Education for the Technology Ecosystem
The nation wants more engineers. Dean Joseph J. Helble says we need a different kind of engineer.
Interview by Karen Endicott
Thayer School Dean Joseph J. Helble was among the engineering leaders invited to the White House in February to discuss the call from the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness for the nation to produce 10,000 more engineers a year over the next decade. We asked him about the challenge and Thayer School’s role in meeting it.
What is your perspective on the national call for 10,000 more engineering graduates a year?
Deans of engineering schools were invited to a discussion at the White House about finding ways to boost science, technology, engineering, and mathematics literacy and increase the number of engineers we graduate in the United States annually over the next 10 years. My expectation is that we’ll reach that goal of 10,000 additional engineering graduates this year, based on projections from recent freshman and sophomore enrollment data.
I think the real goal should be higher. As long as there are challenges in areas such as clean renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration, transportation, low-cost network communication, and every problem you can imagine in healthcare, we should be graduating people who have an engineering background who can tackle these problems. It doesn’t mean that all of them have to be practicing engineers. We need attorneys who can understand engineering quantitative and analytical thinking. We need more physicians who are trained as engineers and can take an appropriate quantitative approach to healthcare. We need venture capitalists and bankers with backgrounds in engineering. We need people working in all aspects of the technology ecosystem to address the pervasive problems that are going to be with us for a century.
Will there be jobs for these engineers?
That’s part of the challenge. There are going to be periods when there’s a supply-and-demand mismatch. But if we change our focus in engineering schools to help our students understand what it takes to convert an idea into a real product or process, we can change the conversation so students are not just thinking about jobs at large multinational corporations like IBM or Dupont or General Electric as the only outlet for their degrees. We need students who see themselves as technology entrepreneurs, who think about creating jobs, starting their own companies. That’s the mindset that students here and students at places such as Olin College of Engineering have—places with an emphasis on open-ended, project-based learning. But I don’t think it’s the pervasive mindset among engineering students at most institutions.
Are attrition rates a concern nationally?
The American Society for Engineering Education is trying to develop a better measure of student attrition. We all talk about a 60-percent retention figure, but that’s really an indication of students who apply to schools of engineering but after matriculating choose to pursue something else. A reasonable question is whether we should take a line on someone’s college application—written when they were a high school senior—as the benchmark for an intention to major in engineering. Our engineering retention rate at Dartmouth ranges from 98 to 102 percent when we use as our starting point the number of A.B. candidates who’ve filed a major card by the start of their junior year. At the other Ivies, where most students declare a major in freshman or sophomore year, retention rates are also in the high 90s. Once students take the engineering prerequisites at an Ivy League institution, they generally graduate with a degree in engineering.
The President has asked engineering deans to think about whether we have appropriate mentoring programs in place. His question is whether we’re losing students who are genuinely interested in engineering but get derailed because of challenges with the prerequisites or because they don’t see the excitement of engineering at an early enough stage.
I think the incorporation of engineering into the liberal arts, and of the liberal arts into engineering, is a fantastic way to address this challenge, but it’s not something that the majority of engineering programs are in a position to adopt. But I do think there will be increasing emphasis on team-based, project-based, design-based learning at many campuses. There is broad recognition that this kind of experience helps keep students motivated to study engineering because they’re not just doing the interesting design work at the end, they’re solving open-ended problems that aren’t from a textbook from the very beginning. This approach, which is so much a part of the culture at Dartmouth, will become more common. But I don’t foresee widespread incorporation of the liberal arts because there are engineering faculties that feel the objective of an engineering education is to compress as much technical information as possible into the four-year undergraduate degree. There is resistance to any effort to understand the human element, the broader context, to do more than simply solve the problem technically. If you’re trying to educate students to be entrepreneurs, context and the liberal arts component of the education are as important—and in some ways more important—than understanding the mechanics of starting a business. Understanding context helps students recognize and articulate a problem, define a possible solution—and see where the opportunities may lie.
Many people grow up not really knowing what engineering is or thinking simply that engineers are people who are good at math and science. How do we address that?
Engineering means applying all the tools of understanding at our disposal to help people live better, happier, healthier lives. That’s how most of us see engineering, and that’s the message that we would like to convey. But whenever we define engineering as first “applying the tools of math and science” or being a path for only those who “are good at math and science,” we immediately set engineering as something apart from the way most high school students envision themselves. Of course we use the tools of science and math, but we, especially as engineers in a liberal arts institution, expect that you will also use the tools of persuasion, logic, rhetoric, writing, finance, economics, history, political science, anthropology. You need to understand the challenge that you’re trying to address and how it affects people, why it’s important, why it needs to be solved. You need to understand that the best solution isn’t always a technical solution. I think engineers who are educated in a liberal arts context don’t approach any problem with a toolbox that contains only engineering tools.
Should engineering be part of everyone’s education?
There’s a strong argument that can be made for this. In a liberal arts college, I think we all intuitively understand “the liberal arts” as a concept but would acknowledge that there is no uniformly agreed-upon core curriculum, and the curriculum isn’t static—the core components have changed over time. At one point there were questions about whether modern languages should be part of a liberal arts curriculum; that changed, as it should have. The educational core continues to evolve. In the 21st century, shouldn’t some fundamental understanding of technology, its role in society, its creation and use, its adaptation to meet basic human need be part of the liberal arts education? Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, makes this point very effectively. When he was dean of engineering at Tufts he recognized that science curricula in middle and high schools focused exclusively on the natural environment and ignored the built environment. His argument is that most humans spend the vast majority of their lives interacting with the built environment. He’s been on a crusade to not just improve science literacy but to inject engineering concepts and understanding of the built environment into K-12 education in Massachusetts. Humans have had a profound impact on the environment, and engineered invention affects everyone’s life on a daily basis. It’s as important that we understand this as it is that we understand basic mathematics or know how to speak in complete sentences.
Who is responsible for educating the next generation of engineers?
I think it’s a shared responsibility. Is it the responsibility of political leaders to say that this is important? Yes. Is it the responsibility of educational leaders to say that this needs to be part of the educated citizen’s education in the 21st century? Yes. University faculty can partner with K-12 educators to help them develop methods and approaches they can use to help their students understand the process of engineering, even with simple materials, without advanced mathematics, starting at the earliest level. While I wouldn’t say that it’s the responsibility of every individual professor, I think we do have a responsibility to spread the excitement and awareness of what engineering is and why it’s central to our lives.
What is Thayer’s role in the 10,000 engineers challenge?
I think we at the Thayer School would be teaching students to recognize human need and use their skills to develop solutions, to improve the human condition, regardless of any national call for more engineers. There are pervasive problems that are crying out for new, less expensive, simpler technology solutions. On a numbers basis, even if the Thayer School were to grow dramatically, we would not be in a position to produce more than a handful of the 10,000 additional engineers a year, but I see our role as continuing to provide opportunities to motivated and creative students who take the broad view. Our role is to help them learn to use their learning and skill to tackle some of these very challenging problems in innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial ways. That’s our impact.
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