth creation for our society.

The philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, presaged this challenge by over six decades. In 1930, he produced his brilliant volume, Mission of the University, in which he wrote:

"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."

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.

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 education.

And what of fundamentals? What are the basic constructs of the engineering process? What does the phrase "engineering is an integrative process" mean? To me, it means that we balance concepts that are often viewed as the antithesis of each other -- topics like problem solving and problem formulation, and teamwork and independence. These should be at the core of a holistic engineering education.

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.

Underlying all of this is a concept that is built into every square foot of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory. That is the concept of making connections to learning and creativity, and it provides the foundation for what we today call higher education.

Consider that over 2,000 years ago a well to-do citizen of ancient Greece offered some of his real estate, a grove, to a thoughtful fellow citizen of considerable intellect. The thoughtful citizen desired to make the land a place where fellow thinkers could gather for hearty discussions on matters of common and uncommon interest. The grove became Plato's Academy, and the generous benefactor's name was Academus - the name from which our higher education enterprise derives its own name.

In those days, a physical place was needed in order to build connections to learning and creativity. Today, physical proximity is a definite plus, but it alone is not sufficient to forge connections to learning and creativity.

If you follow the goings-on at the National Science Foundation, you'll know that we are using the term, "knowledge and distributed intelligence" to describe the era that is taking shape around us. This is our way of capturing the fact that knowledge is becoming available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that power, information, and responsibility are moving away from centralized control to the individual.

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 this 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 now help people control the flood of information unleashed by the Web - though they are far from perfect.

It is clear that what we are seeing today is only the beginning for forging connections to learning and creativity. Supercomputers are now breaking the teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks - such as the NSF-supported very high speed Backbone Network Service - transmit data in excess of 600 Megabits per second, 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 will 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 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?

The answers to these questions begin with our work as researchers and educators. 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.

It all begins with education. Education in engineering and the sciences has become much more than a four 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 radically changing professional landscapes. Colleges and 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.

This latter point brings us back to the very reason we are gathered here today. Advanced information technologies have transformed how we approach education in science and engineering. These are quite literally embodied in the ITLL. The numbers virtually speak for themselves - 200 sensors built into the building, over 150 PCs and workstations, two high-speed networks, plus countless handhelds and other tools that combine portability with power.

These are modern day connections to learning and creativity, yet they draw upon the same spirit and vision as Academus' gift to Plato two millennia ago. Above all else, they provide a pathway to lifelong learning. It was Plato himself who wrote, "the direction in which education starts a man, will determine his future life." Aside from the gender bias of the pronouns, this wisdom has proved timeless.

Indeed, in his seminal article in The Atlantic on the emerging information economy, the prominent corporate advisor Peter Drucker reached a similar conclusion. He wrote that: "We will redefine what it means to be an educated person. educated person was someone who had a prescribed stock of formal knowledge....Increasingly, an educated person will be someone who has learned how to learn, and who continues learning...throughout his or her lifetime."

Let me close by adding that whether you prefer the older or the more modern phrasings of this philosophy, it is clear that the ITLL gives us all many reasons to celebrate today. In this period of transition from an era of Cold War to an era of knowledge and distributed intelligence, both pitfalls and possibilities abound. We must be astute observers and students of the shifting global landscape, and we must agree on a collective vision and plot a path together to reach our goals.

Most of all, we must be bold and experimental in developing and shaping this emerging era. The ITLL - and the vision and commitment that made it possible - makes clear that we can realize the opportunities emerging from the unexpected twists and turns that surround us today. It's been said that while we cannot predict the future, we can shape it, and that is precisely what we are doing here today.



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