by Harry T. Roman and Barbara Wolcott
A new report from the National Academies' engineering arm in Washington D.C., says that education should adopt a "new vision" for the future to reflect changes in industry and commerce. The report goes on to say that future engineers must learn to acquire new knowledge quickly by being flexible in order to meet emerging problems. In addition, the academy supports learning the skills to succeed in any project, meaning how to assess the impacts of social, economic, legal and economic constraints that are a part of it. This is not a new idea.
Eight years after ASME was established in 1880, charter member John Saylor Coon joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering for the next 35 years. The establishment of strict professional standards for academics is credited to Coon, and he incorporated a hands-on education where shops were laboratories with close connections to struggling industries in the South following the American Civil War.
Acceptance of Coon's emphasis on the importance of a continuum between the classroom and the shop floor was welcomed by the school's administration. By 1912, a formalized program of cooperative education was part of the curriculum. That innovation had significant impact on the region's ability to reconstruct its economy and to revive the battered commercial industry. In today's parlance, Coon trained students to think creatively.
The Georgia Tech program survives today as the largest in the country, and during that time has become global, more complex and interconnected, bringing with it the need for schools from Kindergarten through graduate school to train students in the same mode. The mismatch of segregated, 50-minute classes with the reality of what business seeks in an employee today is becoming more apparent with every graduating class, and the cost of remedial education for incoming hires is steadily increasing for companies.
Unfortunately, the majority of educational institutions still stress the traditional mode of I-teach-you-parrot-back instead of learning to work in multi-dimensional arenas. Since engineers are required to see the relationships among various aspects of a problem or its solution they are the perfect venue for change and indeed, many are independently doing just that. In the absence of school administrative leadership, engineers everywhere are stepping up to meet the challenge — in schools and on the job.
Engineer John Casazza's life and education is a microcosm of a do-it-yourself education for creativity. Having to rise at 4 a.m. to do homework before school and then work after classes, Casazza credits his years at school and early jobs for giving him the ability to do many things simultaneously.
Casazza used his broad-based education in the utility industry when deregulation was touted as the answer to power company problems. While changes in California were put on a relatively fast track, he proceeded slowly to discern how it would play out in eastern states. He knew it would require new skills for people affected by the proposed changes. In order to smooth the transition, he put together a group of system planners, operators, accountants, marketers, tariff specialists and attorneys to work on how they could minimize the negative effects of deregulation and capitalize on the positive effects. As a result, they took partial steps and a cautious advance. While the California system nearly crashed and burned, Casazza's plan for deregulation in the eastern states made steady progress.
In retrospect, Casazza feels that advances in technology everywhere require teams of experts to ensure changes are progressive without masking new problems. Alarmed at the dangerous potential for interrupted power following the rolling blackouts in the west, he became a part of the American Education Institute. Through this association, a team of experts he helped to gather to appraise the power industry has now grown to include legislators, regulators, utility executives and grid managers, among others.
There are no rules governing the establishment of a creative environment. One of the most engaging success stories involves Woodie Flowers at MIT who helped to stimulate interest in the 2.70 Design class by fine-tuning the kit given to students to "make something useful." Students were struggling to define the problem, so he simplified it by telling them to make a device to "move continuously down a three-foot ram in 30 seconds or position your ball higher over the top of the mountain than the competing device." The enthusiastic response created the MIT 2.70 Competition that ultimately became the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) competition program for the purpose of seeking out creative ways to lure young people toward engineering and invention.
The first year of the FIRST competition to create robots, 27 teams entered the contest. By the fifth year, a single event in Manchester, N.H., was unmanageable. There were so many teams that there was not enough time to run all the robots in the one day allotted. The event grew 40 percent a year for the first 10 years and in 2002, 642 teams competed in 17 regional events.
NASA is a major supporter of the competitions. When East Technical High School in one of the most impoverished areas of Cleveland, Ohio, was scheduled to be closed, the local space agency facility adopted the school by initiating a FIRST team to drum up enthusiasm about learning.
The school's Tech Force team was uncertain about competing with honors schools. However, they did very well. When the announcement was made at East Technical High School, classrooms cheered "TECH FORCE!" for a full five minutes. Students were inspired to hit the books to earn the requisite 3.00 grade-point average to join the team. Absenteeism dropped dramatically. Instead of begin closed, the school instead became a scholastic star in the Cleveland education system, advancing from a dropout rate of nearly 50 percent to an 80 percent graduation rate. For the first time in the history of the school, one of their students was accepted at MIT. Jerome Seppelt, FIRST program manager for East Technical High said, "A miracle is taking place on East 55th Street, and it began with FIRST."
