Symposium Introduction and Keynote Presentations
On August 18–19, 2022, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) held a symposium to explore how support of fundamental engineering and engineering education research by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has led to positive societal and economic impacts. The symposium—which was sponsored by the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering—was held to provide input to the NAE’s Committee on Extraordinary Engineering Impacts on Society as part of a larger effort to develop clear, compelling narratives for the public about the sources and effects of engineering innovations. Speakers at the symposium shared their personal stories and provided insights on how engineers influence not only technology and the national infrastructure but the economy, population health, manufacturing, disaster resilience, and many other aspects of daily life. The result was “thoughtful, insightful, provocative ideas” and “lots of opportunity to be inspired,” said Dan Arvizu, chair of the committee and chancellor and chief executive of the New Mexico State University System.
John L. Anderson, NAE president, offered opening remarks at the symposium. The intent of the event, he said, was threefold:
- Promote better public understanding of the vital role of engineering in government, business, and society.
- Highlight the creative nature of engineering.
- Inspire young people from all segments of society to consider pursuing a career in engineering.
“What is engineering?” Anderson asked. Adapting a definition proposed by aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán, he said “engineers
create what never was.” Engineer is both a noun and a verb, he said, with the verb implying both creation and action, sometimes without complete scientific understanding. Engineering is the connector between science and technology, “and the greatest results come from synergies between engineering and science, because each one informs the other.”
The NAE and other organizations have previously released lists of prominent engineering accomplishments, Anderson noted. In 2003 the NAE announced the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century as determined by a poll among technologists and engineers (Box 1-1). In 2008 it announced a list of 14 global grand challenges for engineering (Box 1-2), many of which touch on the two major global challenges of our time, climate change and pandemics. “These engineering achieve-
ments underline the importance of engineering to society, and they were made possible from funding by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies,” Anderson said. “The return on investment by government support in terms of improving health, security, and the standard of living in our society is obvious.”
In their prepared remarks and answers to questions, speakers at the symposium identified a number of engineering achievements made possible through NSF support—some of which they were personally responsible for—including:
- the optoelectrical system technology that underlies 3D films and rear projection systems for televisions (Kristina Johnson, chapter 1)
- computer-aided integrated circuit manufacturing (Gary May, chapter 1)
- 3D printing (Pramod Khargonekar, chapter 3)
- understanding of the structure and properties of carbon compounds (Maia Weinstock, speaking on the work of Mildred Dresselhaus, chapter 3)
- large-scale earthquake shake tables to test structures (Albert Pisano, chapter 3)
- novel bioreactors to support cell cultivation (Gilda Barabino, chapter 3)
- carbon nanotubes and their application as thermal interface materials (Baratunde Cola, chapter 3)
- the development and expansion of the internet (Susan Estrada, chapter 3)
- polyelectrolyte nanoparticles as drug delivery mechanisms (Paula Hammond, chapter 3)
- technologies underlying high-definition television, cellphones, and web-based video conferencing (Sarah Rajala, chapter 3)
- Doppler radar (Kon-Well Wang, chapter 4)
- a biomimetic microelectronic system to restore vision to the blind (Mark Humayun, chapter 4)
- nano-reinforced polymer composites (Karen Lozano, chapter 4)
- performance-based earthquake engineering frameworks (Gregory Deierlein, chapter 4)
- subsurface sensing and imaging system tools to probe the hidden areas of unexplored regions (Michael Silevitch, chapter 4)
- self-powered wearable devices to monitor health (Veena Misra, chapter 4)
- trustworthy information systems for cyber infrastructure and security (Shankar Sastry, chapter 4)
- reduced uncertainty from computer models (Andre Marshall, chapter 5)
- user interfaces for assistive robotic manipulators (Rory Cooper, chapter 5)
- gel casting process using nanoparticles to enable the production of micro devices (Harriet Nembhard, chapter 5)
- open-source software for database-driven commerce (Alice Agogino, chapter 5)
- a test to detect graft-versus-host disease (Arlyne Simon, chapter 5).
These and the many other achievements that have resulted from NSF funding exemplify the many ways in which the agency has fulfilled the missions given to it when it was created by Congress in 1950: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.”
