Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Just One Question: What are the most pressing problems you hope tomorrow's students will solve?

First, anything that results in super-competitive products for global market that can be economically built domestically and that are protected by valid worldwide patents. Second, helping neuroscientists utilize computer software power to aid molecular biology in discovering protocols for treating Alzheimer’s and other diseases and in support of other initiatives in bioscience.
—Tom Harriman ’42 Th’43

Cybersecurity is one of the issues I think more of us citizens need to understand and protect against. I would like to have a course in that at Thayer if I were a current student.
—Bart Lombardi ’52 Th’54

First and foremost, address climate change. Look into its many underlying causes and speculate on solutions: engineering, political, economic, business opportunity, religious, etc. The other side of the coin is mitigation of the effects that we know are threatening, and in some cases already here. So many mitigation measures are extremely costly. Citizens from poorer countries will attempt to move and rebuild, but how can they pay for that? In the United States, threatened towns and counties cannot afford mitigation programs, so will there be the political will to fund them from the federal level?
—F. Peter Carothers ’57 Tu’60 Th’60

I think that the most pressing problem we have is developing strategies and tactics that will provide the enthusiasm among high school students for science, technology, engineering, and math offerings so that they will be prepared and interested in an engineering education.
—Harris McKee ’61 Th’63

My vote would be for climate change.
—Andrew Urquhart ’61 Th’64

Getting to Mars and establishing a colony there. No joke! Back when I was at Dartmouth, I clearly remember President Kennedy’s speech outlining the goal to get to the moon within that decade. Even smart people thought that was an unreachable goal. I remember seeing a lot of unmanned rockets blowing up on the launching pad. Kennedy was probably the last president that I really believed in. (Maybe Trump can fill that position now.) But we made it, and with about a half year to spare, on July 20, 1969. So, Mars within my lifetime—I was born in 1942, so maybe before 2030—is not an unreasonable vision. The big challenge may not be getting there, but establishing a permanent base there.
—Ed Brazil ’64 Th’65

There are three problems. First, they need to figure out the effective and affordable use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the field of education. In principle, IBM’s Watson AI computer has more information, more knowledge, and more accumulated experience than the most learned professor. The second challenge is the development of electronic connections with the human nervous system. A chip implanted in the brain is used to bypass a paraplegic’s spinal nerve damage to allow that person to walk. It is easy to imagine downloading information directly to the brain using implanted chip technology. There will be ethical and social challenges, but evolution is no longer just biological. Finally, the 3-D printing of human organs and body parts, using compatible stem cell technology.
—Tom Brady ’66 Th’68

There are two issues indirectly related to greenhouse gases and therefore global warming: an economically viable means of storing variable renewable energy (the grid is not a battery) and addressing the spent nuclear fuel problems.
—George Elenbaas ’69 Th’70 ’74

There are several areas that need attention: reduce the cost of solar energy, coupled with inexpensive storage of that generated energy (including small-scale water lifting and dropping); develop micro machines to drive down the cost of wind power and low-head water flow; advance the conversion of carbon dioxide back to oxygen and burnable fuel (which has had recent breakthroughs); cut the high cost of medical and dental procedures (such as dental implants); develop plastics with two to three times the current lifespan (Bakelite was indestructible, but modern plastics fail in a few years); and create nonlethal means of stopping fleeing or threatening persons.
—Mark Totman ’71 Th’72

My “career” objectives would include solutions for challenges involving water supply, water disposal, waste disposal (without wasting precious water), population control, nuclear safety, minimizing use of drugs in routine husbandry, and forcing a shift to human-powered transport.
—Peter Areson ’72 Th’73, MD

Global warming.
—Richard Akerboom ’80 Th’82 ’85

Pressing problems that I expect the next generation to work on include a sustainable economy, sustainable energy, poverty (worldwide), and affordable housing.
—Kim Quirk ’82 Th’83

The most pressing problem engineering students of tomorrow are going to have to help solve isn’t a technical one. It’s a sociological one.

In one part of society we have consumers of technology who have absolutely no idea how it works. Worse, the vast majority of them are math illiterate. This would only be a minor problem were it the case that only a small fraction of the populace fits into this category. Unfortunately, this isn’t so. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss tax incentives for technology companies, I was appalled at just how many people in Congress have an understanding of science and math that matched my own at about age 10. These people are college educated and the vast majority of them have law degrees—and they’re making public policy. Beyond the halls of Congress, things don’t improve. There are a lot of folks out there who take the opinion, “I don’t need it to do my job, and I can unpack and set up my new TV without knowing the first thing about how it works, so who cares?”

