This article presents an overview of a discussion named ‘Decision Point Dialogues,’ which is intended to explore engineering leadership and other critical issues facing the profession. The inaugural dialogue addressed the question: ‘Will engineers be true global problem solvers?’ Using a format developed by Fred Friendly, the former president of CBS News, the seminar started with a story and a problem. Jackson challenged panelists to respond to issues involving specific people, places, and events. Richard Benson, Virginia Tech’s dean of engineering, believes the issue of retention is more complex. Benson said that half of all engineers leave the profession within five years after graduation, where some switch to medicine, law, or business and others receive promotions to management. However, some fail to maintain their skills in a profession that advances at a furious pace. Governments may direct projects to villages to buy votes rather than to meet community needs. For development to succeed, communities must have a stake in the project.
No one doubts that engineers in western nations are thoroughly trained to solve technological problems. But when solutions require more than technical expertise, some people have questioned whether engineers are equipped to solve global problems.
The issue was at the heart of a panel discussion sponsored by ASME in New York. It was the first of a planned series called Decision Point Dialogues, which are intended to explore engineering leadership and other critical issues facing the profession. The inaugural dialogue addressed the question: “Will engineers be true global problem solvers?”
Problems with technology-only solutions often show up when engineers take on projects in underdeveloped nations. Roughly 60 percent of those projects fail within six months, said Bernard Amadei, one of the panelists.
THE ASME DECISION POINT DIALOGUES SERIES IS AN INITIATIVE DESIGNED TO CHALLENGE THOUGHT LEADERS FROM INDUSTRY, government, academia, and NGOs to grapple with some of the most complex questions facing engineers and technologists today. The series raises awareness of existing conflict points and stimulates the kind of debate that leads to bold decision making and disruptive learning.
In this first installment, a panel tackled the question of how to prepare and inspire generations of engineers to solve the most pressing global challenges. ASME's Decision Point Dialogues are modeled after the Fred Friendly Seminars, a series of dialogues and public television programs exploring complex, vital issues using the Socratic dialogue format.
The first scenario looked at the question: Will Engineers Be True Global Problem Solvers?
In the United States, middle school student Bella attends a Maker Faire and is inspired to join the school's robotics team. In Zambia, young Kamillo examines his village's broken water pump and wonders how it can be repaired. Both young people have started on a path that could lead them to confront some of the largest challenges on the planet. How will each be prepared and empowered to be true problem solvers?
Amadei, a professor of civil engineering at University of Colorado, is the founder of Engineers Without Borders, an organization whose volunteers to build sustainable-development projects in the world's poorest regions.
Technology is not usually at fault, Amadei said. The problem arises when engineers approach projects without considering broader, local issues. Outside engineers may, for example, specify a highly reliable pump, but fail to teach local people how to maintain it or to source spare parts.
Even in the developed world, where products are growing smarter and more connected, engineers must increasingly navigate new types of compromises to find the right combination of function and cost. Failure to do that can yield poorly integrated systems, products that are difficult to maintain, and designs too complex for consumers to use.
Amadei was one of 12 panelists, who included representatives from industry, government, non-governmental organizations, and academia. Robert Jackson, an associate professor at Columbia Law School, moderated the session. The Decision Point Dialogue touched many topics, from the profession's rapid turnover and the status of women in engineering to project-based curricula.
Using a format developed by Fred Friendly, the former president of CBS News, the seminar started with a story and a problem. Jackson challenged panelists to respond to issues involving specific people, places, and events.
The first dialogue revolved around two stories. One followed an American named Bella from middle school through her collegelevel engineering education and to her career choices.
The second involved Kamillo, a boy in Malawi who figures out how to fix his village's broken water pump and then invents a faster way to recharge cellphones.
BELLA'S STORY STARTS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, when her teacher, Jake Michelson, decides to leave teaching. Michelson, with degrees in math and computer engineering, wants to pursue another career. The panel could see reasons for leaving the job—low pay, lack of respect for teachers, and reduced funding for science and engineering programs.
Standardized testing can be frustrating to teachers, too. “You emphasize what gets tested. Some schools are under pressure to increase test scores. They are actually sacrificing science to boost reading and math,” Javaris Powell said. Powell is a teacher, robotics coach, and administrator at Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., and a winner of ASME's DiscoverE Educator Award.
As an administrator, Powell pushes his school to emphasize student learning rather test scores alone. “It's student learning that actually inspires teachers to go into teaching,” he said.
