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Department could be an Earth steward, CEE head says

Patrick Jaillet
Patrick Jaillet

Nothing short of a paradigm shift is needed to address the world's complex societal problems, the head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) told a standing-room-only audience in Bechtel Auditorium.

"We must generalize the concept of infrastructure so that intelligent management of the Earth is seen as the ultimate systems problem," said Professor Patrick Jaillet in his talk on "A CEE Department for MIT for the 21st Century," the second annual Charles L. Miller Lecture. "MIT CEE has the potential to be the steward and to lead other engineering professionals in that direction."

The April 14 event, sponsored by CEE and the Engineering Systems Division, honored the late civil engineering department head who served in the 1960s.

Today's big challenges--including resource stress from increased population and a higher standard of living, the threat of disease from inadequate sanitation infrastructure and environmental pollution, and increased demand for new and renewed transportation, communications and technology infrastructure--require MIT in general and CEE in particular to determine which tasks to tackle first, Jaillet said.

Solutions to complex problems cannot be based on traditional distinctions between science and engineering; the focus must be on problem-solving and the approach should be to fund, design, develop and operate new academic programs.

"Our students, who are our next generation of leaders, are ambitious and want to solve big problems. We must develop, adopt and promote a new paradigm that recognizes and exploits the interdependence of human welfare and the natural environment," Jaillet said.

Strong master's and Ph.D. programs are needed to develop professionals who will be agents of change for, and purveyors of, new knowledge at other universities.

Noting that CEE currently has the talent to tackle and address these formidable challenges, Jaillet highlighted several CEE faculty who are involved in interdisciplinary research that illustrates the notion of stewardship for CEE. These included Franz-Joseph Ulm, whose research in concrete "turned mud into gold" by leading the wave in durability mechanics and is now being applied to bone structure. Jaillet also outlined the work of Charles Harvey, whose research in groundwater flow and chemical transport in Bangladesh is helping to change the thinking on how this type of problem arises in developing countries.

"Creating a new CEE department at MIT is a work in progress," Jaillet said. "However, it can have a far-reaching and long-lasting domino effect on academia, government, industry and the world at large."

Professor Joseph Sussman of CEE and the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) opened the event by describing Miller's accomplishments as department head, including integrating computers in civil engineering practice and education and introducing a large-scale systems approach to civil engineering issues.

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