As teenagers in India, my friends and I developed our opinions of America by corresponding with pen pals in the United States. We were convinced that America led the world in science and engineering because our pen pals worked on their fathers’ cars. They also built radio-controlled airplanes and seemed to endlessly tinker with every technology available to them. My father, who earned his Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, bolstered this belief, describing his three years working in bridge design and construction prior to returning to India.
I arrived in the U.S. in 1978 with $20 in my pocket, a high school diploma and an eagerness for the “hands-on” opportunities ahead. I wanted to see the wonders of engineering such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building. My goal was to work as an engineer in an informal atmosphere that nourished innovation and autonomous thinking. I wanted to experience the American system of promoting innovation.
To meet the challenges of today’s changing world, I believe it is appropriate to consider the advantages of those tinkering days, when engineering was a vocation that seemed uniquely suited to Americans. The U.S. achieved great things through its mid-century engineering and technology education, and the critical infrastructure challenges we face now suggest we could learn from those days.
The infrastructure my father admired in the 1950s needs to be re-built. However, this time around we face immense sustainability challenges given the global growth that has occurred over the past 60 years. The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and the technology and engineering challenges ahead are legion. How do we deal with the increasing strain that population and economic growth is placing on our dwindling natural resources? Can we expect to meet the needs of society by solely relying on replicating and extending existing technologies?
Evidence of the strain that society is placing on our resources is readily apparent: rising prices for copper, steel and other critical materials; the dramatic reduction in output of the Pemex Canatrell oil field in Mexico, one of the largest in the world; and limitations in city-scale waste disposal.
It is clear that we must develop new models and infrastructures that meet our needs with less impact on natural resources. And I believe that the time has come to return to the “old-school engineering” my friends and I admired in our youth, but this time integrating information technology to address the new and vexing sustainability challenges.
In order to address our global sustainability challenges, we must train students in the U.S. to recover that “hands-on” skill. Five years ago, when my eldest son was signing up for elective courses in high school, I asked him to take woodworking and metal working, as I believe the problem-solving skills are useful in future endeavors.
Unfortunately, I cannot advise my younger son to do the same today since these “hands-on” classes are no longer offered. Similarly, in the junior colleges the vocational classes such as machine technology are slowly ebbing away.
I believe we must rebuild the vocational skills to instantiate the “smart and sustainable” infrastructure. Furthermore, while we are developing technologies, we lack the multi-disciplinary workforce needed to leverage those new technologies. For example, do we have the workforce necessary to gather insights based on data collected from thousands of sensors embedded in infrastructure – a vision for our future? Engineers with multi-disciplinary skills, a combination of mechanical engineering and computer science as an example, are required to develop the automation that enables us to gather meaningful insight from billions of points of data and develop a course of action.
This September President Obama launched “Change the Equation,” a partnership with members of the business community to seek new ways to keep American students competitive in a technology-centered future. And companies like HP are making substantial investments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. However, more needs to be done.
The work ahead of us to develop the next, improved wave of science and engineering cannot be fulfilled by importing talent from overseas. Instead, our informal, “no barrier” culture and our “hands-on” attitude of the past can be our future, by allowing students to tinker from early on in life, while promoting physical, energy and information technologies. This new wave of American tinkerers will scale their ideas globally using social networking tools unlike my American friends in the 70s who had to write to me by snail mail.
Chandrakant Patel is an HP Senior Fellow and director of the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Laboratory at HP Labs and holds more than 100 U.S. patents. Patel shares more about his insights into innovation here.