National Academies news: The Engineer of 2020

05/17/04

Engineering profession must adapt to maintain U.S. leadership in the future

WASHINGTON -- To enhance the nation's economic productivity and improve the quality of life worldwide, engineering education in the United States must anticipate and adapt to the dramatic changes of engineering practice expected in the coming decades, says a new report from the National Academies' National Academy of Engineering. Technologies developed by engineers have helped lengthen the human life span, enabled people to communicate nearly instantaneously anywhere on Earth, and created tremendous wealth and economic growth. The next several decades will offer more opportunities for engineers, with exciting possibilities expected from nanotechnology, information technology, and bioengineering, the report adds.

However, other engineering applications, such as transgenic food, technologies that affect personal privacy, and nuclear technologies, raise complex social and ethical challenges. Future engineers must be prepared to help the public consider and resolve these dilemmas, noted the committee that wrote the report. Challenges will also arise from new global competition, requiring thoughtful and concerted action if engineering in the United States is to retain its vibrancy and strength.

The engineering profession needs to adopt a new vision for its future to ensure that engineers are broadly educated, become leaders in the public and private sectors, and represent all segments of society, the report says. Future engineers must be able to acquire new knowledge quickly, be adaptable and engage emerging problems, and also be capable of informing public policy.

To consider which skills future engineers will likely need, the committee envisioned several scenarios -- such as new breakthroughs in biotechnology, natural disasters triggered by climate change, and global conflicts driven by an imbalance in resources among nations -- that could conceivably affect the world in 2020 in dramatic ways. By then, engineers must be prepared to accommodate new social, economic, legal, and political constraints when planning projects, the committee concluded. For example, engineers should be educated to develop sustainable technology and be prepared to communicate ideas and issues to multiple stakeholders, including government, private industry, and the public.

With the appropriate education and training, the engineer of the future will be called upon to become a leader not only in business but also in nonprofit and government sectors, the report says. Future engineers must recognize the importance of public service and help set the nation's policy agenda. Also, since engineers are increasingly involved in international collaborations, they need to appreciate other cultures and their evolving roles in the global economy, the report notes.

Engineering schools should attract the best and brightest students, the committee said, and be open to new teaching and training approaches. The engineering profession needs to recognize that engineers can build the future through a wide range of leadership roles in industry, government, and academia -- not just through technical jobs, the committee noted. Also, engineers should raise awareness of how an engineering education provides a solid foundation for careers in other fields, such as law, medicine, and business.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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