But many speakers also pointed out that the benefits of NSF support go well beyond the development of new technologies. NSF supports not just tools and infrastructure but people. Funding supports research in engineering education and provides life-changing opportunities for students and educators, particularly for those from groups that have historically been underrepresented in the engineering profession. It stimulates students to dream, to create, to take risks, and to excel. The stories of people engaged in engineering inspire, motivate, and connect. As Anderson said, people propel the achievements of engineering, “and their stories are as important as the achievements themselves.” Accounts of engineering achievement and impact “inspire all of us, especially young persons who have embarked on a career in engineering or are thinking about joining the engineering profession.”
With these principles in mind, the symposium was organized into four sessions:
- NSF processes that fostered extraordinary engineering impacts on society (chapter 5).
Keynote addresses by two highly accomplished and respected engineers, which kicked off the second day of the symposium, highlighted many of its themes.
CREATING THE POTENTIAL FOR IMPACT
Inspired by her father and grandfather, who were both electrical engineers with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Kristina Johnson, president of The Ohio State University, began to do science and engineering projects in high school. She was particularly fascinated by holograms, in which not just the intensity but the phase of light is recorded. One of her major projects was a double-exposure experiment in which one photograph is compared with another after an object has moved, with the resulting interference pattern revealing the speed of the movement. The project earned her first place in a state science fair and second place in an international science fair. “That was my first lesson into how to build confidence,” she said: “Do something that’s hard.”
When she entered Stanford University in the fall of 1975, she took a glass plate from her holography experiment to show Professor Joseph Goodman, but as she was handing him the plate she dropped it and it shattered. Nevertheless, Goodman was impressed by her enthusiasm that he arranged for her to work in his lab from her first year all the way through her PhD. At the time, the science and engineering faculty was dominated by males, Johnson recalled. “In eight years, I had only two women professors,” Johnston said. “I didn’t know that I could be a professor because I didn’t see it.”
At Stanford in the 1970s and early 1980s, she worked on lasers and nonlinear optics with several professors who inspired her to become an academic herself, and led to her first job as an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. There she began working with her students and professor Noel Clark on color polarizers that can produce very sharply defined beams of colored light, which they combined with liquid crystals to create a fast-switching color shutter. At the time, projectors operated using three bulky cathode ray tubes, and the new technology Johnson helped develop offered a much more compact alternative.
About this time, NSF began to establish engineering research centers in response to President Ronald Reagan’s call for cross-disciplinary
research focused on big problems that impact society and for the United States to regain its expertise in manufacturing. At the University of Colorado, Johnson co-wrote a grant application for a center in optoelectronic computing systems, and the resulting center was instrumental in developing very compact projection displays that could be held in the hand. “This was a sea change,” she said, “because prior to that, research funded usually one professor and a few graduate students at a time. This was very different.” Combined with a new beam-splitting technology, the displays “took over the industry. In fact, in the early 2000s, if you went to Best Buy or Circuit City and bought a projector, this technology was in it.”
Johnson and her colleagues developed several other important technologies, including a way to distinguish cancerous from noncancerous cells as they flowed past a detector and a 3D glasses technology that jumpstarted the 3D movie industry. But one of her proudest moments, she said, was following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which an oil rig exploded and oil began to pour into the Gulf of Mexico. Two days after the disaster, she was at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education event with President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House, and when she met him (“I was a little nervous, I have to say”), she blurted out, “We’re doing everything we can about the oil spill.” “Thanks,” President Obama responded. “That taught me something,” said Johnson. “I knew what he was saying is, ‘I really need to tell the American people something, can you help me?” That night she woke up at 3:00 in the morning and remembered a paper she had written on particle image velocimetry, drawing in part on the experiment she had done in high school. “It’s a double-exposure experiment, using holographic interference—if you have particles in water and you take two exposures, by the interference pattern you can tell how fast the water is flowing.” Using this approach, she and her colleagues were able to measure how much oil was coming out of the well. The next week, the president announced that 20,000 barrels of oil were coming out of the well daily, which was the first concrete measure of the ongoing disaster. “You never know when you can make an impact from something you’ve learned if you’re motivated,” Johnson concluded. “And I was very motivated after talking to the president.”
The week before the symposium, NSF announced the formation of a new engineering research center at The Ohio State University, in association with four other universities, called Hybrid Autonomous Manufacturing, Moving from Evolution to Revolution (HAMMER). The center
is expected to generate multiple spinoff companies, just as the center at the University of Colorado Boulder did, Johnson said.
