Engineering Education: The Key to Creating the Next Generation of Extraordinary Impacts

Engineering Education: The Key to Creating the Next Generation of Extraordinary Impacts

Hello. I’m Gary May, Chancellor of the University of California, Davis.

I’m honored to share this message with you on “Engineering Education – The Key to Creating the Next Generation of Extraordinary Impacts.”

First, I’d like to thank the National Academy of Engineering for hosting this symposium. I’d also like to thank the National Science Foundation for their longstanding commitment to advancing engineering education and research.

Let me begin with a little background about my own career in engineering and academia.

Flash back to my childhood in St. Louis and my early love of Lego and Erector sets. I didn’t know it at the time, but those were the first building blocks of my career. They sparked the engineer in me.

Later, when I discovered the futuristic world of Star Trek and the amazing powers of comic book superheroes, my imagination went into overdrive.

Fun fact: I’ve got about 13,000 comic books in my collection. And I still get to share my vast knowledge about superheroes as a regular guest speaker in a first-year engineering class at UC Davis called "Materials Marvels: The Science of Superheroes."

The course explores the scientific credibility of superhero powers and gadgets, such as Ironman’s repulsor beam or Black Panther’s vibranium suit.

These types of things — things that excite the imagination — are so important to innovation, and I would argue, to engineering education as well. Of course, aptitude in math and science, along with the basic fundamentals of engineering are a necessary foundation. But imagination and inspiration are crucial for creating the next generation of extraordinary discoveries.

My childhood fascination with Legos, Star Trek and superheroes ultimately led to a research career focused on semiconductor processes and computer-aided manufacturing of integrated circuits.

I received my bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and both my master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. I spent 26 years at Georgia Tech, and I served as dean of the College of Engineering from 2011 to 2017, before becoming Chancellor at UC Davis.

The National Science Foundation supported my efforts all along the way. In the early days of my education, I was a National Science Foundation graduate fellow. Then, from 1993 to 1998, I was a National Young Investigator.

NSF funded a number of research projects I was involved with related to computer-integrated manufacturing techniques and medical diagnostics. These included Instrumentation for Hybrid-Integrated Components for the Information Highway and a Real-Time Diagnostic and Prognostic System for Plasma Etching.

In addition, NSF provided significant support that helped us make Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering the largest and most diverse school of its kind in the nation. That included support for summer programs and scholarships for students from historically underserved backgrounds.

One of these programs was the Transfer Initiative for Engineering Scholars. The program provided $10,000 scholarships to undergraduate students transferring to Georgia Tech from community colleges, and also provided faculty and peer mentoring, access to specialized designated teaching assistants and exposure to research laboratories and undergraduate research opportunities.

During my 30+ year career at Georgia Tech, I created two programs aimed at increasing diversity in STEM. The first was the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science — otherwise known as the SURE program.

With the help of $3 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, we hosted underrepresented students at Georgia Tech to perform research. Ultimately, our goal was to see them pursue a graduate degree. And that’s exactly what happened. During that time, we saw over 73% of SURE students enroll in graduate school.

Success in that program helped me win a much larger NSF grant to increase the number of African American doctoral students at Georgia Tech and launch their careers in academia — so that they, too, could become role models who could attract and retain minority students in STEM. This program was called Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science — or FACES.

I’m very proud of that particular program because it was responsible in part for Georgia Tech — over the 15 years of the program — producing 433 minority PhD’s in science and engineering, which was the most in the U.S. over that time period.

I’m extremely grateful for the NSF support I’ve received over the years. Beyond the personal benefits I received as a graduate student and faculty member, NSF funding allowed me to pay it forward and help others — by creating opportunities for women and minorities to succeed in STEM.

This kind of support is making a difference at institutions across the nation. At UC Davis, we have two programs that are helping to increase faculty diversity. They were created with the help of an NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant.

One of those programs is our Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science, or CAMPOS. Since 2012, we’ve successfully recruited 30 CAMPOS faculty scholars who are engaged in promoting diversity in STEM through their research, teaching or service to the university.

The center is focused on expanding the ranks of women and underrepresented faculty. So, we’re creating opportunity in our faculty ranks. This also has a ripple effect because these scholars serve as role models and mentors to others in our campus community.

We know that the proportion of underrepresented populations remains abysmally low in STEM. It’s been an intractable problem in our profession and I’ve spent much of my career working to change that.

I understood early on the value of higher education. It was a core value in the May family. And it still is.

That’s thanks to my mother, who was something of a pioneer. She was among the first students to integrate the University of Missouri during the era of Jim Crow in the 1950s. Needless to say, my Mom endured a lot in her pursuit of higher education.

During my undergraduate years at Georgia Tech, I was often the only Black student in lecture halls and laboratories. The same was true when I went to graduate school.

In fact, when I got my Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1991, I was one of only about 30 African Americans to earn a doctorate in engineering that year. I’m talking 30 in the entire United States!

So, I was motivated to make a difference, to diversify engineering. I think we can do better. And we must do better.

Because diversifying the field is imperative if we want to build on engineering’s legacy of extraordinary impacts.

The world needs engineers, innovators and leaders to address some of our greatest challenges, most of which are global in nature. The environment and global warming. Clean energy. Food production. Healthcare. Infrastructure and security.

Many of these are among the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand challenges. Engineers are focused on solving all of these problems, and many more.

