By Alvin P. Sanoff
Academy of Engineering president Bill Wulf may be soft spoken, but that
doesn't keep him from calling for a major overhaul of engineering
40 years have passed, but Bill Wulf can still recall the precise moment
when he chose to become an engineer. Wulf was between his sophomore
and junior years at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign when
he made the decision that would eventually lead him to the presidency
of the National Academy of Engineering. During that summer, he worked
as a draftsman at the Teletype Corporation, operating as a member of
a team that was designing an automated phone dialer. The dialer consisted
of a set of mechanical fingers that read punched plastic cards with
the phone numbers encoded on them. The plastic cards would stick together
from time to time, and the team members could not figure out how to
stop that from happening. One day Wulf looked up from the drafting table
where he was working, and the solution to the problem struck him. That
moment of creative insight, says Wulf, hooked me on engineering.
can be made that Wulf's decision to become an engineer was inevitable.
He is, after all, the son and nephew of engineers and grew up around
the profession. The excitement of engineering was communicated
to me as a very young child, he recalls. But Wulf rejects the
notion that engineering was in his DNA. Nothing about my career
was ever planned, he says.
his point, he cites an incident from his college days. Wulf had no plans
to take a course in computer science, but a friend talked him into it.
Within two weeks it was clear that computing would be my future,
he recalls. His decision to stay at Illinois to get a master's
degree in electrical engineering was also the result of serendipity.
Wulf had never thought about graduate school until a faculty mentor
persuaded him that he would be well advised to further his education.
earning his master's degree, Wulf wrote to every school in
the country seeking a teaching job. Unsophisticated in the ways
of the academy, he says that he was surprised when 99 percent
said I needed a Ph.D. The University of Virginia was the exception.
The school was willing to hire him as a half-time instructor in applied
math; he spent the other half of his time working in the university's
computer center. As luck would have it, the university was launching
a doctoral program in computer science and Wulf was asked if he wanted
to enroll. He did and became the first person to earn a Ph.D. in computer
science from Virginia.
on to become a distinguished computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University,
where he met his wife, Anita Jones, a highly regarded computer scientist
in her own right. They subsequently left the faculty to start a company
that developed computer programs to translate high-level computer languages
into highly efficient computer codes. After building the company, the
couple decided to go back to the academic world, and in 1988 they returned
to his old stomping grounds at Virginia, she as chair of the computer
science department and he as the AT&T Professor of Engineering and
Wulf was unexpectedly asked to become interim president of the National
Academy of Engineering. At the time, his wife held a high level position
at the Pentagon, and so the move to the nation's capital proved
convenient. It was not long before the word interim was
removed from his title. Now, at age 62, he is in his second term as
president, a position he calls the best job in the world.
Wulf describes the academy, whose members are 2,000 of the nation's
elite engineers, as the only organization that speaks to the whole
field of engineering.
chosen to use his position as a bully pulpit to raise major questions
about the future of engineering. I feel that my position imposes
on me the obligation to provide leadership, he explains.
who speaks softly even as he says provocative things, has a knack for
raising difficult questions without raising hackles. People respect
him as a statesman and know he is going to be fair in what he does,
says Richard Miksad, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science
at Virginia and a former faculty colleague of Wulf's.
TOPPING THE AGENDA
education is among the issues Wulf has placed on the front burner. He
believes that the traditional engineering curriculum, which has not
been fundamentally updated since right after World War II, is badly
in need of an overhaul. The curriculum, he argues, has not kept pace
with rapid changes in engineering brought about, in part, by advances
in technology. For example, he says that the chemical and biological
sciences are becoming fundamental to engineering, yet these subjects
are not typically part of the curriculum. He also believes that it is
important for engineers to appreciate the human dimensions of technology,
understand global issues, be sensitive to cultural diversity, and know
how to communicate effectively. But, he argues, many students graduate
deficient in these areas.
view, there is a clear disconnect between the practice of engineering
and what is being taught. He came to this realization when he
returned to the academic world after running his own business. It
hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes, he says. Wulf believes
that part of that disconnect is due to the faculty's lack of real
world experience. He contends that faculty hiring and promotion criteria
need to be revamped so those who have actually practiced engineering
get credit for that experience. The faculty reward system recognizes
teaching, research, and service, but not delivering a marketable product
or process or designing an enduring piece of the nation's infrastructure,
he says. The criteria for promotion and tenure make it hard to
hire and reward people with such experience, even though it would be
valuable for students. Wulf makes it clear that he does not intend
to criticize faculty members. What he seeks is a system that enriches
the faculty with a complementary set of experiences and talents, and
thereby enriches the education of our students.
that if he had stayed in the academy instead of venturing out to run
his own company, I would probably be with the rest of the faculty
in not being convinced that change is needed. But the responsibility
of making a payroll gives you an entirely different perspective.
swims against the tide in arguing that the first degree in engineering
ought to be granted at the master's, not the bachelor's, level.
