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It has been said that the difference between a good engineer and a great engineer is that the good engineer knows how to engineer something well, and the great engineer knows why that something is important.
Yet, with still only a few exceptions, U.S. engineering education still seems to emphasize the good over the great.
“If we build it they will come” remains the dominant message conveyed to engineering students; and it is taken part and parcel into workforce practice. It is accompanied, at best, by an acknowledgment that business administration, finance, marketing and public relations are necessary evils for an engineering success. But even then, oversight of these adjunct functions are frequently assigned to engineers who have demonstrated that they are good engineers but who also possess, as if by divine providence or genetic inheritance, natural leadership skills. Non-engineer coworkers – those holding MBAs or finance degrees, not to mention those with communication backgrounds – seldom successfully compete for these positions within engineering companies, large and small alike.
But for aerospace and all of the rest of the engineering profession living in evolutionary – rather than revolutionary – times, it is time to be great. Of course, great (and good) engineers are intelligent enough to master just about anything, given enough time. But today’s engineers don’t have the time. And most engineers have not been practicing business administration, finance, communication, and law, even if they have one of those degrees, as long or actively as engineering.
Yet our engineering culture runs deep with roots that continue to keep engineering education and practice anchored in the same old place.
Take for example the experience of a recently appointed president of a major public university who, upon taking office, announced his plan to revamp the entire freshman curriculum. With great conviction, he proposed that every incoming freshman, no matter the major, would be required to take a set of classes that would equip each with a broad-based foundational springboard from which to frame and employ specialized expertise within society’s larger context.
The howls were immediate. They came not from the state legislature, not from the regents, not from the students nor the industries that hire them. They came from the university’s engineering dean, who argued passionately that to impose such a program upon the incoming freshman within his top-ten-ranked college would quickly lead to disaster.
He predicted that, because the engineering college attracts the best and the brightest students who already know what they want to become and are coming to campus to do just that and nothing more, those students would go to a competing institution that imposes no such requirements.
“After all, an undergraduate engineering degree already takes five years to complete, at the every least, “ the dean asserted and went on to predict a cascade of calamitous results – losing or not being able to attract new top-rate faculty, which would lead to fewer research dollars and other forms of intellectual notoriety. The final blow would be a catastrophic decline in major donations.
The president himself had been the dean of another powerful college on the same campus. So he knew what he was facing. In the end, however, a faint shadow of his full vision was implemented. The status quo had been preserved; and the engineering dean remained one of the most influential people on campus.
This institutionally reinforced myopia has proven equally resilient in the engineering workforce. An example of this is common within today’s NASA. Over the past 20 years and perhaps more, NASA’s annual survey of Americans’ opinions about the space program has fed its perennial inability to understand why the average American’s support for the space program is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” In the U.S. aerospace community, “if we build it, they will come” is particularly entrenched by the very deep personal meaning that many NASA employees and contractors derive from being connected – even if indirectly – with the same historic campaign that first put humanity on a celestial body other than Earth.
It is completely understandable that the trailblazing legacy of NASA’s rockets and astronauts and rocket scientists so totally captured the minds and hearts of many people during and since the “Space Race,” as it was called.
But what is not understandable to many space enthusiasts is why the whole world does not feel the same way they do about the importance of having a robust space program. They do not understand how others are not as fully persuaded as they are by reasons like “knowledge,” “discovery,” ….etc. They try earnestly to connect. But how they try to connect reflects why they don’t connect. That there may be reasons other than their own to connect – or reasons not to connect – is beyond their comprehension.
In other words, they just don’t fully know why what they have is important.
In Part 5: Know What You Have