In the late 1990s, Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, collaborated with two researchers on a pair of studies that altered the dialogue on climate change. The studies, a collaboration between Bradley, a geophysicist named Michael Mann (then finishing up his Ph.D. at Yale University) and University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes, presented evidence of global climate change over the past millennium and set off a political firestorm.
With the return of students to campuses this month comes annual hand wringing over the lack of diversity in our science and engineering classes. The United States is at a 14-year low in the percentage of women (16.3 percent) and African Americans (7.1 percent) enrolling in engineering programs.
An engineering student body that is composed largely of white males is problematic not only because of its narrow design perspective, but also because failing to recruit from large segments of the population means the number of new engineers we produce falls well short of our potential.
Although this is not a new problem, it is becoming ever more urgent. We are faced with an engineering juggernaut emanating from India and China, with more than 10 Asian engineers graduating for every one in the United States. Educated at great institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology or Tshingua University, these engineers are every bit as technically competent as their American counterparts.
So here we sit at the beginning of the 21st century, in the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, with a comparatively small supply of home grown engineers, facing an explosion of technical mental horsepower overseas.
Why fight the tide? Couldn’t we simply import all the engineering we need? Couldn’t we play the economic advantage and close our expensive colleges of engineering? Do we gain anything by educating engineers in the United States?
I would argue that, with a few exceptions, we really don’t. As they are currently trained, American engineers are at relative parity with their foreign-born counterparts, are more expensive, and offer no competitive advantage. But there is a way out of this predicament, one that would provide a raison d’etre for American engineering programs, and make for the kind of design the planet now so urgently needs.
Faced with the increasingly complex design challenges of the 21st century -- an era where resources of every kind are reaching their limit, human populations are exploding, and global-warming related environmental catastrophe beckons -- engineers need to grow beyond their traditional roles as problem-solvers to become problem-definers.
To catalyze this shift, our engineering curriculum, now packed with technical courses, needs a fresh start. Today’s engineers must be educated to think broadly in fundamental and integrative ways about the basic tenets of engineering. If we define engineering as the application of math and science in service to humanity, these tenets must include study of the human condition, the human experience, the human record.
How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science – literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages – that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take -- leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study.
There is a need for advanced engineering training, to be sure, but the place for that is at the graduate level -- in one of the growing number of nine-month masters programs, perhaps.
Teaching engineers to think, in the broadest, cross-disciplinary sense, is critical. Consider two examples of the failures of the old way.
The breach of the levees in New Orleans, which has unleashed a torrent of human suffering, came about not solely because engineers designed for a category 3, rather than a category 4, hurricane. It was caused by decades of engineering and technical hubris, which resulted in loss of wetlands and overbuilding on a grand scale. Would engineers who had studied economics, ecology, anthropology, or history have acted the same?
Or consider Love Canal (or any of a thousand other environmental debacles of the last 50 years). Would designers who had read Thoreau’s Walden, studied Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or admired Monet’s poppies have allowed toxic chemicals to be dumped into the environment so remorselessly?
To prepare our engineers to engage in the major policy decisions we’ll face over the next 25 years -- many of which hinge heavily on the implications of technological design -- we must truly rethink what they need to know when they graduate.
If we do, our progeny stand a fighting chance of having a life worth living. And by giving engineering a larger, more socially relevant framework, expanding it beyond the narrow world of algorithms, the field should prove more attractive to women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.
Just imagine. A growing and increasingly diverse number of domestically trained engineers -- equipped with the broad insight and critical thinking skills the world needs, which will also give them a competitive advantage over their foreign counterparts.
Overhauling the engineering curriculum would be challenging to be sure, but it’s a design worth building.
Domenico Grasso is dean of engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Vermont. He was the founding director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College and is vice chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board.
Submitted by Bill Frist on January 26, 2006 - 4:00am
For the first 20 years of my adult life I served on research universities’ faculties, worked with medical students, and wrote peer-reviewed papers. As a medical doctor, a scientist, and a professor, I had enormous pride in the strength of America’s scientific establishment. The United States trains the world’s best scientists, runs the best research universities, and attracts the brightest minds from all over the world. Year after year, we take the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes.
I proposed the SMART Grant Program to make sure that we retain our global leadership in the sciences. The program will provide grants up to $4,000 on top of Pell Grants (a total of $8,050 in assistance per year) to help bright, hard-working, full time students of modest means pursue degrees in math, science, and strategic foreign languages. Between now and 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that almost 600,000 students will benefit from the program. These students, I am sure, will go on to teach at our leading research universities, run our top medical research labs, and administer our national science establishment. For them, the program will help a lot: at most land grant universities, in-state students receiving the maximum Pell Grant and a SMART Grant will pay no tuition for their last two years of college. Much of the money to finance SMART Grants comes from revisions to student loan formulas that ask private banks to accept reduced profits.
The SMART Grant program will also help America’s research universities retain their global preeminence. Today, India and China together graduate more than twice as many engineers as the United States. Both nations will continue to increase their ranks of scientists and engineers rapidly in the coming years. Meanwhile, many American employers have a difficult time finding qualified scientists and engineers. Since 85 percent of growth in U.S. income comes from technological change, we need to do everything we can to encourage our best and brightest to enter key scientific fields.
I designed the program with the needs of students and research universities in mind. College presidents, families, and students told me that financial pressures turned many bright students away from pursuing math, science, engineering, and languages. Friends of mine like James Wingate, the president of LeMoyne-OwenCollege, and Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, knew about the program from its origins and joined me in praising SMART Grants after the Senate passed the legislation.
I know that some college officials have expressed doubts about the way the program shifts away from the traditional practice of awarding federal aid to undergraduates based primarily on economic need rather than merit. But while I believe that the federal government should provide generous financial assistance to students with a wide range of abilities, I see no reason to apologize for creating a program targeted towards the very type of bright, motivated students nearly all colleges seek to recruit. I’m shocked that some of SMART Grants’ critics appear to believe that low-income students can’t earn good grades. While they use the same financial eligibility criteria, the SMART and Pell Grant programs will remain distinct; one won’t impact the other. The program also limits itself to full time students because they pay the most tuition and have the greatest financial need. Although fiscal considerations will play a role in future action, I am open to proposals that would expand SMART Grants to cover needy part-time students who meet similar academic criteria.
I helped create SMART Grants to help bright students from all backgrounds to learn the skills most vital to our country. The future of our nation’s global leadership depends on America’s ability to produce more graduates with degrees in science and engineering. Once they understand it, I believe that America’s great colleges and universities will welcome the SMART Grant program with open arms.
Sen. Bill Frist, a former assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical School, is majority leader of the United States Senate.