Prism - September 2002
Engineering Their Way to the Top
A Quiet Sort of Revolutionary
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A Quiet Sort of Revolutionary

- By Alvin P. Sanoff

National Academy of Engineering president Bill Wulf may be soft spoken, but that doesn't keep him from calling for a major overhaul of engineering education.

More than 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.”

The case 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.

To prove 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.

After 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.

He went 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 Applied Science.

In 1996, 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.

Wulf has 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.

But Wulf, 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.


Engineering 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.

In Wulf's 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.”

Wulf acknowledges 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.”

Wulf also 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.”

Wulf is 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.

With the 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.' ”

But education 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.

Wulf feels that engineering schools have an important role to play in the technological literacy effort—providing 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.

Wulf's 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.”

As he 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,” he explains.

But for 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.”

Wulf would 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.


Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer and higher education consultant based in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached at