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William A. Wulf
President, National Academy of Engineering
"Engineering Education in the 21st Century"
February 23, 2007

I was the first computer science graduate from the University of Virginia. I got my Ph.D. here in 1968 and so I came back to the University in 1988, twenty years later after having just run about a hundred person, one hundred twenty person software company for almost a decade. And I had what some friends of mine describe as an intraocular event. It’s a 2x4 between the eyes. I really realized that engineering education didn’t have much to do with what I had experienced running a technology based company. And moreover, it was pretty much the same education I had twenty years before that. So I devoted with a number of my colleagues in CS about three years to revising the computer science curriculum, but frankly I didn’t do much with respect to the broader engineering curriculum here at Virginia.

When I went to the National Academy however, I decided that I had a bigger bully pole and that I really ought to take advantage of that to have a positive impact. The fact that the number of Engineering graduates has peaked in the mid-eighties and has been on a down slope since worries me. It worries me that we are as dependent on foreign-nationals as we are. As wonderful as they are. My father was an immigrant from Germany in the 1920s so I feel very strongly about the contributions that immigrants make. Nonetheless, the fact that we are not able to attract U.S. students to enter science is something that we need to be very concerned about. We are not going to be able to compete with developing countries like China and India on the basis of cost. We better do it on the basis of quality and that’s where engineering education comes in.

There are going to be four parts to this talk. The first one has to do with the fact that I feel a great sense of urgency about getting on with this reform. Changing universities is not an easy thing to do, but if we don’t start now, it just ‘aint gonna happen. The practice of engineering has changed enormously from what it was forty years ago and engineering education hasn’t changed very much at all. I am hard pressed to point at half a dozen things that are different today than when I started almost fifty years ago. Forty-nine years ago. Moreover, the things that are changing abut the practice of engineering, I liken to a mosaic. There are lots of little pieces changing. There is a pattern to that mosaic, but it’s hard to see from up close. You really have to be able to stand back a long way. I really am concerned that unless we start making some important changes, we’ll soon be educating engineers for the occupation that my father had as opposed to the ones that my children and grandchildren will have.

So what needs to change? Well a lot. The first thing that comes to mind always are curriculum and pedagogy. I am going to come back and talk about curriculum later. It is the thing we get hung on a lot and so I don’t want to waste a lot of time upfront. Pedagogy. An enormous amount has been learned by the cognitive scientists about both the physiological and aspects of learning. The last fifteen years engineering education has incorporated almost none of that. We could be doing faster more efficiently and with better learning outcomes. We need to do that.

What else needs to change? Diversity. I believe down to my toes that a diverse engineering team will build a better quality product. So in addition to the usual arguments for diversity having to do with equity, we Americans are pretty sensitive to arguments about fairness and equity. In addition to that and the arguments about the need for…about the fact that White males are becoming a minority, if we don’t involve women and underrepresented minorities, we simply are not going to have enough numbers of engineers. In addition to those two arguments, I believe there is a very important argument for engineering in particular that we will engineer better with a more diverse workforce.

Retention rate. It’s a disgrace. Not all schools are the same, but across the United States, about half of the students who enter with Engineering do not finish with Engineering. The ones who leave are not poor students. Very scholarly work has been done that shows that the students are indistinguishable from those who stay. They have the same grade point average. They have the same grades in math and science. They have the same SAT scores. They have the same rank in high school. They are not poor students. We are not weeding out the poor students. We are turning off half of our students with the way that we teach. I am concerned about both the quantity and the quality of our current engineering graduates, but the quickest way to fix the quantity problem is not to attract more people into the pipeline. Not to worry about kids deciding in middle school that they don’t like math. Those are problems, but add fifty percent to the retention rate and the problem is fixed. And we have that under our control. We can fix that.

B.S. is the first professional degree. Most professions –business, law, medicine – assume that the first professional degree is a Master’s. in fact, in case you don’t know it, according to the United States government, engineering is not a profession. The definition of profession by the Department of Commerce requires two years beyond the Bachelor’s. Okay? So engineering is not a profession. The fact that we treat the Bachelor’s as a first professional degree causes all sorts of mischief. It’s a misrepresentation to both students and employers. It has caused the program to bloat to a size well beyond that of our liberal arts friends. Companies suspect that they are going to have to spend one to two years providing additional training. Liberal education in the humanities is squeezed out as are social and management sciences that are needed by modern engineers. The problem is exacerbated by a number of states, including Virginia I believe, that have considered mandating that the Engineering degree has to be done in a hundred and twenty hours.

