Last Word
It's a Small World

By Ernest T. Smerdon

The Kellogg Commission's report on the internationalization of higher education, "Renewing the Covenant," makes this statement: "The great international economic, technological, geopolitical forces reshaping the world are hardly bypassing higher education. We will not only lead new developments in globalization and technology, we will be reshaped by them." The phenomenon is probably more true for engineering than for most of higher education. Engineering education, like medical education, is truly international. Regarding the latter, humans the world over experience the same diseases and infirmities. So, medical education is universal and our only concerns are that the latest techniques—using the latest from medical science and technology—are taught.

The same is true in engineering education, which is not state or country specific. Engineers everywhere design and manufacture useful products, build efficient supporting infrastructure, safely develop natural resources, and provide the means to protect the environment. Like medicine, as long as engineering education incorporates the latest in science and technology, we should not be concerned about where the person was educated. Companies quickly recognize that fact. Repeated pressure on Congress by high-tech companies to increase the number of temporary H1-B visas for foreign engineers and computer scientists to be hired in this country illustrates the point.

I have been privileged to participate in engineering education conferences in 10 countries during the past 30 months, carrying the message of innovations in engineering education in the United States. While I shared information on the latest activities in this country, I also learned a lot. My awareness that engineering is a universal, global profession, and no country has a monopoly on superior engineering education, was reinforced. With minor variations, all universities have followed in the same mold for several decades—and now all are struggling with the new challenges of globalization.

Every country understands that engineering must be made more exciting as a profession. In developed countries, engineering enrollments have often dropped significantly in the past decade. For example, in Germany the undergraduate enrollment dropped 35 percent between 1991 and 1996. But in developing countries, engineering is seen as a profession that provides an excellent opportunity for industrious, capable people to have good lives and upwardly mobile careers. While having an engineering degree is virtually essential to obtaining the first engineering job, most people now recognize that advancement requires constant learning and use of new relevant knowledge. Additional degrees may provide that needed knowledge, but are not usually essential to engineers in industry. Useful knowledge, not additional degrees, is the "coin of the realm"—a surprise to engineering faculty members who are still wrestling with the rapidly changing real world of engineering practice. They also haven't fully dealt with the fact that education is really big business, and information technology is changing how new knowledge is obtained by working engineers.

To illustrate the scope of online e-education in the future, consider these items from Business Week. In an article late in 1999, Gary S. Becker, a 1992 Nobel Laureate from the University of Chicago, spoke of the Web revolutionizing learning. "Modern economies require that people invest in the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and information throughout most of their lives," said Becker, who is involved in a for-profit company specializing in online courses. He went on to predict a global movement in online courses, particularly for highly skilled professionals.

A few weeks later, the magazine analyzed the for-profit, private enterprise education movement. Mike Smith, the Education Department's acting deputy secretary, predicted that in 2000, "dot-com will come to higher education in a way no one could have imagined even three years ago." The International Data Corporation figures that corporate e-learning, which had a market of $550 million in 1998, will explode to $7.1 billion in 2002.

The new president has said that education is the critical issue for this new century, recognizing that our nation will succeed only if the students succeed. There will be strong emphasis on education in math, science, and technology. ASEE devotes its full energy to engineering and technical education. The organization is challenged to continuously improve its new global initiatives such as global online membership and its lifelong learning initiatives with its continuing engineering education e-database, www.learnon.org. And ASEE leaders work with our international engineering education colleagues and the engineering education societies of other nations. Finally, ASEE will strengthen its position as the premier international engineering education society by quickly identifying and addressing the new challenges that will emerge.

Ernest T. Smerdon is Past President of ASEE, senior education associate at NSF, and professor of civil engineering at the University of Arizona.