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Converging Complexity Challenges Educators to Prepare Tomorrow’s Innovators

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2007
Highly specific skills are needed to succeed in a global market.

Raymond C. Almgren, National Instruments

Although there is much publicity and debate in the US over the outsourcing of engineering jobs to countries that pay lower wages, the problem is the dearth of graduating engineers for those jobs.1 The challenge to US educators remains the same regardless of the debate: preparing tomorrow’s engineers to meet industry demands.

It is not an easy task. Rapidly changing technology and the increasing demands of global interaction and communication make four years of engineering education seem like too little preparation. We could extend the minimum “working” degree to five years, but as long as eager companies continue to hire undergraduate students who meet only the standard four-year requirement, adding that fifth year remains unrealistic.

A recent report from the National Academy of Engineering titled “The Engineer of 2020” outlines the needs of tomorrow’s engineer.2 I believe it also outlines the needs of today’s engineer. The report identifies many attributes, but I believe that an engineer should be:

• Creative and driven to innovate.
• A systems designer.
• A collaborator.
• Willing to embrace cultural diversity.

Indeed, possessing these traits will enable engineering graduates to meet the primary challenges they face — the increasing complexity and the convergence of technology.

Take, for example, the telematics system in today’s luxury automobiles. This device, which a few years ago was just a radio and tape or CD player, now includes global positioning system navigation, a liquid crystal display, voice recognition, satellite radio, AM/FM radio, interfaces to mobile computing devices and mobile phones (typically via Bluetooth), a DVD player and remote diagnostics. No single engineer can understand all of the technologies and components in a device such as this, but the successful engineer must at least understand them at a system design level. This requires a “T-shaped engineer,” one who is deeply technical in at least one area and who has broad exposure to and awareness of several other relevant areas. It also implies a thirst for knowledge and a desire to apply that knowledge to innovation.

The technical complexities of today’s designs also require that engineers collaborate; they must recognize that creating truly innovative products and technology requires the knowledge of many. To the extent that vast amounts of information can be leveraged (thank you, Google) — and of the knowledge of those in technical organizations — an engineer will be more likely to become a leading member of an organization.

Shortly behind the need to handle the converging complexity of today’s world is the need to work cooperatively with team members around the world. My company’s products are designed at locations including Austin, Texas, and Shanghai, China, and are manufactured in Debrecen, Hungary. Although communications technology makes it easy to share information, today’s engineer must embrace the values and cultures of co-workers across the globe to be effective.

Trends in education

Many engineering educators are meeting the challenge of preparing students for careers in only four years. Most embrace the trends in engineering education that are not only better preparing the students, but also inspiring more of them to stay in the program.

Some key trends that are proving successful in engineering education today are:

• Integrating theory courses more closely with hands-on learning.
• Offering collaborative, project-based learning activities.
• Offering design challenges and undergraduate research as early as possible.
• Exposing students to the risks, challenges and uncertainty that stimulate true creativity and innovation.

These expectations may seem unreasonable, but the tools available for project-based learning help make this type of instruction possible and rewarding for students. Embracing today’s need to nurture tomorrow’s systems designers leads educators to use problem-solving tools that mimic real challenges faced by the industry.

A great example is the three-month development of a human transporter (inspired by the Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing transportation device) by a team of undergraduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.3 The group simulated the device with software, developed a small-scale prototype and built the full-size vehicle, all in a single semester. They used the graphical software tool LabView to design, prototype and deploy it.

Although some might argue that students should focus more on low-level component design, I believe that the system design demands of the human transporter project better represent the technical and nontechnical challenges facing today’s practicing engineers. Through their hands-on project, the students learned skills that allow them to be much more competitive in the global market.

System design, however, doesn’t occur only at engineering schools. Advances in technology have made it possible for children as young as 8 years old to design and program robotic systems. (By the way, these 8-year-olds are going to become engineers in 2020.) The Lego Mindstorms NXT program, for example, illustrates how technology can inspire children, while teaching core engineering principles of design and creativity. As with the human transporter system, Lego also uses LabView technology to empower children to program and control robots to perform sophisticated operations.

The challenges facing engineering educators and their students are indeed complex, but the rewards for earning the degrees and putting the skills to use are great. If we embrace the need to create innovative engineers by exposing them to cutting-edge technology and by challenging them to become creative designers and leaders, it will ensure a bright future for them and for us.

Meet the author

Raymond C. Almgren is vice president of product marketing and academic relations at National Instruments in Austin, Texas; e-mail:


1. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2006). Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. The National Academies Press, prepublication document.

2. The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century (2004). National Academy of Engineering. The National Academies Press.

3. K. Craig and M. Rosmarin. “Two Wheeled Balancing Transport Platform.” Online white paper.

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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