Engineers are also imagining the future, whether it’s flying taxis, homes that don’t burn when a wildfire roars through, or personalized medical treatments that take into account an individual’s unique genomic fingerprint, lifestyle and environment.   

In this sense, engineering has a direct impact on all of society. Let me say that again: What engineers do affects everyone.

So, a well-rounded engineering education pays many dividends.

As an engineer and higher education leader, I’m encouraged by how engineering education continues to evolve. We still teach the fundamental science and engineering principles that are needed to design, build, test and apply systems. That hasn’t changed.

But we’re doing more to empower students to be agents of their own success, to shape their careers and destinies. We’re preparing students to thrive in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.

More importantly, we’re inspiring and empowering students to do some good in the world and to create their own extraordinary impact on society. Let me mention a few areas that are key to this transformation.

The first one I’ve already mentioned, and that’s diversity. I mentioned the NAE’s 14 Grand Challenges. I would add a 15th challenge. That's to enhance diversity. Here’s why:

Diversity leads to better outcomes. It’s at the root of innovation and technological advancement. The greater diversity we have in university research, the more likely we are to make discoveries and solve problems. A wide mix of backgrounds, experiences and ideas helps make this happen.

We’ve seen some negative results that are due to lack of diversity. The first airbags in the auto industry almost killed women passengers when they were deployed in accidents, because they were tested on crash-test dummies that had male anatomies.

The same was true for early speech recognition systems. If you remember, the early Speak N Spell machines didn’t recognize women’s voices.

Fast forward to today. The pulse oximeters used to monitor oxygen levels for Covid-19 patients don’t work as well on people with darker skin.

We’re finding that some Artificial Intelligence programs used for facial recognition have racial and gender biases.

One researcher, an African-American woman, tested various facial recognition systems while wearing a white mask to hide her features.  She found the systems worked better on men’s faces compared to women.  She also found they worked better on lighter-toned faces.  In fact, she recorded error rates up to 47% for darker skinned women like herself.

By the way, that researcher was Joy Buolamwini, one of my former students at Georgia Tech.

Another study from Georgia Tech found that people of color are more likely to get hit by a driverless car.  Driverless cars as well may better detect pedestrians with lighter skin than those of us with darker skin.

These are just a few quick examples, but they make a clear point. Diversity, as a practical matter, leads to better outcomes. If there were diverse engineers on those design teams, they may not have overlooked those particular design flaws.

We don’t just need the next generation of engineers to solve the world’s greatest problems, we need the next generation of diverse engineers.

Second, we’re providing engineering students with more hands-on experience.

When I was an undergraduate, we learned a lot about how to do things, but not a lot about why. For example, we learned how to solve a partial differential equation, with certain boundary conditions. But we didn’t know why we might need to know that.

To use a baseball analogy … it’s like we were taught how to throw, run, catch and hit the ball. But we never played a game.

Today, engineering programs provide internships and other experiential programs, as well as a much more sophisticated infrastructure for learning, building and testing.

At UC Davis, our College of Engineering is creating an innovation ecosystem, with numerous design clinics and programs to encourage student innovation and support multidisciplinary teams working on real world projects.

The Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center — named after a UC Davis alumna — provides a space to serve real clients through leading-edge prototyping, manufacturing and fabrication techniques. This unique environment creates a diverse and inclusive pipeline for engineers at all levels.

A Student Startup Center assists students who are interested in all stages of the entrepreneurial process. We’re also building Aggie Square, a live-learn-work-play environment, where we envision students, faculty, businesses and community members working side by side.

Third, interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial if we want engineers to solve complex problems. When engineering teams up with other disciplines, we can have greater impact. I’ll give you a couple of examples from UC Davis.

Mechanical engineers were part of a UC Davis team that created smart prosthetics and a novel amputation surgical procedure that helps patients better control their residual muscles, receive sensory feedback and reduce limb pain. The team also included specialized surgeons, neuroscientists, orthotists and prosthetists.

Here's another example: one of my colleagues in the National Academy of Engineering teamed up with a medical physicist to create the world’s first full-body PET scanner. Simon Cherry, a professor of bioengineering, and Ramsey Badawi developed the scanner, which can complete a full body scan in just 20 or 30 seconds. That’s 40 times faster than previous imaging technologies.

This new scanner can take pictures of organs and tissue with striking clarity. It can also pinpoint the spread of disease or drugs moving through the bloodstream. Their research will improve the screening, detection and diagnosis of life-threatening diseases.

I’d like to conclude with a word about inspiration.

Remember I mentioned Lego? Those toys offered more than just childhood fun. They offered inspiration. I imagined things I might build. And when I ran into unexpected problems, I reimagined how to address them.

As engineers, we solve problems. We like to create new things. We like to imagine what’s possible.

We share the aspiration of building something that will outlast us. Buildings, bridges, and dams might immediately come to mind to the civil engineers among us. But I’m referring to something much more transformational. I’m talking about accelerating and advancing the innovations that make the world better for everyone.

Inspiration is the fuel that can help students transform learning and theory into innovation and extraordinary impact.

Engineering programs present so many exciting possibilities. It’s not just about earning a degree, establishing a career or creating the newest, coolest gadget. It’s about making the world a better place.

When students are equipped with the knowledge of fundamental engineering principles … with real-world experience … with skills to succeed in an increasingly diverse and collaborative workforce … and with a mindset toward making the world better …

Then we have truly empowered them — like superheroes — to take on the world … to be extraordinary … and to put their education to use in extraordinary ways.

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