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Ian Waitz on the future of engineering education and research

New dean reflects on MIT’s School of Engineering, cites ever-growing role for collaboration and outreach.
Ian Waitz, dean of MIT's School of Engineering.
Ian Waitz, dean of MIT's School of Engineering.
Photo: William Litant

Ian Waitz, previously the head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, on Feb. 7 became the 16th dean of the School of Engineering — the largest of the Institute’s five schools, with 370 faculty members and about 4,700 students. MIT News sat down with him to discuss his plans and hopes for the school.

Q. As you begin this new job, what are some of your near-term and longer-term ideas for the School of Engineering?

A. We recently began a series of planning meetings for the School, and one interesting thing that emerged was the idea that in the first 75 years of MIT, we helped build the country’s infrastructure. In the second 75 years, we helped build industries. And many people in our meeting felt that the next 75 years of MIT are going to be about building a better planet — addressing the grand challenges in energy, the environment, health and poverty alleviation, and ensuring a strong, innovative economy.

Increasingly these challenges will be solved by engineers working collaboratively with others: scientists, social scientists — a whole range of people. We have great opportunities through the convergence of life sciences, engineering and the physical sciences. The problems we’re focusing on are broad, on the scale of grand challenges worldwide.

A concern I have is that when parents, teenagers, and the general public in the United States are surveyed, only a small percentage understand what engineers do, or believe engineers are key contributors to society. Not enough people see engineering for what it is — people who build a better planet. We need to implement strategies, both here at MIT and more broadly, to better communicate the fact that engineers are creative problem-solvers who change the world.

Q. You’ve talked about the importance of collaboration and multidisciplinary work. Do you see a need for any kind of structural changes or any other means to foster this kind of collaboration?

A. I don’t think we need structural changes, but we do need to remove barriers to building strong collaborative intellectual networks. We have been tremendously successful at MIT with this already — we have a long history and deep culture of collaboration.

What’s changed [about multidisciplinary work] is that the problems have gotten bigger. Today’s collaborations are not necessarily four or five faculty members from different disciplines working on a project or product — they are on the scale of, say, the [MIT] Energy Initiative or the Transportation Initiative, where you may have hundreds of faculty members addressing very grand challenges.

I love the Koch Institute model, where you build an intellectual community to address a particular challenge, and then you draw people together from multiple departments and multiple schools and ensure there are tentacles that stretch both within and outside of MIT. I think we can do that for other kinds of problems, and we can do it very effectively. We will be as good or better than anyone else in the world at it because we’ve got the right culture here — we’ve been doing these large-scale collaborations for decades.

Q. Are there areas where you think MIT needs to increase its emphasis, or branch into if it hasn’t already? Are there areas whose importance is less now than it may have been at one time?

A. The faculty, staff and students at MIT are remarkably flexible in applying their world-class talents and reinventing themselves to solve the greatest challenges of the day. I think the Energy Initiative is a wonderful example of that: You bring a focus to something, and all of a sudden you have people inventing solutions to problems they were not thinking about before — and sometimes coming up with unexpected things
that make you say, ‘Wow!’"

Are there areas that we should grow into? Yes. I think we have to do more on energy and the environment, and we have to do more on the role of information in all that we do. Addressing the challenges of the developing world and poverty are very important. Students at MIT are pushing us in these directions. They have an elevated sense of social responsibility, and we ought to be providing them the tools and the opportunities to go out and solve these problems. We also need to turn our attention to the United States in particular, and manufacturing, productivity and innovation in our economy.

Will there be things that we do less of? I’m sure. Hopefully we’re hiring people with very strong intellects, but who are also intellectually flexible enough to reinvent themselves 10 times in their careers if need be. That’s what you’d really like to have — people who chase after the most important problems, rather than get caught in a particular skill set and have the world move past them.  

Q. How do you see the evolution of the relationship between MIT’s style of hands-on learning in the lab, versus working with computers and simulations?

A. One area where we can grow — and where, again, there’s a great call among the students to do so — is in giving them more of those operational experiences, out in the world, solving real problems. If we do that in a way that contributes to deeper learning of fundamentals at the same time, it gives them the confidence to go out and change the world, and that’s a great thing. We need to think about the whole project-based learning concept as not just what happens in classes and labs here at MIT, but how can we provide very authentic experiences for our students around the world — whether that’s in companies, or working with local communities.

Q. Everybody, including President Obama, talks about how important technology and engineering are for our economy and for this country’s competitiveness in the world. How do you see the School of Engineering’s role in this?

A. We need to implement a strategy — and it’s useful to think about it in three bins: for the “few,” the “many” and the “all.” We can focus a lot of energy here on the “few,” the people at MIT, and the “many,” our partners and collaborators around the world. We are doing this now, and plan to do more.  But the problems that have been articulated about science, technology, engineering and math education are really problems of the “all.” We need to advance that conversation nationally. And we have some exciting ideas.

Q. Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

A. There’s another dimension that’s very important to the future of MIT, and that’s external collaborations — with industry and government, with other educational institutions, with regions around the world, and with the city we live in. MIT has made great contributions to the very rich, dynamic biotech cluster in Boston and Cambridge. Now we’re talking about what might be the next cluster that forms here. Can we work with people in the broader Boston area to help fuel innovation in other areas?

All of these things basically come down to building very strong intellectual networks — not just within MIT, but with all of our partners outside MIT. If we can align the things we do and many of our collaborations around a few big ideas, we can make tremendous leaps forward.

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