By Stephen W. Director
EDUCATORS MUST START PREPARING
THEIR GRADUATES NOW FOR A FUTURE THAT WILL BE DRAMATICALLY
Yogi Berra once said "The future ain't what it
used to be." This is certainly the case for engineering.
Rapid technological change, globalization, growing population,
increasing environmental issues, and looming energy shortages
will certainly change the practice of engineering in the future.
Engineering education must change as well. And this change
must go well beyond any of those made during the last decade
in response to the Accreditation Board on Engineering and
Technology Criteria 2000 and to a number of other reports
published in the 1990s.
Students entering engineering colleges this year as freshmen
will on average be 34 years old in 2020 and most likely will
still have 30 plus years left in their careers. What will
the practice of engineering be like in 2020, and what will
the graduates of our engineering programs be doing then? Will
the students we are educating today be prepared for the world
of 2020? If not, what changes need to be made to our engineering
curriculum to ensure that our engineering graduates are prepared
for that world?
These questions fueled the Engineer of 2020 Project, sponsored
by the National Academy of Engineering's (NAE) Committee
on Engineering Education. The goal was to proactively modernize
and reposition engineering curricula before a technological
scare, such as the launch of Sputnik I in the 1950s, forces
engineering colleges to hurriedly restructure their curricula.
Given that by 2020 healthcare costs are predicted to become
20 percent of our nation's GDP, that California alone
will need 40 percent more electrical capacity and gasoline,
and 20 percent more natural gas energy, and that the American
Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $1.3
trillion to restore our infrastructure—that technological
scare may already be upon us.
The first phase of the two-phase Engineer of 2020 Project
was aimed at developing a vision of the jobs and activities
that engineers could be involved in by 2020 and culminated
last spring with the publication of "The Engineer of
2020, Visions of Engineering in the New Century." This
report not only discusses the societal, global, and professional
contexts of engineering in 2020 but also the aspirations and
attributes required of the engineer of 2020. He or she must
be prepared to work in a time in which the words "minority"
and "majority" are applied to different groups
than they are today, a time in which what we now consider
to be engineering is more likely to be done outside the United
States than inside, and perhaps, a time in which the United
States is not the world's leading economic power.
In July the NAE held an education summit as part of the second
phase of the 2020 Project to identify the curricular and other
changes necessary to ensure that our engineering schools are
prepared to educate the engineer of 2020. A report based upon
the findings of this summit will be published early next year.
We pride ourselves on being a nation of innovators, and that
has paid off handsomely for us in terms of standard of living
and economic development. We must continue this tradition
if our engineering graduates are to remain relevant and enjoy
the standard of living we, and they, expect to have in 2020
and beyond. The NAE reports will, I hope, help to frame the
discussions about the future of engineering education and
be an inspiration to change.
Stephen W. Director is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering
at the University of Michigan and chair of the NAE Committee
on Engineering Education.