At the initial regional FIRST competition held in San Jose, Calif., one team was dominated by a gang from the inner city, and the gang leader was also the team leader. Flowers remembers that at the event, the parole officers were in attendance. That particular team ended up winning the regional event. When the student leader was interviewed for a newspaper, the reporter asked about the bandages on his arm. The winner replied that he was getting his gang tattoos removed. When asked if he needed the gang anymore, the reply was, "No, I've got NASA."
That kind of innovative teaching in a somewhat entertaining atmosphere is a draw for students, but there are corollary changes in traditional classes at MIT as well. Cooperative teaching by architects and engineers at MIT is a significant change because the two disciplines have a long-standing distrust of one another. With the study of the latter based on function and the former based on form, the unity at the school that minimizes the suspicion that architects and engineers traditionally have had for each other is quite a step forward.
In another venue, civil engineer Jerome Neyer graduated from University of Detroit before he got interested in the importance of an integrated, multidisciplinary education. Chairman Emeritus of NTH Consultants Ltd. In Farmington Hills, Mich., Neyer recognizes that most of the people hired at his company have a master's or graduate degree, usually with a specialty. However, he stills sees a big gap in education because many engineering programs do not teach real-world problem solving. More importantly, he feels strongly that knowing how to define a problem is missed as well. This is something he feels is the vital first step in solving an issue, and is an integral part of quality assurance programs.
"In college they give you a piece of paper and say here's the problem, solve it," Neyer said. "In the real world, you know some of the symptoms, but you really don't know what the problem is until you spend a fair amount of time analyzing the symptoms and what's going on."
To manage a company, Neyer says engineers must abandon the common perception that they are the singular workers, and adopt the attitude that they are part of a team with contributing members. Neyer sees engineers as being in the problem solving business because the idea of 'stakeholders' comes up more and more often in planning — meaning people who have some specific interest in why and how a particular part of municipal infrastructure will grow. Government can no longer decree where a bridge or road will be built without communicating with the stakeholders and learning the consequences of a potential project.
Neyer is involved in a Detroit-area project to clean up the water in the Rouge River. "Many of the solutions to pollution abatement are relatively simple if you have a lot of money," Neyer said. "Engineers are spending a lot of time working with not only the elected government representatives, but also local people who have an interest in cleaning up the river, none of whom have a bottomless pit of money to throw at it."
That means the engineers are working in broad areas of risk assessment, considering whether or not it makes sense to spend an extra $50 million to prevent some pollution from entering the river once every 10 years. Some tradeoffs require consideration of an event that could happen once in a thousand years and stakeholders must decide if they are willing to pay for that protection.
In the heavily populated areas, everyone is in favor of the clean up. But in the furthest upstream areas where there has not been much industry, the water is not very dirty. People living in the rural areas do not want to spend a lot of money to clean up a river that becomes grossly polluted downstream.
Engineers had to come up with a kind of allocation of responsibility for the problem to at least offer a mathematical or logical way to start the discussion about who should pay how much to clean it up. The main effort at that time was to isolate non-point sources such as fertilizer runoff from lawns and farms as well as oil on the highways. These sources can be identified by chemical fingerprinting, but they are difficult to identify and costly to eliminate because most of the discharges are small amounts of pollution that add up to a large amount. That one part of the design process had engineers working with geologists and sociologists, activists, reformers and political advocates — not something that is commonly taught to engineering or science majors at universities.
Neyer feels strongly that creative problem solving should be taught in schools in order to integrate more real world information. "Frankly we need more people like Warren Baker (president of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo). When we were at the University of Detroit, he had a sign in his office that said, 'I would hate to go through life without making anybody mad at me,'" said Neyer of the effort to change school curricula. "If you try too hard not to make anybody mad, you end up doing nothing."
John Casazza, Woodie Flowers and Jerome Neyer are three of a large number of engineers willing to work to adjust the educational system to meet demands of the 21st century, not just continue in the mode of the 19th. They create learning labs that take John Saylor Coon's broad-spectrum approach to teaching and kick it up a notch so everyone wins.
Harry T. Roman, a research engineer for PSE&G Co. in Newark, N.J., has worked with educators in New Jersey on science and technology programs and has written numerous freelance articles on education. He is an ASME member. Barbara Wolcott, a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering, is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., who specializes in commercial technology. They are writing a book on pioneering approaches to engineering education.