Adapting to a
Technologies developed by engineers have helped lengthen the human life span, enabled people to communicate nearly instantaneously from anywhere on Earth, and created tremendous wealth and economic growth. But other engineering applications, such as transgenic food or technologies that affect personal privacy, raise complex social and ethical challenges.
The next several decades will be full of opportunities as well as challenges for engineers, and they must be prepared for both if the United States is to retain its vibrancy and strength in engineering, says a recent report from the National Academy of Engineering.
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. These individuals will have to be adaptable, engage emerging problems, and also be capable of informing public policy.
To consider which skills future engineers will likely need, the committee that wrote the report envisioned several scenarios that could conceivably affect the world in 2020 in dramatic ways -- such as new breakthroughs in biotechnology, natural disasters triggered by climate change, and global conflicts driven by an imbalance in resources among nations. By that time, engineers must be prepared to accommodate new social, economic, legal, and political constraints when planning projects, the committee concluded.
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. People who choose this career path must recognize the importance of public service and help set the nation's policy agenda. Also, engineers should raise awareness of how an education in engineering provides a solid foundation for careers in other fields, such as law, medicine, and business.
"For too long, engineering has been controlled by external events, changing only after circumstances dictated it," said Wayne Clough, committee chair and president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "Our project recognized that the pace of change today puts us at risk if we passively wait for what is to come. We need to prepare for the future now so that engineers who graduate in 2020 will not only be capable of implementing the most advanced technology, but also be ready to serve as leaders in our society."
-- Patrice Pages
The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Committee on the Engineer of 2020, National Academy of Engineering (2004, 118 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09162-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $32.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, NEC Foundation of America, SBC Foundation, Honeywell International, and the National Academy of Engineering Fund.