Science and Engineering | Feature

Saving Engineering Education: An Interview with IEEE President Moshe Kam, Part 2

Campus Technology caught up with Moshe Kam, IEEE president and CEO, for a series of interviews on the future of engineering in the United States. In part 2 of this two-part interview, Kam, who's also department head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Drexel University, divulges what area of engineering he'd enter right now if he were just getting into the field, what engineering can lend to life sciences, and how IEEE volunteer work in disaster zones deserves greater attention.

Editor's note: Part 1 of this two-part series of interviews with Moshe Kam can be accessed on Campus Technology here.

Dian Schaffhauser: You talk about the contribution of engineers to society. For example, you recently wrote to IEEE members about the horrors happening in Japan and how people could help. How come we know about Doctors Without Borders, but not Engineers Without Borders?

Moshe Kam: That is exactly the problem. Engineers Without Borders does exist. There's a joint portal that several engineering associations built together, called EngineeringForChange.org. It shows you how much work is being done.

In fact, I want to tell you, one of the struggles I have in IEEE now--and that I'm quite happy to be part of--is that volunteers are pressing leadership to allot more and more funds for this kind of work.

Increasingly, legions of volunteers--especially young people--come to leadership: "You must give us money to help with rural electrification, clean water, off-grid supply of electricity." There is increasing interest in this. And increasingly engineering societies are doing a lot of humanitarian work nowadays.

Not that we didn't do it before. We have done it since our inception, but we didn't label it as such. Now we label it. It's clear what we're doing. And I'm actually very proud of the young members who are making our lives miserable by their continued demands for more and more funds for this kind of work.

Schaffhauser: So how would these organizations go into a situation and help out?

Kam: Every situation is different. In the case of Haiti, for instance, we actually sent people there. We felt that the local infrastructure--including availability of professionals--was such that there was a need of people on the ground to assist. In the case of Japan--while no one wants disaster or wishes disasters on anyone--but if there is a place that's ready for disasters and a place were you have first rate engineers and technicians, it's Japan.

The Japanese engineers do not need assistance from us in terms of knowledge or know-how. We stand ready to assist, we know where they are, and we put ourselves in communication with our members and volunteers. IEEE has a section with, I believe, some 600 members in Sendai. We're in touch with them and we're responding to what they want. But this is not one of those cases where they need us to send legions of people to help; whereas in other places in the world, we need to do that. And we do that when necessary.

Every time one of these things happens, and unfortunately they happen with some regularity, we analyze the situation. In some cases--in Haiti and Pakistan--we raise funds from our members and IEEE matches the funds one to one in order to invest in infrastructure recovery, especially in areas of education in science and technology.

But we're very tuned to these things. Because of fact that they occur with regularity, we have people who are on standby all the time. When the earthquake happened in Japan, we were in touch with our volunteers in Japan in hours.

Schaffhauser: If you were entering the field of engineering right now, where would the focus be for you?

Kam: If I were to come into engineering today, I'd go into the intersection between electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science on one hand and life sciences and biology on the other. The reason is that we are living in prehistoric times, in terms of what we will be able to do.

The understanding of many processes in the vast area called life sciences--from molecular biology to proteomics, to genomics, the advance in computational biology--have now created an opportunity to import technology, algorithms, mathematical ideas, from the hard sciences and form engineering into biology and life sciences in a way that will really be very important in the coming 30 to 50 years, in terms of therapeutics, in terms of pharmaceutics, in terms of fighting diseases and plagues. It's highly possible that our imagination is not even wide enough to contain all the things that we'll be able to do.

I would go there. I would probably get a degree in one of the engineering disciplines with a minor or elective in every life science I could put my hands in.

Schaffhauser: What is it that engineering can bring to life sciences?

Kam: I'll give you an example. Let's assume there was an effort to develop a drug. There are several ways to analyze the content of this drug and draw different graphs that describe its content--distribution of masses, frequencies. There are ways to collect a lot of information about this.