Technological and scientific ignorance being acceptable might be an arguable point were it not for three things. First, knowing the science isn’t nearly as important as understanding the scientific method, which relies on a solid comprehension of causality. As we look at voting patterns and which public issues cause the most outcry today, it becomes obvious how little people comprehend when A causes B. We make broad, sweeping decisions—not just scientific ones, but also socioeconomic ones—based often not on causality but on coincidence. We also skip the last step of scientific inquiry in which we ask, “Did what we legislate actually create the result we were after?” Once, public housing projects were touted as being the solution to a wide variety of societal ills and part of a shining vision of the future. And some very decent and well-meaning people pressed for their creation. Today, “the projects” has become synonymous with poverty and crime. We’re not going back and asking the dispassionate question of scientific inquiry: What in that social experiment worked and what didn’t? We also don’t collectively comprehend that the question is not a search for the guilty or an indictment of anyone’s intelligence in articulating a policy that didn’t do what was expected. Many of the best scientists have crafted experiments that did precisely what they didn’t expect, and the knowledge gained by an honest logging and reduction of data made the next experiment that much better.

Second, science requires math. There’s just no getting around that fact. With a great many large issues in the United States today involving numbers (a large federal debt, ongoing deficits, large numbers of social programs headed for bankruptcy, the economic consequences of tax policy and trade protectionism, etc.), we need the common language of math to be able to talk about potential solutions to problems or project tomorrow’s potential outcomes that may result from today’s actions. Airing a TV commercial of your political opponent pushing grandma over a cliff in her wheelchair may get you elected, but it doesn’t solve anything beyond that immediate selfish concern of yours to return to power.

Third, the crafting of a system of republican government where representatives of the people are popularly elected was the work of men who were immersed as much in natural philosophy as political philosophy. Much is made of the degree to which Thomas Jefferson cribbed language from John Locke when he wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet we gloss over the fact that holding “truths to be self-evident” is verbiage straight out of Isaac Newton’s Principia and the fact that Benjamin Franklin got his pre-revolutionary access to the salons of London in large part because of his ability to discuss his scientific activities. The United States and other republics modeled on it owe their existence to Enlightenment thought, which were firmly rooted in the determinism of science.

The current educational problem is a relatively simple one to fix if the will is there to do so: Hold prospective teachers to the standards of scientific knowledge that will ensure that when they go into the public school system, they will teach real science. And abolish that abomination of the modern university: the “science for non-science majors” course. It has no more place in education than “English for scientists who are allowed to remain functionally illiterate.” Liberal arts include hard science. That is what by the 19th-century definition of “liberal” makes them so.

For the engineering student, all this means being an ambassador and politician. It means being articulate and non-threatening. It means being social. And it means being patient with people who may be the product of a society and an educational system that have in many ways failed us all. It’s not easy (particularly the bit about being gregarious when your predisposition may be to seek out the solitude of a laboratory), but the liberal-arts-educated engineer is going to have to be able to say, gently, “Yes, Senator and Person on the Street, you do have to know this. Maybe not every detail, but enough that you’re making informed decisions and enough that nobody is going to sway your opinion with fuzzy math or succeed in passing off coincidence as causality.” As technology development accelerates, that’s going to get harder. But if we don’t go after the problem now, the future holds the prospects of making poor public policy choices, creating permanent underclasses, and sowing the seeds for some future mob burning the library of Alexandria, only on a far grander scale.
—Eric Overton ’87 Th’89

The most pressing issue is waste management. There is too much waste taking up space that should be used productively instead of forcing communities to expand into nature.
—Doris H. Martínez Th’91

My fervent hope is that the engineering talent of today and tomorrow will be able to bring forth technology that addresses the perils of a changing climate. This will take many forms and will require the contributions of so many. We need economic, low-carbon energy systems for the developed and developing world. The ways in which we use energy are ripe for massive efficiency gains. As substantial climate changes are now inevitable, we will also need to develop approaches and technology to make our society, agriculture, and infrastructure more robust and resilient in the face of unpredictability and potential disaster.

So many of these challenges—and their solutions—cross disciplines. This is why I have confidence in Dartmouth engineers to make substantial and urgently needed contributions. In so doing, we are fulfilling Sylvanus Thayer’s challenge “to prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.”
—Alex Streeter ’03 Th’04 ’05

One of most pressing challenges I hope the engineering students of tomorrow help solve is how we can leave a cleaner and greener planet behind for our following generations while continuing to make giant leaps in technology. Progress in industrialization, productivity, and technology has taken an irreversible toll on our environment, atmosphere, flora, fauna, and nonrenewable resources. Climatic changes, declining forest lines, declining fauna, and increasing non-biodegradable waste are all serious issues that cannot be overlooked by the engineers of tomorrow.
—Mayank Agrawal Th’08

I think two problems will need to be faced by engineering students in cooperation with other disciplines: energy and understanding the brain. The former is a global challenge that will greatly determine what directions we move toward in the future, and the latter will be one of the greatest challenges from an interdisciplinary perspective. Both will have critical ethical dilemmas but also have incredible promise for improving the lives of many people for generations to come.
—Drew Wong ’12 Th’14

The challenges: renewable energy (preferably fusion) and mental illness.
—Zachary Kratochvil ’16 Th’16

Categories: Alumni News, Just One Question

Tags: alumni, climate change, energy, engineering in medicine, environment

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