Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

International Conference on Engineering Education
Luncheon Remarks

Puerto Rico

July 24, 2006

I want to thank you for inviting me to share a few perspectives at your annual International Conference on Engineering Education. It is an honor to be here. Like all of you, I share a passion and dedication to the engineering profession. We all know that it has been the sturdy and innovative work of engineers that built societies throughout history.

It is clear that finely trained engineers are the cornerstones upon which we will collectively build the future.

Those assembled here today are not merely practitioners, you are leaders of our profession and you play a vital role in disseminating best practices and new ideas in engineering education.

The National Science Foundation is a small federal agency charged with an endless mission--to expand the frontiers of known science and engineering research and discovery. We are forever on the hunt for the startling "shock of the new".

And while we seek to expand the frontiers of what is possible--and even what is thought impossible--in both engineering and science, we also know that "the frontier" model also applies to new and innovative ways to educate and train engineers.

This past fall, I attended the UNESCO General Conference in Paris. I found the conversation on building science and engineering capacity quite provocative.

All of the representatives recognized that human capital is the key component to competitiveness in the global arena. Like the U.S., these nations identified science and engineering talent as their key driver in the tightening global economy. There are still many disparities in the global economic, technological, and educational landscapes even in a flat world. However, all nations, no matter the stage of their development recognize that their human capital is the single, most important resource to compete in the knowledge economy. They understand that they must make engineering and science education their highest priority.

As author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once wrote: "When I was young, my parents used to say 'Finish your dinner. There are hungry people in India and China.' Now, I tell my daughters 'Finish your homework. There are people in China and India hungry for your job." Developing nations know well that the size and ability of their science and engineering talent pool will likely determine their potential for economic growth.

While all countries are setting goals to increase R&D as a percentage of GDP, they all face the dilemma of not having sufficient R&D talent to increase their research. We face the same challenge in the United States.

I believe that success in a globalized economy will depend on constantly "destabilizing" the marketplace with the most versatile and unique products and applications, as Joseph Schumpter taught us with his concept "creative destruction," which I think of more accurately as "creative transformation".

Today, the ever-decreasing lead times from research to product will create a pressure cooker effect.

Engineers are lynchpins for the success of this process. But a critical component to the achievement of the engineer is effective education and training.

Our methods, curricula, and pedagogies need to change as quickly as our globalizing context is changing. Long lead-times are a luxury of the past. The present and future are high energy, high speed, and high stakes. The windows of opportunity are closing faster than ever before. To be globally competitive depends critically on speed to market, or as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famous rebel cavalry general of the Civil War, advocated "getting there fustest with the mostest."

The most dangerous response to a high-tension environment is a retreat into economic isolationism.

In essence, our goal is to create a new generation of engineers who can think nimbly, collaboratively, and comprehensively across the boundaries of disciplines, the borders of geography, and the battlements of industries.

Tomorrow's engineers will have access to increased computing power and connectivity. They will be connected to colleagues across the hall and across the world. The younger generation is already aware of this transformation and they are quite adept at connecting, collaborating, and creating.

The inventors of the Mozilla Firefox browser are a great example of this new breed. One was a student from Stanford, the other a technologist in New Zealand. Initially, this might not seem so unusual except for the fact that these two never met. They developed the application by collaborating with one another, on the internet, site unseen, from half a world apart.

Our young engineers will have to operate collaboratively across integrated enterprises that include energy, transportation, manufacturing, finance, and policy-making sectors. We are going to need engineers with the ability to simultaneously think and act both globally and locally.

Today's engineers are going to have to be able to understand the rules and language of information technology, nanotechnology, and the social, behavioral and economic sciences, as well as the cultures of far-flung societies.

This is a complex and challenging task. Gone are the days when we could teach an engineer one skill, one discipline, one approach.

