The Future of U.S. Engineering: Framing a National Agenda

By: | June 25th, 2014

From its inception to the present day, the strength and prosperity of the United States are the result of its diverse, diligent and creative workforce. Equally important has been the penchant of its citizens for science and engineering. New technology in the US regularly spawns whole industries that increase its wealth and dynamism. Telephony, the Internet and GPS are just a few recent examples of breakthroughs that have far reaching implications at home and abroad.

But can the United States continue to effectively compete in a multipolar world in which competition, especially in science and engineering, is stronger than ever?

Grassroots Promotion of Engineering a Step in the Right Direction

For many people, their only conscious connection to engineering is the mostly “silent E” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. Fortunately, children and teens are provided direct exposure to hands-on engineering activities with organizations such as DiscoverE, FIRST Robotics, 4-H Robotics, and Science Olympiad just to name a few.

In addition, “Engineers Week” builds partnerships with local schools to encourage children to get excited about engineering, “Girl Day” events and workshops inspire future women engineers, and large-scale events in Washington, D.C., such as the USA Science and Engineering Festival and the annual “Discovery Engineering Family Day” at the National Building Museum introduce elementary aged students and their families to engineering and promote technological literacy. These programs offer a hands-on approach in hopes of building enthusiasm for engineering through interesting and memorable activities.

National Engineering Forum (NEF) Spearheading National Dialogue

But if the future of engineering in the United States is to be as bright as its past it must augment grassroots efforts with a “top-down” policy-based vision bringing together government, business, national labs and engineering schools, the very ecosystem of US technological competitiveness.

The National Engineering Forum, though relatively new on the scene, may be the umbrella organization that pulls all of these interests together. Led by some of the country’s best and brightest engineers and thinkers, including the late Charles “Chuck” Vest, former president of MIT and president of the National Academy of Engineering, NEF has seen “cracks” in the foundation of US engineering competitiveness and is on a mission to address them.

Building the Network & the 3C’s

NEF held its inaugural event in New York City in September 2012, and then embarked on a series of regional dialogues.  So far, NEF has been to 10 cities: New York, Knoxville, Albuquerque, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Columbus, Houston, Detroit and Raleigh-Durham. Many more dialogues are planned this year throughout the country. NEF was founded by Lockheed Martin, the Council on Competitiveness, and the National Academy of Engineering.

Jeff Wilcox, vice president of engineering at Lockheed Martin, and a co-founder of NEF says,  “The National Engineering Forum is committed to advancing our nation’s engineering enterprise, and addressing the challenges it faces, which we call the 3C’s – capacity, capability, and competitiveness.” Wilcox elaborates on the 3C’s with definitions that bring home the importance of addressing each challenge. He says capacity is about having enough talented people to fill engineering jobs, while capability focuses on how American engineers will solve 21st century challenges and the competitiveness challenge focuses on prosperity, national security and how the United States will thrive in a global economy.

At NEF regional dialogues, local engineering leaders are invited to present keynote speeches, followed by a solutions-oriented discussion among attendees, who are C-suite-level leaders from academia, industry, government, media, national laboratories and professional associations.

ExxonMobil’s Senior Vice President Mark Albers, a petroleum engineer and graduate of Texas A&M University, addressed the 3C’s in his keynote address at the Houston regional dialogue, hosted by Texas A&M.  In an article in NEF’s newsletter, Albers also pointed to the importance of STEM education adding, “Beyond education, there needs to be an increased understanding by policymakers of the role of certainty and sound policy as an essential part of the business climate.”

NEF Dialogues Have Already Produced a Number of Key Action Items:

  • to become better communicators and broaden the public perception of engineering, so that it is more about the act of creation and the idea that it takes all kinds of people to create – not just engineers
  • to educate students and the public that engineering is a vehicle to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges
  • to rethink traditional educational pathways, including offering dual-degree programs at liberal arts schools and urging students to pursue an interdisciplinary education that equips them with knowledge of the arts and humanities, design, business, finance, public policy, etc. – effectively breaking down traditional academic silos
  • to strengthen efforts to inspire engineering in minority groups and celebrate diversity in engineering including outreach efforts that include female and minority engineering role models, and diligent efforts to reach out to low-income schools and communities
  • to promote engineering among key “influencers” and key audiences, emphasizing the importance of interaction between disciplines, multidisciplinary thinking and the promotion of “innovative ecosystems” such as Silicon Valley, Tin Pan Alley, etc.
  • to strengthen the business environment for technology-driven industries

NEF Network Growing

NEF’s focus on the 3C’s amounts to a goal of having a strong national workforce of fully prepared, talented engineers who have the ability to deal with the incredible pace of technological and scientific change along with the skills needed for 21st century opportunities and global competition.

Through the regional dialogues, NEF is aiming to stimulate a nationwide conversation how the U.S. engineering community can achieve that goal, overcoming national issues through local solutions.  Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness and NEF co-founder, says that’s why NEF’s regional dialogues are held in cities that have both played a prominent role in shaping the nation’s engineering heritage and are important to its future.  She says the dialogues are building a community of action.

“The National Engineering Forum is about elevating American awareness of the impact and contribution of engineering to our way of life,” said Wince-Smith. “Bringing together leaders in science, technology and engineering, from research and industry, each host city and partner helps us build a national agenda to address the 3C’s.” In its first 18 months, NEF’s activities have centered on building that nationwide network.

According to NEF spokesperson Melissa Mathews, the regional dialogues are setting the stage for an evolution in the mission of NEF into participating in the national dialogue on the future of engineering in the United States.

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David Russell Schilling

David enjoys writing about high technology and its potential to make life better for all who inhabit planet earth.

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