It's also known that in the process of development, some strains have been proven to be toxic and some have been benign. How do we find from analysis that we've collected what is it that separates toxic to non-toxic? Moreover, when we go to develop the new drug, at an early stage can we eliminate many paths that will lead us to high toxicity without having to spend hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars in going in these directions and developing them and testing them and then throwing them away?

Just as one simple example of trying to do predictive toxicology, the algorithms that exist in terms of doing the discrimination between the non-toxic and toxic drugs are sometimes exactly the algorithms that have been developed for certain radar detection problems, where the question was, is there an enemy aircraft in the picture? There is a plethora of very sophisticated algorithms developed over the years by people who do signal processing, antenna theory, many of which have never been tested and used in this case in pharmaceutics.

Just getting people together in these disciplines--which is sometimes not easy because they don't speak the same language--can have enormous benefit to humanity.

It's not surprising that if you go today to a new program in computational biology, in bioinformatics, you don't see people who came from the clinic; you see people who did control theory before.

Schaffhauser: What is it going to take for students to see the connections between those very interesting, cutting edge fields and engineering?

Kam: In some respects I'm not terribly concerned because of following. Because of the enormous benefits that will accrue, I think this work will become more and more worthy economically. High economic awards attract people.

You already see that after a couple of years of decrease in the number of electrical and computing engineers and computer science majors in the United States, salaries in these areas started climbing. I have a feeling that the potential for benefits is high. IEEE has a Web site with IBM called TryEngineering.org, where we're trying to do much of this work, where we're trying to explain and show people the splendor of all this. This is of course important.

The potential for improvement in the welfare of humanity as a result of applying engineering to methodology of life sciences is one example. It will become so high to become sufficiently lucrative for people to want to work there.

A very different area that increasingly will grow and attract people to engineering is entertainment. The opportunities to combine engineering with entertainment, with video, audio, with music, are also very vast. This is already a big market. But it is a market that will become larger. I can see in a couple of years many more programs under the title "entertainment tech" that are at the intersection of engineering and entertainment.

The area of green energy is definitely growing. I can tell you that many power engineering programs in the United States that have been stagnant for a while are now seeing strong growth because of the fact that young people are drawn to them on account of the opportunities in green energy--and also because of the promise of the smart grid. The smart grid is this attempt to combine sensing detection, controller estimation to electricity generation and distribution and supply.

But we're not going to stop there. We're going to do that with other utilities, with gas and water. There's a lot of interesting work there, a lot of savings.

It's not clear how fast we'll get there; but the ability to make a significant revolution in transportation by the introduction of electrical vehicles and to tie the electrical vehicle to the smart grid such that the vehicle on one end is being recharged by the grid, but is also supplying energy to the grid at peak times when the cars are parked. You take it from the millions of batteries distributed, and then you use it and return it so to speak.

The energy market by the way is much larger than the communication market. So if you think about what's happened in the last 20 years in the communication market--from the telephone you had in your house to all the gadgets hanging on your clothes--I can tell you, you ain't seen nothing yet when you compare it to the energy market, which is at least an order of magnitude larger economically.

To me, these are fun times that are going to supply endless interesting and challenging work.

Schaffhauser: Give me one thing readers can do to get moving in the right direction.

Kam: Let's talk about people in community colleges and high schools. There are now fantastic resources online that can help--TryEngineering.org and TryScience.org. Those sites have prepared lesson plans that teachers can take to the classroom.

You as a teacher of pre university students can find classroom instructions, where for about an expenditure of no more than $100, you can demonstrate to students the principles of engineering and engineering design--how to build a better robot arm, how to build a better candy bag. Very simple things. There are such resources available to teachers at all levels.

Professional associations are very ready to help. Get online and find the local section of either IEEE or [American Society of Civil Engineers] or ASME [founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers], and ask who will help you in the pre-university system. We and our sister associations will jump to your assistance. There is so much enthusiasm among our volunteers about pre-university education. Teachers in community colleges and pre university systems can get a lot of assistance if they just ask.

Those are not only in the United States, but also all over the world. The engineering associations are very concerned about pre-university education. And they're a fantastic source of volunteers and ideas. The nice thing about them is that they're dispersed anywhere and everywhere. Just find one near you and start working with them.

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