How Young Engineers Will Mold the Future by Calestous Juma


“Give me a young person who is excellent in anything and I can turn him or her into an excellent engineer. It is about discipline. Those who have it in any field, including athletics, can excel in any other field.”

In a provocative article, the Economist recently asked whether new technology had stopped driving the world economy. The article challenged innovation pessimists by providing several examples of technologies that mold future economies.

The most urgent question, however, is how to train a new generation of young engineers who will be capable of combining technical excellence with a deeper appreciation of societal needs and values.

This was the theme of a recent meeting that brought together educators interested in engineering at the Harvard Kennedy School. The focus of the meeting was to identify ways in which universities and high schools can work together to train the next generation of engineers who can help solve the world’s most pressing economic and environmental challenges.

It is not that the world is short of engineering solutions. The Economist lists a few:  “Pattern-recognition software is increasingly good at performing the tasks of entry-level lawyers, scanning thousands of legal documents for relevant passages. Algorithms are used to write basic newspaper articles on sporting outcomes and financial reports….In Japan, where labour to care for an ageing population is scarce, innovation in robotics is proceeding by leaps and bounds.”

The real engineering challenge may be integrating those solutions into societies. This will involve linking education to production and manufacturing as well as incorporating real world experiences into engineering education.

The meeting brought together representatives from Boston University, Harvard University, Kent School, MIT, and the University of Hong Kong to explore how to advance engineering education in high schools. It also included the One Laptop per Child Association.

Training a new generation of engineers demands leadership. “It takes getting into things early and we are ready to promote this cause through our pre-engineering program,” said Fr. Richardson Schell, head of Kent School, which includes grades 9–12.

“Our pre-engineering program seeks to challenge students to explore their potential for achievement by nurturing their critical thinking, increasing scientific literacy, and enabling innovation,” he explained. Kent School is working to create an applied learning center that will integrate with the local community.

Kent School will conduct a one-week (June 10–14, 2013) summer program on “Global Development: Grand Challenges for Engineering” to inspire students to explore how to leverage the power of engineering in solving global economic challenges. “We are delighted with the involvement of professionals from Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, One Laptop per Child Association, and other institutions,” Fr. Schell noted.

The program will cover themes such as energy, education, health, and nutrition. It will be conducted through lectures, hands-on activities, field visits, and roundtable discussions with practitioners.

The meeting was inspired by the Grand Challenges for Engineering report produced by a committee of the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The committee was chaired by former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, and members included leading engineers and thinkers such as Alec Broers, Wesley Harris, Bernadine Healy, Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, Robert Langer, Jane Lubchenco, Mario Molína, Larry Page, Robert Socolow, Craig Venter, and Jackie Ying.

The world is indeed forging ahead with a new age of integrated engineering. This approach is being promoted through new educational approaches adopted by high education institutions such as the Olin College of Engineering. In 2013 Olin’s founding academic leaders received NAE’s prestigious Bernard M. Gordon Prize for their pioneering “experiments in education that develop effective engineering leaders.”

In recognition of the importance of the field, Chinese, US, and UK engineering academies are co-sponsoring the Global Grand Challenges Summit in London in March 2013. The summit will showcase “leading international engineering thinkers and innovators sharing ideas with the next generation of engineers and policy-makers on how to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.”

A few days after the summit, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering will announce the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the world’s largest honor of its type. The £1 million prize aims to reward and celebrate individuals who have made ground-breaking innovations that have global benefits to humanity.

MIT Associate Provost Professor Wesley Harris stressed to the Harvard meeting the importance of integrating engineering education across disciplines and leveraging the energy and creativity of students from a variety of majors. Without such integration, he noted, a dichotomy is created whereby some people focus on technology for its own sake, while others navigate an increasingly complex world without any technological background or appreciation.

One of the challenges facing the engineering profession today is retention. According to Dr. Sujata Bhatia of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, students will not sustain their interest in the rigor of engineering courses if they do not see their role in solving practical problems. To do this, she said, engineering must integrate with other liberal arts subjects such as language, philosophy, ethics and literature. “Similarly, women are more likely to study engineering if the field focuses on solving real world problems,” she added.

Indeed, NAE President Charles Vest has rightly called for the integration of the liberal arts with engineering. The real challenge, according to Professor Muhammad Zaman of Boston University, is to focus on how engineering can help solve the world’s most pressing development challenges. “This requires integration of fields such as medicine and engineering while taking into account ethical considerations,” he emphasized at the meeting.

Professor Zaman has been active in promoting new biomedical engineering courses in Africa. In his judgment, developing countries offer unique opportunities to foster integrated approaches to engineering education. The same applies to starting at the pre-engineering or pre-medicine levels in high schools.

Dr. Wai Leung Tang of the University of Hong Kong also stressed the importance of integrating the disciplines around problem-solving. “The training of young people must include engineering principles, techniques, and knowledge as well as integration with other disciplines. So engineers need a wide spectrum of knowledge,” he noted.

OLPC’s Dr. Redouane Megateli said we had come full circle. First the world was concerned with improving education. But to do that it had to engineer the development of new laptops whose design criteria reflected how people learn. But with the proliferation of access to such devices, the world is back to the beginning: thinking about education. “This is the rationale behind the creation of OLPC academies around the world,” he said.

Devices will come and go, but the demand for impact assessment will always remain. Professor Harris challenged the participants to establish metrics for assessing the impact of new high school pre-engineering programs.

For me the finest idea came from Dr. Bhatia: “Give me a young person who is excellent in anything and I can turn him or her into an excellent engineer. It is about discipline. Those who have it in any field, including athletics, can excel in any other field.”

Professor Harris noted that the focus on excellence and other attributes should provide a basis for evaluating the impact of new engineering programs for high school students. “It is important to provide metrics for setting goals and assessing impact,” he emphasized.

The training of future engineers will need to integrate diverse disciplines so they can mold economies that promise prosperity for all. As the Economist aptly concluded, “The main risk…may not be that the pace of innovation is too slow, but that institutions have become too rigid to accommodate truly revolutionary changes.”

According to Fr. Schell, this is where learning becomes an applied field aimed at integrating the disciplines to solve the world’s pressing challenges. That is how young engineers can mold the future.

Calestous Juma (@calestous) is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). He was a member of the Grand Challenges for Engineering Committee of the US National Academy of Engineering and serves on the selection jury of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Professor Juma is currently writing a book on engineering for global development.

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