So these problems segway me into the curriculum issues. Almost every time we talk about curriculum, people talk about what we need to add. Folks we can’t add anything. We have to talk about what we are going to either get rid of or what we are going to be able to do in two semesters instead of four. My favorite thing to kick is that we still teach four semesters of continuous mathematics. I met with a bunch of students this morning and asked how many of them had Calculus in high school. All of them, but one raised their hand. When I was going through engineering school, nobody had Calculus in high school, yet we still have four semesters of continuous mathematics. Irrespective to the fact that these students will probably never integrate anything ever again.

This pressure on adding more things to the curriculum always provokes somebody to add to the mantra, the undergraduate curriculum should teach only the fundamentals. The problem always is deciding what the fundamentals are. The last major curriculum change in Engineering is what is referred to as the Engineering Science Approach following World War II and since then the fundamentals have pretty much been Physics and continuous mathematics. But as I said earlier, engineering is changing. Very few people will produce a product in the future that doesn’t have imbedded IT, information technology. And yet, it’s discrete mathematics not continuous mathematics that is the basis for IT. It is as fundamental as continuous mathematics. Biological processes, materials I think are a little bit behind IT in terms of their impact on general engineering, but I feel like they are closing fast. So the biological sciences and chemistry are also new fundamentals. Boy am I ever sensitive to the fact that engineering is now conducted in a global context. Both the act of engineering and the customer, the product that we develop are global. A contemporary engineer needs to design under constraints of global cultural issues. Global business context and so really must understand them at a fairly deep level. It really is as fundamental as thermal dynamics. You can’t just add these new fundamentals. Our curriculum is already too full. Especially if we claim that the Bachelor’s is a professional degree. I think we have to look every carefully at the current cherished fundamentals and ask are they or is there a way to teach them in half the time o a third of the time.

Let me talk about faculty rewards. My fast definition of what engineers do is design under constraint. We design solutions to human problems, but not any old solution will do. There are a whole bunch constraints – everything from size, weigh, power consumption, heat dissipation, to safety, reliability, manufacturability, aerodynamics, environmental impacts - the list of constraints is very long. Doing that kind of design is a highly creative activity. I don’t know why, but frequently when people talk about engineering, they immediately jump to the math and science component. My experience – the essential characteristic of a good engineer, a great engineer, is creativity. With that said, can you think of any other discipline on campus which is a creative field which doesn’t require it’s faculty to perform. Artists must paint. They get tenure based on their paintings, not their writings. Sculptures. Musicians. Even if you are not willing to buy that engineering is the same kind of creativity as that of artists, just think about the performance oriented professions. Law, for example. Medicine, for example. Think of any creative activity which doesn’t require one to perform that activity. I can’t except for engineering of course. Very few faculty have ever done any engineering. We do research, but producing a product, I can assure you is a very different thing than doing research. Instead, we have faculty promotion tenure criteria, which are the same as those in sciences – research, teaching, services. Somewhere in there we’re missing creating a product, actually doing innovation, creating a piece of lasting infrastructure for the country. We don’t require it. What I am criticizing is a system in engineering schools which doesn’t allow for the richness of experience that comes with the actual practice of engineering. It would be very valuable for students.

Technological literacy. We all love the fact that the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was very clear about why he was proud of founding the University. He said you could not have a democracy without an educated citizenry. I think he would be concerned today. I have spent the last eleven years sitting at the nexus of engineering and public policy and almost everyday I have my nosed rubbed to the fact that the people to whom I am trying to communicate are technologically illiterate. They are not dumb. They just do not understand how technology is created or how it works and yet it is one of the strongest forces shaping our democracy period. What bothers me is not only that our elected representatives, our appointed representatives are illiterate, but also the people that elect them. The vast majority of the American public cannot participate in an intellectual discourse on a whole variety of really important public policy issues – climate change, energy policy – and the list just goes on and on. And these are just fundamental and they get the wool pulled over their eyes all the time. Not from people intentionally trying to misrepresent things, but because the Speaker doesn’t understand things himself.