Johnson urged that students get involved in solving real-world problems early in their educational pathway, not just as a capstone class. She also recommended that every student, no matter their discipline, become familiar with machine learning. When she was an undergraduate, semiconductor chips contained perhaps a thousand transistors, whereas by 2030 there will be as many transistors on a chip as there are neurons in the human brain. When scientists and engineers figure out how to interconnect the parts of a computer chip in the same way that neurons are interconnected, the consequences will be “unbelievable.”
“If you want to be an engineer, be it,” she said. “It’s not an easy discipline, but it’s so rewarding.”
EMPOWERING ENGINEERING SUPERHEROES
Legos and Erector Sets were “the first building blocks of my engineering career,” said Gary May, chancellor of the University of California, Davis, in the second keynote address of the symposium. Later, when he discovered Star Trek and 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 the first-year engineering class at UC Davis called Material Marvels: The Science of Superheroes. The course explores the scientific credibility of superpowers and gadgets, such as Iron Man’s repulsor rays or the Black Panther’s vibranium suit. These types of things excite the imagination, and are so important to innovation, and I would argue to engineering education as well.
The proportion of underrepresented populations in STEM remains “abysmally low,” May said. “It’s been an intractable problem in our profession, and I’ve spent much of my career working to change that.” During his undergraduate years at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he was often the only Black student in lecture halls and laboratories, and the same was true when he went to graduate school. “In fact, when I got my PhD 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!” Engineering can and must do better, he said. “Diversifying the field is imperative if we want to build an engineering legacy of extraordinary impact.”
With support from NSF, May’s engineering research in graduate school and during his 26 years as a professor at Georgia Tech focused on semiconductor processing and the computer-aided manufacturing of integrated circuits. This NSF funding helped make Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering the largest and most diverse school of its kind in the nation, said May. Support for summer programs and fellowships for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds helped broaden the backgrounds of the people drawn to engineering and prepared them for achievement. For example, the Transfer Initiative for Engineering Scholars program provided scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to undergraduate students who transferred to Georgia Tech from community colleges while also providing faculty and peer mentoring, access to specially designated teaching assistants, and exposure to research laboratories and undergraduate research opportunities.
During his years at Georgia Tech, May, with the help of $3 million in grants from NSF, helped to create a summer undergraduate research program designed to enable underrepresented students to pursue a graduate degree. “That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “During that time, we saw nearly 75 percent of our students enrolled in graduate school.” That success helped him win a much larger NSF grant to increase the number of African American doctoral students at that university and launch their careers in academia so that they could become role models who could attract and retain minority students in STEM. The Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science program helped produce 433 minority PhDs in science and engineering, which was the most in the United States over that time period. Similarly, at the University of California, Davis, programs to increase faculty diversity, created with the help of an NSF ADVANCE institutional transformation award, have expand the ranks of women and underrepresented faculty, which “has a ripple effect, because these scholars serve as role models and mentors to others in our campus community.”
Changes in how engineering is taught can make a big difference in attracting and retaining engineering students. “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, to thrive in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.” Providing engineering students with hands-on and real-world experiences shows them not only
how to do things but why. Internships and other experiential programs, as well as more sophisticated infrastructure for learning, building, and testing, can produce diverse and inclusive pipelines for engineers at all levels. Experience with interdisciplinary collaboration helps engineers solve complex problems and have greater impact.
To the 14 Grand Challenges identified by the NAE, May would add a 15th: to enhance diversity. “The greater diversity we have in research, the more likely we are to make discoveries and solve problems. A wide mix of backgrounds, experiences, and ideas helps make this happen.” In contrast, a lack of diversity can stymie progress and create problems. The first airbags in the auto industry almost killed women passengers when they deployed because they were tested on crash test dummies that had male anatomies. Early speech systems did not recognize women’s voices as well as men’s. The pulse oximeter used to monitor oxygen levels for COVID-19 patients does not work as well on people with darker skin. Artificial intelligence programs used for facial recognition have racial and gender biases. Driverless cars can detect pedestrians with lighter skin better than those 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 more diverse engineers on those design teams, they may not have overlooked those particular design flaws.”
In concluding, May described the theme at the center of the symposium. “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.… 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 a 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.”