Engineers can change the world
Engineers have an important place in American culture, but getting that message across to students is more of a challenge today than ever before. The nation and world need well-trained engineers who can interface with other segments of society. “We need to help young people think more clearly about what we do and why it’s important,” said Chuck Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during the March 2009 National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Summit in Durham, N.C.
“When we asked young people why they didn’t go into engineering, they said, ‘I w anted to help make things better.’ So we’re doing a miserable job of explaining what we do.
“We’re all about turning dreams into reality, we are creative problem solvers,” he said. The key component is necessity. “What we need is innovation and action from industry, media, and government,” Vest said.
The message that permeated the two-day summit was none of these challenges are new, what is new is that they are global. The purpose of the summit was to incite engineers and students to be harbingers of technological innovation and scientific philanthropy. During the event, engineering leaders could not emphasize enough how universities will need to be knowledge brokers as well as local and federal policy makers in industry to solve these vast problems.
“This is a time of great openness of change to our nation and the world,” said Duke University’s Dean of Engineering Tom Katsouleas. “But the doorway to change will not remain open long. We need to put in place institutional changes to allow us to sustain efforts when openness to change has abated. University leaders will need to be engaged … committing themselves to research and work that fosters and rewards collaboration and teamwork across disciplines,” he said. “We need to change the way we teach in the classroom, encouraging students to step outside their comfort zones and make them aware of how they impact the human condition.”
14 grand challenges
Presentations throughout the summit included expert testimony from engineers, professors, and business professionals from across the country on how the industry will meet the 14 grand challenges engineers face for the future.
The challenges fall under four main groups: sustainability and the environment, the role of engineering in improving medicine and healthcare delivery, enhancing security by reducing human vulnerability from human-made and natural threats, and enhancing the human capability for joy.
The challenges themselves range from making solar energy economical, providing energy from fusion, developing carbon sequestration methods, and providing clean water across the world to advancing health informatics, better engineering medicines, and preventing chemical and biological warfare and nuclear terror. Other challenges include enhancing virtual reality, advancing personalized learning, and engineering the tools of scientific discovery.
And the challenges do not stop at science and technology; entrepreneurs shared their knowledge about how to sell these grand ideas to businesses and policy makers, reinforcing the notion that engineering is not just for hermetic techno-geeks, but an all-encompassing career choice for innovative, business-minded, creative thinkers who are excited to take on the challenge of changing the world they live in for the better.
The grand challenge of today’s engineers is primarily about human ingenuity and technology, said Lincoln Pratson, associate professor of sedimentary geology at the Nicholas School for the Earth and the Environment at Duke University. “Engineers are well positioned to lead our energy revolution. But we’ll need leaders from all walks of life, business, government, law, and policy,” he said. “In the case of 21st Century energy, special opportunities exist for those who can communicate with those from other fields.”
Pratson works with students in environmental programs and professional students pursuing management degrees in law and public policy. His goal within the scheme of the grand challenges is to be part of the solution to providing clean affordable energy for all around the world. “We need to make investments now,” he said. Increasing poverty is associated with rising demand and outstripping supply. We are in geopolitical turmoil.”
But the key to meeting the challenge lies in people. “No matter how disparate all these advances are, they have one key element in common—the human element—the heart and brains of our energy system,” he said. “People are attending these conferences around the world because they want to do more than change out incandescent bulbs.”
On energy independence, Emil Jacobs, ExxonMobil’s vice president of research and development, offered a viewpoint from industry. “The aspiration of energy independence of any country is very lofty and almost impossible to achieve,” he said. “The target we should have is energy security—the ability to have the energy you need to support economic development. … There’s not a silver bullet here. We’ll need every option available—coal, natural gas, oil, biofuel, nuclear, soil, and wind.
Ellen Fussell Policastro (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes and edits Workforce Development.