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Saving Engineering Education: An Interview with IEEE President Moshe Kam, Part 1

In spite of the fact that the organization's beginnings go back 127 years, to 1884 when electricity was just becoming known among ordinary people, IEEE couldn't be accused in its more recent years of becoming a stodgy club for mature professionals. After all, the 400,000-member Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has 100,000 student members, including 1,855 student branches at colleges and universities in 80 countries; 45 percent of members are outside the United States; and in 2010 it voted Moshe Kam as its 49th president and CEO, thereby choosing somebody unafraid to speak his mind.

As organizational head, Kam has publicly pushed to bring the "less experienced"--including students--in on volunteer positions for key committees and task forces; and he defended the right of IEEE Spectrum, its well known member magazine, to tackle as a cover topic the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Recently, Campus Technology caught up with Kam, whose day job is as professor and department head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. In the first of this two-part interview, he explores how engineering education has been transformed over the last 30 to 40 years, including in places like India and China; examines the challenge of dwindling numbers of U.S. students in STEM fields; and explains why he believes engineering could be saved by a greater focus on recruiting women and what could be the key to drawing them and others to the field.

Dian Schaffhauser: Dr. Kam, you started studying engineering in the '70s. Now you're the head of an engineering department at Drexel. What's changed about the profession and the teaching of that profession in those 30 to 40 years?

Moshe Kam: Two fundamental changes have occurred. One is that when I was a student in the 1970s of electrical engineering, this was a relatively confined, well defined discipline with clear boundaries that was very distinct from other engineering disciplines. You'd never make a mistake when looking at the curriculum that this could be something else. And we had our own specific technology and techniques. We were also much more focused on the technical objectives of our particular discipline as opposed to what I'll describe in a minute.

[Now] the boundaries between what we do and what is happening in other areas of engineering and some areas not defined as engineering, such as computer science and even some business departments, do not exist at all and in some cases have blurred.
For instance, civil engineering may be responsible for the health of the infrastructure--say, a bridge. This civil engineer will use sensors and actuators that used to be almost the exclusive domain of individuals in electrical engineering. He or she is going to use computer networking and communication systems in order to do remote sensing, to do computation using control techniques, and in general be steeped in information technology and communication in computing and networking in a way that say, a civil engineering major in the 1970s would not even have dreamt of being remotely interested in.

This is one big change.

With this big change also came a related issue. We did not worry in the 1970s about educating engineers in business and law. The idea was that the engineering department would do what it's supposed to do, namely, create the gadget, provide the communication service, purchase and install the radios. Issues of business and issues of law would be dealt with by other departments. The engineers need not worry about it. Nowadays we see increasingly in the design of systems, the implementation of systems, the degree to which legal and business decisions are entering the picture. That necessitates that engineers not only work closely with individuals from these disciplines, but also understand the jargon and language and in some limited extent understand the disciplines.

Another development is this. Though in the 1970s we already had significant presence of computing in what we do, computing really was an add-on to what we were doing in our discipline. We were primarily teaching and learning microwave systems and antennas and circuits and complicated systems like radios and TVs and semiconductors and so on. We used computers to do some computation and to assist us once we knew what we were doing in terms of design. But computers were not part of the design process.

Nowadays the design not only in electrical engineering and computing engineering but also in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, in civil engineering, in materials engineering is very heavily based on computing. The trend is so dramatic in a couple of years there will be only one discipline--forgive me for saying this--computer science. And everybody else--the electrical engineers, the civil engineers--will basically be individuals using computing for a particular set of problems or problems with certain flavors.

Computation used to come at the end. Computation now comes at the beginning. We start with MATLAB, we start with Mathematica, we start with symbolic computation. It's not that computer-aided design is added to what we do; computer aided designed becomes the only thing we do.

Schaffhauser: You travel the world meeting with the IEEE members and officers. What's the state of engineering education in the United States right now compared to other hotspots--India, China?

Kam: The state of engineering education in the United States is very good. Higher education in the United States in engineering continues to be a very strong discipline and in many cases well ahead of other systems in the degree to which research is integrated into education, particularly graduate education--the excellent opportunities for graduate students to get access to equipment and laboratories and also stipends and financial assistance.

That's not to say other places are not catching up. In terms of what is happening in India and China, first of all--let's start with China. There is a huge level of investment in engineering education in China. Many Chinese institutions at the top tier are now equipped in terms of computing, networking, optical networks, in a way that would be the envy of almost any university in the world--first-rate excellent facilities. Also the number of students is large.

However, I think there are still certain areas in which, in spite of the very commendable progress that top Chinese universities have made, China is still somewhat struggling. One of them is this ability that American researchers have shown to integrate research and education at the graduate level that we've not yet seen in China.

The degree of innovation and the degree of ability to innovate and do original research on a large scale is still not yet a tradition at Chinese universities, in spite of the fact that they provide fantastic facilities and excellent tutoring and education.

And one should remember while the top Chinese universities are most excellent--some of the best in the world--the volume of the system which we keep hearing about also includes many universities that still need to catch up. When we hear about the numbers of individuals graduating in China, a small fraction of them is coming from top excellent universities. A large number comes from universities that have a ways to go to get to what even they would say would be an acceptable standard.

The situation in India is that India has a core set of excellent universities--the [Indian Institutes of Technology] and some universities that are not in the IIT system--that are first-rate. The impression that we get is that at the present time, in spite of the availability of first-rate researchers and teachers, many universities in India are suffering from significant shortages when it comes to instructors.

Many of these universities will be able to reach their full potential only if they can see significant increase in the numbers and level of instructors. This is because of the economic reward system that doesn't make teaching in universities significantly attractive. In many Indian institutions there is a large number of vacancies, and I think this is hampering the otherwise excellent progress that Indian universities have made.

