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Muhammad H. Zaman

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Make Development Part of the Equation

Posted: 03/ 2/2012 5:13 pm

Engineers make models of processes and systems, write equations to describe them and work tirelessly make the best possible products governed by those equations. Every now and then, when the system is not working as well, they have to go back and re-examine the equations that define the system. One such system that is in dire need of reexamination is engineering education itself. With dwindling numbers of students enrolled in engineering programs in the US, and even fewer who finish the degree (on time, or ever) -- going back to the drawing board is critical. With increasing globalization and loss of manufacturing in the US, a changing global political and economic climate, it's high time we think about what our engineers of today and tomorrow should look like and how to keep the numbers steady.

I would first argue about what we should not do. We, at no cost, should shy away from teaching our students the foundations built on rigor, precision and depth. There is no substitute for quality and our engineers should have the quantitative depth to tackle any problem thrown at them.

But this is not enough. Our engineers should be cognizant of the changing socio-economic climate of not only the US but of the world at large. That is why, I would argue that we need to educate our engineers about issues, challenges, opportunities and complexities of global development.

Engineering has long been one of the most open disciplines -- with the ability to seamlessly integrate with other professions and degrees. Bringing other disciplines into the folds of greater engineering education is not new. Schools of business have long partnered with engineering students in delivering the best possible product, at the best possible price, for consumers across the globe. Tools and devices aimed at solving the most pressing problems in medicine are a product of integration of medicine, biology and engineering. Birth of disciplines like biomedical engineering are a testament to the ability of engineers to rise to the challenges that are both intellectually rich and have the potential of highest social impact.

Like medicine and business, development continues to affect all facets of our lives. Whether it is immigration, tendency towards extremism in various parts of the world, global poverty, infectious diseases or agriculture, development shapes our existence. While there is some effort towards integrating engineering towards pressing problems in development, it has been largely confined to water and infrastructure, with few exceptions. Poverty and development are problems that are not solely defined by access to clean water or lack of better roads. The complexity of these challenges demands that engineers rise to the challenge once again and bring their tools to end hunger, disease, poverty and bring access to basic necessities of life.

Another problem we are facing today is the lack of interest in engineering among our brightest minds. As we struggle to bring more diverse communities to engineering, and retain them, development would serve as an ideal platform. Again, let me give the example of biomedical engineering, where the number of female students is on average is higher than any other discipline in engineering. Historically, engineering was the domain of male students, but ever since the growth of biomedical engineering, the number of female students entering engineering has grown steadily. This trend is not only true in the US, but even in the developing world where the ratio of male to female students in other aspects of engineering is pathetically low. The increase of female engineers within our ranks has made engineering more attractive to historically underrepresented groups and has increased the impact of the field on our lives. Our ability to attract students, from all disciplines, backgrounds and social sectors will significantly improve if we address issues in development.

We can also agree that the world is changing fast. The rise of India, China, Brazil, Turkey and other nations that have significant population means that increasing number of our engineers will work for opportunities in, or related to, these countries. It is also important to note that these countries continue to struggle with development challenges within various sectors of the society as they improve their social fabric and climb the development ladder. Our ability to create new knowledge in developmental engineering will enable our engineers to impact the world in profoundly positive ways. As engineers will change the landscape of poverty, social justice and universal access to basic necessities, their work will have an impact on foreign policy and strong bilateral relations with other nations.

It would be naïve to think that developmental engineering tools will impact only the developing world. Ask anyone who has worked in the developing world, and you will find out that the assumption that the developing world needs the same tools we in the developed world have, only cheaper, is not only arrogant but also inaccurate. However, this notion is wide spread and the consequence is that products for development are often stripped down versions and do not fuel the innovation engine. The creation of new knowledge and new paradigms to address the global problems will inevitably lead to discovery of new, cheaper and robust design criteria that will have an impact on all societies, including ours, here in the US.

For over a century, our engineers have inspired and dazzled the world with sending the man on the moon and building bridges and buildings that defy imagination. Now it's time that we inspire the future engineers, by building a bridge across the gulf of development, a road from the sick to the healthy and a path from poverty to prosperity.

 

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