Technology, Policy and Education: Education for Leadership in Engineering

moderator: Dava Newman, Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Richard de Neufville, Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Sheila Widnall, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Joel Moses, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Granger Morgan, Engineering and Public Policy Faculty, Carnegie Mellon University
published: Sept. 16, 2013,   recorded: June 2006,   views: 2117

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In this panel, founders of technology and policy programs at MIT and elsewhere recall the early years, take stock of the current state of engineering education and look to the future.

“Society faces major issues neither technology nor policy sciences can handle alone,” states Richard de Neufville. These include medical care and energy. TPP and similar programs fill the gap, coming at these problems with an interdisciplinary approach. But de Neufville feels surrounded by colleagues who “would gladly see us fail,” who think money spent on such special programs is wasteful. Shoring up the technology and policy paradigm in academia will take at least a generation, and must be accomplished through “unrelenting pursuit of excellence,” a “demanding curriculum,” and “stiff entrance exams.”

At Carnegie Mellon, a tradition of interdepartmental collaboration has provided a more comfortable setting for Granger Morgan’s engineering and public policy program. Nevertheless, as a solid backer of such efforts around the country, he notes the “need to remain in equilibrium, requiring a constant input of energy.” Morgan points to the collapse of programs at Cornell and Washington University. A few new programs have come on line, but “given the small numbers, we need to work together, to build a strong community,” he says.

Government is taking a fresh, and urgent look at the nature of science and engineering education, says Sheila Widnall. The National Research Council responded to a congressional request to determine “what steps should be taken in science and engineering education so the U.S. can successfully compete.” The report, issued recently, didn’t yield “anything earthshaking -- there are no silver bullets in this field,” cautions Widnall. Among the recommendations: Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and math education; sustain a commitment to basic research and development; interest the best and brightest in science and engineering higher education, including foreign students; and provide incentives for innovation and investment.

Joel Moses describes the evolution of the technology and policy program, in the context of MIT’s post-World War 2 history. Physicists, credited with the successes of MIT’s illustrious Rad Lab, defined much of the emphasis of the engineering school for many years. They chose other physicists to head up divisions, and emphasized math and physics. It was a revolution, says Moses, “that went too far.” By the 1970s, “people were trying to rebalance the situation” -- by founding TPP, for instance. The curriculum gradually opened up to design and engineering management courses. “The fights were unbelievable,” Moses recounts. Today, he concludes, the proliferation of such complex, large-scale systems as education, healthcare and manufacturing necessitates the need to attract talented students to engineering and science, lest they be lost to law, medicine and business.

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