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Possibilities and challenges ahead for engineers

Charles Vest talk focuses on nano scale and large-systems scale
Charles Vest
Charles Vest
Photo / Justin Knight

To draw more students into the field of engineering, institutions like MIT should focus on the exciting possibilities of two engineering frontiers -- the nano scale and the large systems scale, according to MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest.

Those frontiers offer "mind-boggling possibilities" and "daunting challenges," said Vest during his lecture, "Educating Engineers for 2020 and Beyond," on Oct. 12 in Bartos Theater.

Vest's talk, part of the Brunel Lecture Series on Complex Systems, was hosted by the Engineering Systems Division.

"As we think about the challenges ahead, it's important to remember that students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement and dreams," Vest told a standing-room-only audience.

From nano to large systems scales

New innovations at the nano scale, such as Professor Angela Belcher's research on batteries constructed by viruses, are what will keep MIT at the cutting edge of both engineering science and product development, according to Vest. Fields at the interface of biology, nanotechnology and information technology offer "stunning new possibilities" that will "inspire and excite new generations of students," he said.

At the other end of the scale, studying large complex systems gives students the chance to tackle some of the world's biggest problems -- energy, the environment, food supply, logistics and communications, Vest said. MIT's Engineering Systems Division was established in 1998 to explore just those kinds of large-scale engineering issues.

Engineering education in a complex world

In his talk, Vest also emphasized that the environment in which students learn is just as important as the details of the curriculum. Offering students the skills they need to thrive in a constantly changing world is the most important thing that MIT can do, he said.

"We are educating men and women who will drive technological change, but we sometimes forget they must work in an ever-evolving social, political and economic context," said Vest, who was recently nominated to be the next president of the National Academy of Engineering.

To that end, engineering institutions should avoid focusing solely on lecture-based courses and ensure that students participate in team projects, research and experiential learning. Students should also learn communication skills and gain understanding of ethics and social responsibility, business organization, innovation and product development, in addition to engineering fundamentals, Vest said.

"That is a pretty tall order," Vest said, but it's not impossible. "We have to keep our sights set high."

Even though the list of skills engineers need is long, Vest warned that an exclusive focus on engineering is detrimental to students' professional and personal development. "Don't be tempted to crowd out humanities, arts and social sciences," he said. Those subjects can keep students open-minded, give broader context to what they're learning, and help them establish values, he said.

U.S. engineering institutions must also embrace globalization and encourage education in the humanities to ensure that the United States remains a leader in technological innovation and product development, he said.

Declining numbers of U.S. engineering degrees

In recent years, the number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States has been declining, while the number grows in Asia. Students in Asia are increasingly eager to learn engineering, which they see as a path of upward mobility, Vest said.

"We in the U.S. should let no grass grow under our feet," he said. "The U.S. is still the clear world leader, but of all the enemies our country faces, complacency is the one I fear most."

The Senate is now working on legislation that would invest in making the United States more competitive with other nations when it comes to science and engineering education. The National Competitiveness Investment Act is based on recommendations from a recent federal report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which argued that science and engineering education is vital to U.S. economic interests.

Vest said he is heartened to see the federal government take such steps to encourage more young men and women to pursue degrees in science and engineering.

"We simply cannot afford to fail," he said.

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