Tomorrow’s Engineering Crisis

moderator: Howard Anderson, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Kristina M. Johnson, U.S. Department of Energy
author: Jeffrey M. Nick, EMC Corporation
author: Sophie V. Vandebroek, Xerox Corporation
author: Thomas L. Magnanti, School of Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 6, 2013,   recorded: September 2005,   views: 31
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Description

Wielding a provocative list of questions, Howard Anderson elicits strong opinions and concerns among his panelists around the future of engineering education and careers.

There’s a broad consensus that Washington is apathetic toward engineering. While the NIH budget has grown from five to 30 billion dollars in the past 30 years, support for the physical sciences and engineering has been flat. Says Kristina Johnson, “Without the enabling technologies of quantitative approaches and analytical tools for the life sciences, you would not have the breakthroughs we’re having in medicine…This is a missed opportunity.”

The panelists don’t generally perceive the trend of offshoring as a threat. Jeffrey Nick suggests, “If we step up to it and embrace the fact that commoditization in all forms…is just a fact of life and the sky isn’t falling, we can go to a higher ground where there are new opportunities. Engineering is never a menial task.” Says Tom Magnanti, “Societies become more mobile. That doesn’t mean we have to lose the cutting edge or jobs here—there’s just a different flow to the people.”

But the panelists’ hackles go up over the lackluster U.S. performance in engineering education. China, says Johnson, graduates between 250 to 600 thousand engineers a year, versus 68 thousand in the U.S. Magnanti suggests, “We’ve got to work better at making science and math in K-12 accessible, more exciting.” Johnson notes, “Maybe mathematics is the broccoli of curriculum. We have to eat it at every meal. … We must require math every year. …Otherwise, we won’t have the students to sustain innovation.” And, she adds, role models are necessary to recruit more women and minorities into the discipline. At Xerox, says Sophie Vandebroek, “We have many women engineers—twice the national average….Our C.E.O. is a woman, an African-American woman is my boss. …We must find ways to change stereotypes.”

What can be done to help engineering as a profession regain its stature in this country? Magnanti suggests a broadened engineering degree program to teach both the fundamentals and “provide a sense of markets and innovation,” enabling graduates to take on more leadership positions. Nick recommends a focus on “teaching people how to be inventive and apply technologies from one field to another.”

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