If Only Engineers Were Rock Stars

Or Super Heroes

Editor’s Note: From March 3-5, more than 600 engineers, students and other interested parties gathered in Raleigh, N.C., for the first of this year’s five Regional Grand Challenge Summits. The purpose of these sessions is to address how engineers and others can solve the 14 largest issues facing the world, as recently identified by the National Academy of Engineering. The Raleigh sessions were co-sponsored by Duke and North Carolina State University. The following stories in this special edition of Duke Engineering News will cover the issues discussed at the sessions, which ranged in topics from nuclear fusion to engineering better medicine.

Then they’d be larger than life, able to draw the world’s attention to any issue, to unite different types of people toward one harmonious goal, and to motivate a whole new generation of the young to action.

That now is the time for engineers to shine was a prevailing undercurrent of the Raleigh Grand Challenge Summit. Speaker after speaker described an ominous future facing the world if it doesn’t act immediately and decisively, and like scientific cheerleaders, they exhorted engineers and engineers-to-be to accept the challenge by stressing the pivotal role they must play in any solution. In their own ways, these leaders-in-their-fields stressed the need for engineers to stride onto the world’s stage to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

While the consensus of those present was that engineers must be intimately involved in the solutions, the speakers also stated their belief that engineers don’t necessarily have to be the front men for the effort. The problems are too big and complex. Gone are the days when solitary inventors can tinker around in their laboratories and come up with a device to solve a problem. Today’s engineer, they said, must be a team player who can work well with a spectrum of specialists.

“The only way to solve big problems is what I call ‘system’ thinking,” said Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric. “Not only do we need technical depth in our engineers, but we need people who can see all 360 degrees of problem.”

And it’s not just today’s engineers who are desperately needed. Another common thread of the two days of discussions was that any solution – whether gaining energy independence or creating a sustainable world – will take decades to achieve. Therefore, our educational system from kindergarten to graduate school must also rise to challenge by first attracting and then training young people into science and engineering fields.

When asked by an audience member how to encourage students to get involved in these more technical fields, Vikram Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, immediately answered, “Engineers need to be seen as rock stars. Engineering needs to be seen as cool, starting from elementary school on.”

John Chambers, the charismatic chairman and CEO of CISCO said, “Engineers need to be put back on the pedestal again.” He told the young engineers in the audience not “to underestimate your ability to influence young people, to be a role model. You can be an ambassador by capturing their imagination and showing them that science and engineering are not geeky.”

Organizers of the Grand Summit series are backing their words with actions when it comes to inspiring the next generation of engineers. During the summit, they announced a new national initiative to expose young people to the exciting world of science and engineering.

"We can accomplish so much by introducing engineering at the K-12 level, such as influencing technology literacy early on and cultivating a mindset to address big societal problems," said Tom Katsouleas, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke. "We also hope that by teaching youngsters to develop a problem-solving orientation to the world, something we call 'engineering habits of mind,' we may also encourage more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. That is good for the country."

Watch announcement.

At the other end of the spectrum, this spring will mark the first graduation of 10 Pratt seniors—Grand Challenge Scholars--who have completed extra multidisciplinary work based on the Grand Challenges. Later this spring, more than 30 engineering programs will meet to determine how they can implement the Grand Challenges into their own educational programs.

While many of the problems facing the world may seem daunting and intractable, a streak of optimism suffused much of the gathering. Not only did the experts believe that these problems can be ultimately solved, but that in the process of figuring out the answers, the U.S. can drive an economic revolution easily rivaling that of the dot.com era and can be the world’s leader in innovation.

“As a sailor, I know that you may have the perfect boat and the best crew, but if the wind isn’t blowing, you won’t go anywhere,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del), a Duke mechanical engineering grad and the only engineer in the Senate. “There is a wind at our back right now. Science and engineering is the future.”

Whether the U.S. is poised at a key “tipping point,” as Chambers described it, or at a Sputnik-like moment, as Kaufman termed it, now is the time to act, before the opportunity slips away.

“As engineers, we convert ideas into reality,” said Louis Martin-Vega, dean of engineering at North Carolina State University and co-sponsor of the event. “We are not so much about devices any more, but larger societal issues. Engineering should be a first-order issue for society.”

The stories that follow will highlight each of the sessions.

To learn more about the summit series.