Sunday, August 20, 2006

sexing up science

Western educators and industrialists team up to boost engineering's appeal.

By Mac Margolis and Karla Bruning

Newsweek International

Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - With his unkempt hair, halogen smile and soft spot for Tamil poetry, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is not your ordinary national figurehead. The diminutive 74-year-old Indian president seems more like a self-help guru than India's leading technocrat. Though his job in this parliamentary nation is largely ceremonial, Kalam, a newspaper boy turned aeronautical engineer who stewarded India's guided-missile program, has made it his mission to raise his country to glory through scientific scholarship. He travels from school to school, exhorting students to hit the books and excel at science. If they do, he promises, India will be a fully developed nation by 2020. His mantra: "Dream, dream, dream."

By all indications, the budding scientists of India—and elsewhere in the developing world—have taken that advice to heart. Enrollment is soaring at engineering and technical schools throughout Asia. India claims to produce more than 300,000 engineers a year—three times the number in the United States. By some estimates, China turns out twice as many engineers as India, while South Korea produces nearly as many engineers as the United States with one sixth the population. Skeptics say the numbers are exaggerated. But even discounting for official hype and inconsistent academic standards, it's hard to miss the new geography. Legions of engineers from Asia's emerging-market nations are vying for—and winning—contracts, customers and patents in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. According to a recent report by Booz Allen Hamilton and Nasscom, India's IT-industry trade group, the offshore engineering industry is expected to surge from between $10 billion and $15 billion today to between $150 billion and $225 billion in 2020. India alone is poised to grab a quarter of the market.

And that's exactly why educators in the wealthiest countries are losing sleep. True, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany—the three engineering titans—still lead the way in technological innovation. A recent study by Duke University showed that while developing countries often inflate the numbers of science scholars, the United States still employs nearly a third of the world's science and engineering researchers, publishes 35 percent of science and engineering articles and generates 40 percent of research and development spending. But in middle and high schools, where the spark of scientific curiosity begins, the majority of students can't be bothered to take advanced math or physics. Enrollment in university engineering programs is stagnating; the dropout rate for graduate engineering students is a whopping 45 percent. "We have a choice: do we want Britain to become a theme park or a hub of business activity?" James Dyson, the British inventor cum entrepreneur, wrote recently in The Sunday Times. "We are on course to shuffle into a sort of residential home for retired great powers."

Now Western educators are shifting their focus from what went wrong with engineering to how to fix it. They are most troubled not by the shortfall of new scientists but by their plummeting caliber of scholarship. Even those who make it through engineering school are not always well prepared; the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis says it often has to retrain science graduates in the company laboratory.

Some institutions are trying to present students with more real-world challenges early on. In planning its curriculum, Dyson's new School of Design Innovation—scheduled to open in Bath, England, in 2008—has teamed up with companies like Rolls-Royce and Airbus to work practical design and innovation problems into the coursework. Other schools are drafting students into community service. Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering dispatched one group of undergraduates to Indonesia to help shrimp fishermen devastated by the 2004 tsunami by building a manually operated aerator for hatchery ponds. Duke junior Lee Pearson spent a month in Uganda for a clean-water project, using a clothes iron to seal water samples and building an incubator out of cardboard and Styrofoam.

Being in the field "teaches you to be flexible and ruthlessly creative," says Pearson. Indeed, Richard K. Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which graduated its first class in May, says it's crucial to get students to think "outside the box" and work in teams. "Our future doesn't depend on producing more engineers than China. [We] need more innovators," he says. "Engineering is about invention." A number of Olin graduates have parlayed classroom projects into award-winning business plans. One student, in partnership with his grandfather, launched an inter-national company that designs, manufactures and sells supportive seating for meditation.

At younger levels, industries are going out of their way to make engineering—and its components, math and science—more appealing. The Society for Women Engineers recently launched "Wow! That's Engineering?" a high-tech hands-on program that invites middle-school students to play games with gravity, motion and sound. The campaign is aimed especially at young girls, who traditionally have been conditioned to think of math and science as guy stuff—one of the reasons, perhaps, that only 11 percent of working engineers in the United States are women. Another program, "FMA Live! Where Science Rocks," sponsored by Honeywell Hometown Solutions and NASA, sends troupes of hip-hop artists and other professional entertainers into U.S. high schools and colleges across the United States to stage "interactive" skits and demonstrations of basic physics. (FMA stands for Isaac Newton's second law of motion: force equals mass times acceleration.) One routine launches a hapless school administrator across a stage in a futuristic hover chair to collide with a giant cream pie—all in the name of showing the laws of action and reaction. Is it education or show business? "Our culture has changed profoundly," says Tom Buckmaster, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions. "We have to think of students as you would potential customers, and discover what turns them on."

Behind the hocus-pocus is the conviction that engineering has long had a bad rap. "The misperception of science and engineering jobs as geeky, dirty and dull puts off young people from a bright, exciting and profitable future," says Dyson. That's a stark contrast to the developing world, where science and technology are considered the keys to progress. "When I go to Seoul or Hong Kong, I see signs everywhere for nanotechnology, biotech labs and IT firms," says Florence Hudson, a space engineer and vice president of marketing for IBM. "The developing world's students are hungry for technology. We are not."

Whatever helps break down that resistance, say the experts, is worth trying. "It's an incredibly sexy time to be an engineer," says Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. "Think of the problems science has to solve, like global warming, public transportation, communicable diseases. Yet we still do not have a cadre of professionals prepared to solve them." Engineering's toughest challenge may be to reinvent itself—and the work has just begun.

With William Underhill in London, Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and Corinna Emundts in Berlin

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.