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Engineering Reverse

Recently, I attended a conference of engineering educators working to advance our students’ entrepreneurial mindset. One speaker told us that in order to do that we need to accept “our problem” and “finally” admit that teaching technical skills alone can no longer cut it in today’s world. We need to be teaching liberal arts subjects, as well, he said. It occurred to me he was dangerously proliferating an outdated stereotype of engineering education.

I waited for him to finish, then I replied that top engineering schools have already recognized that their graduates need to work in concert with a wide variety of people in business, law, government and other fields if technological innovations are to have meaningful impacts on people’s lives. I described how creative engineering programs now insure that engineers not only learn the powerful and quantitative skills of the trade but also embrace, if not require, courses and experiences that develop other skills and attributes that can be used to advance society through innovation and leadership. What the nation needs, frankly, is the opposite of what he said. We need to get the liberal arts educators to look at the issue from the other side because we are not doing a good job of constructively exposing non-engineering students to the basic concepts of how science and technology work. The reaction in the room told me the audience agreed.

The public’s ignorance of what scientists and engineers do is having a real and detrimental impact on our society. It does not take a psychologist to recognize that people tend to dismiss – even fear – things they don’t understand. We are seeing this play out publicly. At a time when technology is a more powerful force in people’s lives than ever before – and the key potential economic engine of our time – major figures in public life are dismissing substantial bodies of scientific facts as “mere theories” and finding resonance in a public that is largely under-educated in science and technology. Yet, now more than ever, we need to build a culture in which engineers and non-engineers embrace how their respective expertise can work together to advance our quality of life while dealing with society’s challenges.

For example, consider the coming “smart cities” of the future, an area of emerging strength at Boston University. World population is projected to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050 and the majority of this growth will cluster around cities. If existing cities are to be scaled up to anything approaching that degree, technology will need to play a major role. Everything from traffic control, power supply, energy efficiency, home healthcare, public transportation, public safety, waste management, and virtually all other aspects of urban life will need to dramatically change to insure these super-sized cities function well. Our College of Engineering and others are advancing cyberphysical sensors and systems for creating the smart cities and neighborhoods of the future. But if these innovations are to have impact, engineers need to work in tandem with politicians and policy makers, neighborhood associations, social scientists and business leaders who understand technology adoption. Our College of Engineering is already driven to create societal engineers who appreciate this dynamic and have the attributes and passion to engage it. But our chances for success are amplified if the public also embraces learning about technology and understands how it not only improves our lives, but also spawns industries that produce jobs for people from all disciplines.

We need to do a better job educating people about technology, how it is developed and how it benefits all of us. We cannot expect to produce the kind of technology needed to make our cities function better without intersecting with the worlds of public policy, business, the media and others that form the complex ecosystem of our society. Everyone needs to understand the motives and development process behind new technology and learn not to fear it, but rather see it as a pathway to a new era of prosperity and better living.

Our engineers understand that. They see how their work can impact society. Now it’s time for us to share that knowledge and excitement.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Engineer.