Panelists suggested possible solutions. ASME's president, Marc Goldsmith, suggested that Bella's teacher could apply to programs set up by ASME and other engineering associations to fund special projects. Emeka Okafor, the curator for Maker Faire Africa, proposed switching schools to find a more creative environment. Florence Hudson, IBM corporate strategy executive, said she and thousands of engineers from IBM and other corporations volunteer in classrooms to show students how their science classwork can change the world.
Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology who studies engineering and IT outsourcing, had a different take on corporate support of the sciences.
“The private sector has made this worse in the past 25 years,” he said. According to Hira, large companies often play governments against one another to maximize property tax abatements for new factories. In the United States, most communities rely on those property taxes to fund their schools.
“So what we’ve got is the CEO and corporate leadership speaking out of both sides of their mouths, complaining about education but not wanting to pay taxes to fund it,” Hira said.
The conversation then shifted to Bella's experience at engineering school. The curriculum included science, math, and liberal arts courses during the first two years, followed by two years of intensive engineering classes.
Bella would stay the course, but many women do not. Liza Billings, a consultant at Grant Engineering who will complete her civil engineering degree at City College of New York this year, found there were significantly fewer women in her program by the second and third year.
Billings believes there are many reasons women drop out of engineering, including the fierce competition in classrooms, where students are graded on a curve against one another's performance.
Having more female faculty might help, said Jessica Townsend, associate dean for curriculum and academic programs at Olin College of Engineering. A faculty that is 30 or 35 percent women can give female students enough role models who look and act like them.
Townsend added that students, male and female, who establish a sense of competence early are more likely to remain in engineering programs. Olin College does this through courses in which first- and second-year students learn engineering principles by working on specific projects.
Amadei agreed. Project-based courses inject excitement by showing students what they can do with their growing skills, he said.
Richard Benson, Virginia Tech's dean of engineering, believes the issue of retention is more complex. Benson said that half of all engineers leave the profession within five years after graduation. Some switch to medicine, law, or business. Others receive promotions to management. And some fail to maintain their skills in a profession that advances at a furious pace.
“The engineering profession is so dynamic, in many ways it is a little frightening,” Benson said. “Fortunes can be made and lost very quickly. You could have a world-beater project, and then next year someone comes in with a hard disc drive that is half the size, twice the capacity, and twice as fast.”
At one point, Jackson asked the panel if it mattered that women dropped out of engineering.
“As a business executive in my prior life, I can tell you as a certainty that we got better answers when the composition of the project team was diverse,” said Joseph Sussman, an ASME Fellow and former Bayer AG executive who now directs accreditation for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Diverse teams examined a broader range of approaches, solutions, and outcomes, Sussman said.
Development vs. Kamillo's business
WHEN KAMILLO'S STORY BEGINS, he is 12 years old. Peace Corps volunteers have installed a water pump in his village in Malawi. Six months after they leave, the pump fails.
As Amadei noted, most development projects fail for non-engineering reasons including breakdowns in communications, training, maintenance, and the supply chain.
Few countries have a strategy to guide development, said Daniel Ignacio Garcia, founder of Emergent Engineers, a consulting firm specializing in development engineering.
“If there is no strategy in place, how do you know if a community needs water or a road?” he asked.
Governments may direct projects to villages to buy votes rather than to meet community needs. For development to succeed, Garcia said, communities must have a stake in the project. They must provide labor and show their long-term commitment, perhaps by raising taxes to cover future maintenance and repair.
Sometimes, communities grow their own engineers. Okafor pointed to 14-year-old William Kamkwamba of Malawi, who could not afford to stay in school. He found a booklet in the library and built a wind generator of wood, bicycle parts, and an alternator from a scrap yard. That windmill still generates electricity 10 years later, Okafor said.
For purposes of the dialogue, Kamillo fixes the village pump. He later develops a business around a bicycle-powered electric generator capable of recharging cell phones.
Jackson asked whether self-schooled people like Kamillo and Kamkwamba were true engineers.
ASME's Goldsmith said that they were doing engineering, but noted that professional engineers have a better understanding of how to design safely within constraints.
Okafor walked a middle road. When he lived in Nigeria, his neighbors were classically trained engineers. Yet many people brought practical problems to untrained tinkerers who had the imagination to improvise solutions when spare parts were impossible to find.
In the Dialogue scenario, Kamillo develops a thriving phone-recharging business with franchises in nearby villages. When Bella arrives as part of her school's development project, her team plans to introduce a new technology based on gravity to recharge cellphones overnight.
The subsidized gravity charger could put Kamillo out of business. Then Jackson asked a question that went to the heart of the social and economic issues surrounding the use of technology in developing regions: “Should Bella's team give the village the new charger?”
“I’m not going to dump another technology on the poor people of the world,” Amadei said. “That is a crime against humanity, and we do that all the time. It is not about technology; it is about empowering the poorest people in the world to get back on their feet. It is about teaching them to fish and ensuring a market for that fish.”
Andrew Reynolds, a senior technology advisor in the U.S. State Department, agreed. He saw Kamillo as part of a new generation of entrepreneurs and engineers who created wealth with his ingenious tinkering. The gravity charger would ruin Kamillo's business and undermine local innovation.
Goldsmith considered the market. If the village needed a better way to recharge phones, it would look for a better technology.
“It's not about marketing new technology, but understanding what the community needs,” he explained. “Unless it is needed, wanted, and valued by the community, we don’t have a sustainable solution.”
The Right Skills
The discussion moved to the issue of skills.
Every engineer needs certain base skills, IBM's Hudson said. They need to think through problems and identify potential solutions. Different regions tend to emphasize different skills. China, undergoing a massive industrial revolution, puts a premium on mechanical engineers. India emphasizes computer science.
“Collaborating across all these skills is what is needed to solve real problems,” Hudson said.
Townsend noted that Olin teaches many skills through projects, where students learn by doing instead of first learning the skills and then applying them.
“And what comes out of this approach is the development of communication, teamwork, collaboration—human and professional skills,” she said. “Some people call them soft skills, and I really bristle at that. They are really skills that are inherent to being an engineer.”
According to Reynolds of the State Department, “The secret to a globalized future is a multicultural, multidisciplinary education. It's about talking to the economist and the sociologist, so when someone says, ‘Build a bridge,’ we understand the consequences.”
Reynolds calls students who graduate with this broad perspective “Renaissance engineers.” Others use the term “T-shaped,” meaning their training runs as deep as the pillar of the T, while their understanding is broad enough to cross different fields and cultures like the top of the T.
Inevitably, broadening students takes time away from learning engineering fundamentals.
“I happen to believe in the T,” Benson said. Yet he worries about the compromises needed to achieve it.
“We want them to have as much breadth as they can, but by time they graduate, we want to be sure that if they have to design a bridge, you can trust that bridge,” he said.
The discussion concluded with a reference of Bella's 40-year-old Uncle Bill, who lost his computer engineering job around the same time his former CEO was testifying before Congress that the United States faces a shortage of engineers.
Engineers are facing downward wage pressure, according Hira of RIT. Over the past 10 years, globalizing companies have moved large parts of their technology workforce, especially in IT, overseas. Companies are taking advantage of lower pay scales offshore, which means U.S. workers must justify their higher salaries.
Companies also hire guest workers. Because the employer holds the work permit, they can pay below-market rates and the guest workers cannot look for other jobs.
“Our political and educational systems have not yet caught up with this trend,” Hira said. This does not just impact the careers of engineers and IT workers. It also threatens to thin engineering ranks and threatens America's capacity to innovate, he added.
Of course, there are other reasons Uncle Bill may have lost his job, said Sussman, a Bayer executive before joining ABET.
“In my career, I had to put many people on the street because their jobs disappeared, not just offshore, but because we became more productive. We constantly try to become more productive in America, but there is a consequence, and Uncle Bill is likely living the consequence,” Sussman said.
Bella's story concludes when she graduates near the top of her class and has three job offers: form a non-profit with Kamillo, join a multinational company, or take a high-paying position with a hedge fund.
The panel divided evenly between choosing the nonprofit and the multinational. Some said she should follow her passion. Others argued that a multinational would better prepare her for an entrepreneurial career.
In a field where the half-life of an engineer is only five years and critical skill sets constantly change, the panel was certain about one thing: Engineering skills are essential and open many doors for students.
“We want the Bellas of world to come out with the ability to solve problems, to think through or around a problem, either in dialogue with other experts or on her own,” ASME's Goldsmith said.
“The key is that the kids coming out of the university system have this critical thinking ability. That's why Bella has all these choices. That's why the multinational and the hedge fund want her. She can critically think.”