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Speaker urges revolution in engineering education


June 06, 2008

A revolution in engineering education and practice in the United States is needed if the nation is to remain a leader in the field.

That was the central message delivered recently to about 70 faculty members of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering by nationally prominent educator James Duderstadt.

“America faces the very real prospect of losing its engineering competence in an era in which technological innovation is the key to economic competitiveness, national security and social well-being,” said Duderstadt, who is president emeritus of the University of Michigan, where he is a professor of science and engineering.

Duderstadt also is founder and director of the Millennium Project, a laboratory at the University of Michigan studying the impact of “over-the-horizon” technologies on society.

In an address titled “Engineering for a Changing World,” Duderstadt pointed to warning signs of daunting challenges for engineering.

He cited the off-shoring of engineering jobs, inadequate investment in long-term engineering research, inadequate innovation in engineering education and declining interest among students in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Duderstadt noted the warning of the National Academies – the nation’s advisers on science, engineering and medicine – of “a gathering storm” building toward a national crisis of shrinking technological innovation because the country’s universities are graduating fewer engineers and scientists.

Bold actions are required to reverse the troubling trends, he said.

The approach to engineering education must broaden to include training in creative thinking, communication, leadership and entrepreneurial skills, globalization and knowledge integration, he said.

Even more, it must expose engineering students to varied aspects of a well-rounded liberal arts education. More education in the humanities and social sciences is necessary to produce young engineers with a deeper comprehension of the cultural and historical forces within which scientific and technological advances have emerged.

Such an expanded educational horizon will provide students with the ability to see their engineering pursuits as part of a larger picture of the sociological, economic, political and environmental dynamics that are shaping the 21st century.

Giving students an understanding of the impact of science, engineering and technology on shaping the quality of life in the world will “infuse them with a new spirit of adventure” for engineering research and practice, he said.

Duderstadt said the nation’s universities must be committed to “creating a new breed of engineer that is better able to respond to the incredible pace of intellectual change” and to thrive in the modern global knowledge-based economy.

For the United States to maintain an edge in engineering innovation, it’s also critical to “elevate the status of the engineering profession,” he said. That will require engineers to take on more visible roles in influencing public policy through leadership in government and business.

Such status-raising is crucial to efforts to increase the nation’s investment in the kinds of basic science and engineering research that has historically spawned technological innovation, he said.

After his presentation on May 7, Duderstadt was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by ASU.

Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, called Duderstadt “a visionary leader” for the changes he is proposing for engineering education.

“It was an honor to have him at ASU and to learn more about his ideas,” Meldrum said. “What we are doing at ASU to lead engineering discovery and innovative education will be a step toward realizing some of the bold ideas conceived by his Millennium Project.”