Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond

author: Charles M. Vest, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: July 26, 2010,   recorded: October 2006,   views: 3021

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Though two years departed from the MIT President’s office, Charles Vest has lost none of his zeal for issues of education and training. Says Vest, "I envy the next generation of engineering students. This is without question the most exciting period of human history in science, technology and engineering."

He cites exponential advances in knowledge, instrumentation, communication and computational capabilities, which have "created mind-boggling possibilities," cutting across traditional boundaries and blurring distinctions between science and engineering. At the same time, globalization is changing how engineers train and work, as well as how nation's resources are directed. "The entire nature of the innovation ecosystem and business enterprise is changing dramatically in ways we do not yet fully understand," says Vest. These dizzying changes require an accelerated commitment to engineering research and education, and compel research institutions simultaneously to advance the frontiers of fundamental science and technology, and to address the most important problems that face the world.

Vest perceives two key frontiers of engineering: the intersection of physical, life and information sciences -- so-called bio, nano, info-- "which offers stunning, unexplored possibilities;" and the macro world of energy, food, manufacturing, communications, which presents "daunting challenges of the future."

The kind of students Vest hopes will explore these new frontiers should reflect a diverse society, write and communicate well, think about ethics and social responsibility, conceive and operate systems of great complexity within a framework of sustainable development and be prepared to live and work as global citizens. It's a "tall order," admits Vest, but "there are men and women every day here who seem to be able to do all these things and more."

To prepare this new generation, engineering schools should focus on creating an environment that provides inspiration. In the long run, offering "exciting, creative adventures, rigorous, demanding and empowering milieus is more important than specifying details of the curriculum," says Vest. Students are "driven by passion, curiosity, engagement and dreams." Give them opportunities to discover and do – to participate in research teams, perform challenging work in industry, gain professional experience in other countries. Vest says, "We must ensure the best and brightest become engineers of 2020 and beyond. We can't afford to fail."

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