Three years ago in the State of the Union address, and I am not just picking on Bush here because I could do this with Democrats. In the State of the Union address, Bush talked about hydrogen and talked about you just combine hydrogen and oxygen and you get energy and water and there is no pollution. Well stop. I honestly believe that he did not know that you have to manufacture hydrogen. Okay? We did a report on the hydrogen economy at the academies two years ago and this isn’t the way report writers would have said it, but basically the report says it will take about six miracles in order to convert to a hydrogen community. I mean there are just some difficult and deep problems that need to be solved in order to make that work. So it’s personal belief that in a modern democracy, everybody with a liberal education needs to be technologically literate. Now engineering schools have not traditionally provided courses for the liberal arts majors, but in my humble opinion, they must. Not should. Must. They are not the kind of courses we are accustomed to teaching. Since they are going to relate technology to larger social issues.

Just as an aside. The year that I went to academy, it was 1996 and just before that, the academy puts out a quarterly magazine called The Bridge and just before I got there, an issue of The Bridge came out in which there was a description of a little exercise, a man who was Provost at the time at Columbia had done scanning all of the most popular American history texts, both high school and college text. I am not going to remember the numbers. I am making up numbers, but something like fifteen thousand pages or twenty thousand pages he scanned, he found like fifteen or twenty that talked about technology and yet technology has had such a profound influence on our society. Some of you will know this, but the academy in running up to the year 2000, did a little exercise in which we assembled a list in which we said were the greatest engineering achievements in the twentieth century. Where greatest was determined by impact on society not technological genius and you read that list and you cant help but be struck by how radically different our lives are from someone living in 1900. by the way, my Grandfather was a teenager in 1900 so I feel like two generations, I am an old guy, but two generations away. Things like the average life expectancy in 1900 was forty-six. It’s not north of seventy-six, so it has increased by at least thirty years and it’s estimated that twenty of those thirty years is simply due to clean water. Just about as prosaic engineering as you can imagine and yet in 1900, waterborne diseases were the third leading cause of disease in the United States. You can imagine the list. Electricity or electrification. Automobiles. First airplane was not flown in 1900. One of my favorites on the list is agricultural mechanization. In 1900, fifty percent of Americans lived on farms including my grandfather. And it took that many to feed the other fifty percent. Now because of agricultural mechanization, it’s two percent live on farms and we not only feed the rest of the United States, but a good chunk of the rest of the world as well.

Why haven’t things changed faster? I don’t know, but I have a hypothesis. The hypothesis is simply that most faculty don’t believe the change is necessary. They are following the old wise adage ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’. If you haven’t had recent experience in industry, which I don’t think most faculty have and if change is a mosaic a multiple dimension, patterns are hard to discern, than the fact that it is broke might not be obvious. It’s my belief that if the NAE consistently asserts that it believes the change is necessary and exhibits the fact that it values people who cause that change then over time faculty attitudes will change.

So what we have is what has been called Bills’ four-legged stool. Leg number one of the stool is we did what we always do. We created a committee. It’s called Engineering Education. Like all the other committees we have, they produce reports and many of you I am sure have seen The Engineer of 2020 and Educating the Engineer of 2020. Second, we said if we are going to assert that engineering education is important, we better not say, oh but it’s not important enough to let you get elected to the academy. So we’ve changed the rules, you can now be elected to the academy for contributions to engineering education and people have been. That’s not just being a good teacher. It’s really having a national impact on engineering enterprise. Third leg of stool – we have created a five hundred thousand dollar prize that is given annually for contributions to engineering education. I believe we have given the fourth or fifth of those just last Tuesday. It’s called the Gordon Prize. And finally, we reversed our field. I said at the beginning, we don’t do anything. We just advise other people to do something. Well we have created something called the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education at the academy, which is an active entity. It’s got a budget of about four million dollars this year and it is trying to promote increased quality of the scholarship on engineering education and broader dissemination of the results that we found.

So let me conclude. Our society in my view is not only dependent upon technology, it’s become addicted to technological change. If you ask most people about the important events of the twentieth century, they will talk about World War II, the Great Depression, things like that. Maybe the Cold War. I think those things pale in comparison to what engineering has contributed, but engineering is changing. It’s not the same discipline that it was fifty years ago. And engineering has to change, engineering education has to change not just to keep up with that, but actually to lead it. The global competitive landscape is changing at the same time. And if you don’t buy the argument about my simple assertion that engineering is changing, therefore engineering education is changing, pay close attention to the fact that we are going to be in competition with very good engineers from places like India and China. They got big populations. Taking the top people. They are very smart. There universities are…it’s scary. You go to places in Beijing and everything is new. There isn’t an old piece of equipment anywhere in the place. I got to MIT and I look at the same laboratories and I see a lot of twenty and thirty year old equipment. Moreover, their work ethic is unbelievable and so we have better change. Okay. That’s it!

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