Unlike engineering, he points out, law and medicine do not consider
the bachelor's a professional degree. Offering the first professional
degree at the bachelor's level, he says, creates a number
of deep problems. It has led, he argues, to a bloated engineering
curriculum that squeezes out courses in the liberal arts. Even with
the curriculum stuffed full, he explains, companies often need to invest
one to two years in on-the-job training to fully prepare engineering
graduates for the workplace. Wulf believes that eventually the master's
will become the first professional degree in engineering, but admits
that he is not sure how we get from here to there. Says
Wulf: I am not so arrogant as to think that I have the answers.
not content to just talk about engineering education. He has taken steps
to raise its status within the National Academy, establishing the $500,000
Gordon Prize that is given biannually to a faculty member who has been
an innovator in engineering education. Wulf has plans to establish a
Center for Scholarship in Engineering Education at the National Academy
that will develop and promulgate innovative teaching methods.
support of his board, Wulf has clarified eligibility for NAE membership
so that people who have made high quality contributions to engineering
education are considered viable candidates. He has also created a standing
Committee on Engineering Education that will issue reports and policy
studies on critical issues. Stephen Director, dean of engineering at
the University of Michigan, is chair of the committee, which is currently
working on a report called The Engineer of 2020. He credits
Wulf with trying to get ahead of the curve in terms of what engineering
education should be doing, rather than waiting for industry to say you
are not doing what we need.'
is not the only item on Wulf's agenda. He would like to establish
a center on engineering ethics at the National Academy that he says
would grapple with such questions as how to ethically engineer when
we can anticipate that some of the systems that engineers build will
have behaviors with negative or even catastrophic consequences, but
we just don't know what those behaviors will be. He also
is concerned about increasing the technological literacy of the public.
Wulf says that the inability of the public to understand technology,
which affects everything from armaments to the environment, is dangerous
for the nation because it can lead to ill-informed policy decisions.
The National Academy recently completed a study that recommended steps
that can be taken to close the technology knowledge gap.
that engineering schools have an important role to play in the technological
literacy effortproviding courses for liberal arts majors that
are accessible and interesting. He says that if he hadn't fallen
into his job at the National Academy, he would be teaching students
in the humanities and social sciences about the history of engineering
and showing them the dramatic difference engineering has made in the
nation's quality of life. I would use that as way to bring
home to them the importance of understanding this stuff, he explains.
desire to build bridges between the sciences and other disciplines is
not new. At the University of Virginia, Wulf gained a reputation for
reaching out to faculty members in the humanities and social sciences.
For example, he showed them how to use the power of the computer to
further their research. University of Virginia Dean Miksad says that
Wulf, whom he describes as a Renaissance man, helped faculty
members expand their horizons in their own disciplines. Wulf was instrumental
in establishing Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in
the Humanities, which Miksad describes as the premier interdisciplinary
effort at the university.
looks ahead, Wulf sees engineers helping to tackle significant issues
that bedevil the world today. He thinks the profession can use its expertise
to help create a more environmentally sustainable future. He also believes
that engineers can aid in the fight against terrorism. He says that
the poor quality of life in many developing countries helps to fuel
terrorism and, if engineers solve water, energy, environmental, and
transportation problems in the developing world, that can eliminate
some of the grievances that provide fodder for terrorists. We
have to start owning the problem of quality of life in developing nations,
engineering to flourish, says Wulf, the profession must improve its
image and become more diverse. He contends that the profession's
dull, narrow, pocket-protector image has helped deter women
and minorities from engineering careers and, as a consequence, the profession
is diminished. Creativity is bounded by one's life experiences,
says Wulf. Every time we approach an engineering problem with
a pale, male design team, we may not find the best solution.
like to see corporations undertake advertising campaigns that show just
how creative engineering can be. He also wants the National Academy
to become involved in giving the public a true image of what engineers
do, including the existential joy of creativity. He would like
society to understand how exciting engineering can be, to know what
it's like to experience the kind of joy he first felt over four
decades ago when he solved an engineering problem and embarked on a
journey that has taken him to the pinnacle of his profession.
P. Sanoff is a freelance writer and higher education consultant based
in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at email@example.com.