Schaffhauser: Do you believe that the concern about dwindling number of STEM students in this country is overplayed?

Kam: I don't think it's overplayed. The needs of this country for engineers in the end will be satisfied. They may be satisfied by massive importation of engineers. You may have heard the slight foreign accent of my own voice. Maybe individuals were drawn to this country because of the excellence of its graduate education opportunities and then stay to teach or work.

The problem with the dwindling STEM population is real. And we may come to the point where we can't do it all by importing. Simply, we'll need to have the engineering done elsewhere.

It's no question that we see decreasing skill of the incoming population [in universities]--even in terms of algebra. And it's a reflection of what students can do. It reflects on how far we can go with them, and how far we can do more intelligent and deeper and original work with them and how much time we need to spend on remedial work. Not to condemn the whole population. There are still many high schools that provide the students who come here with a very high level of progression. But the trend is not particularly positive.

And in time we may be in a situation where, due to the dearth of individuals we can train to become engineers, we'll simply lose engineering work to other places.

One definite resource that we have not found yet a way to use properly is women. There is no reason at all to believe that women in any way are not fully capable to be engineers.

Whereas in the last 50 years, there was a dramatic change in the fraction of women in schools of law and medicine, the numbers in engineering continue to be in the United States less than 20 percent. Some countries in Europe are as bad as 5 [percent] or 7 percent.

This is clearly a resource that we're missing out on entirely--not because of the fact that women are not ready to go to engineering school. It's because of the fact that many of the women ready to go to engineering school are going to exploit other opportunities. If I were to think about the number one population that we need to see how to improve its affinity to engineering, then this is it.

If today you were given a budget and told to take this budget and put it into the most important activity towards improving the number of young people who will choose engineering as a career path, where would you put the money? I would put it into the education of teachers for the pre-university system.

I think what is condemning us, creating in the United States this very tragic situation where we have large groups of pre-university students who come out of their studies with the sense that engineering is not for them is to a large extent a result of the fact that they do not see role models.

Many of the people who teach STEM in the United States don't have degrees in STEM. If your physics teacher is not a physics major and is very uncomfortable with this--almost afraid to go to the lab--don't expect the students to be inspired.

Of all the factors that work against us in increasing the potential population of engineers in the United States, this is the most dramatic one.

As the head of this school of engineering, how much do you push your students to consider getting into education?

Right now, to be quite honest with you, there's no good path for me to do that. The reason is that it's hard for me to convince my students that that's the best career that they will go to--I can tell them it's maybe the most noble career. But it's hard for me to say with a straight face that the best career or the most rewarding career will be in the high school system as a teacher. This is infrastructure we need to work on at a national level before we can do that.

One thing that we do here [at Drexel] and in IEEE that has shown some fruit--we're trying to get the deans of engineering and deans of education together. It's been the practice of people who are interested in improving the pre-university STEM education to go to deans of engineering and ask them what they've done. It hasn't been the practice to go to deans of education. But the teachers are actually taught at the schools that are governed by the deans of education.

So what IEEE has done in the past, and we probably need to do it again, we created summits. You could only register if you were the dean of education and brought along the dean of engineering or you were dean of engineering and you brought along the dean of education. To our shock and amazement, for the majority of the people in these summits, it was the first time the dean of education and dean of engineering sat together to discuss these matters.

Right now the people who will teach the children of the next generation, who are studying now in the education department, usually have no contact at all with the engineering schools. It's as if it were on another planet. This is what we're trying to change, the first step towards addressing this problem of the dearth of role models of engineers and engineering educators in the pre-university system.

If your teacher has no idea what engineering is or has prejudice, that engineering is not for women--and we see that a lot--if your teacher has trepidation and suspicion toward engineering, it's hardly the case that you'll overcome that and become an engineering enthusiast.

Schaffhauser: Give me some ideas you've seen working anywhere in the world to draw students into the STEM fields.

Kam: We've seen several interesting things well done. First of all there are some projects in this country and in other countries that involve robotic competitions. The robotic competitions certainly have had very positive impact. The reason is evident. Students are interested in playing with these machines. As they start playing with this, the enthusiasm about engineering and engineering design is engulfing them. There is no question that this has been excellent.

The second thing--Virginia Tech comes to mind--is making sure that engineering students understand from the first year the impact of engineering. We have tended to tell engineering students, "Go study mathematics and physics. And come see me in two years and I'll start teaching you engineering."

But in many schools now there is engineering at the beginning. The first-year engineering students are immediately introduced to engineering, immediately introduced to engineering impact, and immediately get a sense that what they're doing is not just some manipulation of equations or manipulations of actuators, but something that can do good by society.

In many cases it's not such a hard work to design these things; it's a matter of putting them in context. Let me give you an example. Everybody believes that physicians are individuals that help society and do benevolent work. But when an engineer works on rural electrification, it's not usually the context that you say, "This engineer is really a great humanitarian because this engineer is improving the lives of hundreds or thousands by bringing electricity to the periphery." This is the case, but we're not telling young people that.

So places that have done that, places that have emphasized and shown the students the impact of engineering on the welfare of society, have been doing very well. And they have been able to draw into engineering populations of women who before wouldn't come and some young men who are also drawn into it. It is very interesting to see those places that have done that have seen a different mix of gender in their classes.

It's also interesting - going back to the issue of women, in terms of engineering departments--there are more women, relatively, in environmental and biomedical engineering, where the students have a sense early on that they make a difference to society.

The more we do of this, the better we will do in the end.

The second part of this two-part interview will appear in Campus Technology online next Tuesday, May 31.

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