If we are to succeed in this new task, we will experience what Harvard Business School sociologist and management consultant, Rosabeth Moss Kantor, called "collaborative advantage." Over a decade ago, she found that the ability to meaningfully collaborate is a key strategy in a highly competitive environment. "In the global economy," she writes, "a well-developed ability to create and sustain fruitful collaborations gives companies a significant competitive leg up."

Her study of international corporations found that those who collaborate effectively find unforeseen opportunities and create new value for each member of the group that could not have been realized by individual members alone.

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive that collaborating among competitors is a winning strategy. However, collaborations will strengthen the bonds of understanding across disciplines, sectors, and cultures. And importantly, they lay the foundation for as yet unknown opportunities for further collaboration.

At NSF, we are seeing a trend towards more interdisciplinary work, greater collaboration, and a move towards more international participation in research projects.

These trends are also a feature of the NSF research enterprise worldwide and we are strengthening our international outreach in both research and education. In just the last three weeks alone, Iíve attended bilateral working group meetings with representatives from China, Pakistan, and Brazil. They all seek stronger collaborations in science and engineering with the U.S.

Against this backdrop, it is vital for today's young engineers to be well schooled in the humanities as well as the sciences. Knowledge in social science is increasingly important as the world converges in all of its diversity. Our engineers need an understanding of history, literature, and the arts. Such skills will deepen the engineering field, not dilute it.

Perhaps more than most, young engineers need these skills to become thoughtful and effective leaders in the new global economy. We have to be able to communicate with one another, clearly articulate our goals to policy makers, and speak passionately to the general public about the value of our chosen field to society. If we fail to broadly engage the broader community, we risk becoming marginalized.

Archimedes once said: "Give me a lever long enough, and I will move the world." Certainly, the laws of physics bear him out. But to move the world, we are going to need many more new hands on that lever.

It is crucial for our future to attract and retain two particular groups: those youngest students in our schools and those who have been historically underrepresented in the engineering field.

NSF is making a concerted effort to reach down to the engineers of 2025 and out to women and minorities.

I believe that it is vital to engage our youngest students with hands-on, creative initiatives that will enable them to view engineering as a profoundly creative and dynamic endeavor, rather than as a solitary activity carried on in isolation.

And, our universities need to work quickly to create dynamic engineering learning environments. In a recent article entitled "Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond," President Emeritus of MIT, Charles Vest put it well when he wrote: "In the long run, making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details."

Currently, most nations of the world have a highly diverse culture. Over the next half-century, the U.S.--and probably many of the nations represented here today--will be experiencing a profound and seismic demographic transformation. By 2050, the majority of the U.S.'s population will be today's minorities.

Our Hispanic population alone has grown 17% in the last 4 years to 41.3 million. Hispanics are projected to account for 46% of all population growth in the U.S. over the next 20 years. The writing is on the wall and the our science and engineering community had better pay attention and help make sure these students have the opportunity to become first-class scientists and engineers.

At NSF, increasing the ranks of the underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields is a driving and overarching institutional goal. We will continue to emphasize programs aimed at tapping this potential. It is irresponsible to neglect precious human capital. As the face of our nations change, so must the face of our disciplines and institutions.

Just as we in engineering and science have been adept at embracing change in our fields, we must be equally willing to welcome the demographic and cultural changes that are upon us. This is a matter of national survival for us all.

Here again, we circle back to the central message of collaboration. The more collaborators we can create, the larger the gains for all of us. Engineers have powered civilizations since the beginning of human history, long before we even had the word "engineering." We will continue to give structure and shape to the brightest ideas. We will be the architects, builders, and changemasters of the 21st century.

Engineers move society into new, more advanced eras. We must be sure that engineering education is equipping the newest engineers for mapping these new eras.

It is not just the responsibility of governments, or universities, or private companies. It is a global task that will require a global effort from all engineers both young and old. I look forward to our continued collaboration and I'm eager to hear about the educational frontiers that you are helping to open across the world and I wish you every success in your conference.

Thank you.