Beyond Swords and Plowshares
Military service can advance engineering education – and address grand challenges.
Opinion by Adedeji B. Badiru
Military graduate education has far more impact on national advancement than many may realize. In the days of my undergraduate studies at Tennessee Technological University, I marveled at the knowledge base, span of expertise, and professionalism of many of my engineering instructors. Having just arrived in the United States from my home country of Nigeria, I wondered how such a high concentration of marvelous engineers with military experience could be found in one small institution in an unglamorous part of the nation.
I later learned that this was not an isolated example, unique to one institution. It turns out that a large number of U.S. engineering professors in the 1960s and 1970s had served in the Navy or Army during World War II. After the war, through the GI Bill, many veterans transferred their military training, education, and expertise into lecturing at the college level.
My positive impression of Tennessee Tech engineering professors provided an early incentive to study hard and subsequently choose academia as my career path. Moreover, the foundational knowledge acquired from my military engineers turned professors has served my own students over the years. The military directly and indirectly influences the advancement of technical manpower in the United States. The nation’s status as a world leader rests on this foundation of consistent technical education over the years.
Today, there is heated debate about whether America should continue to invest in advanced military education. The unequivocal answer should be a resounding yes. Federal spending on advanced military education is essential not only to keeping the armed forces on the cutting edge of warfare technology but also to making a positive impact on the nation’s educational landscape and its quality of life.
The National Academy of Engineering recognized the urgent need to address global societal issues from a technical standpoint in the 2008 publication Grand Challenges for Engineering (See cover story, Page 24). The 14 challenges, which range from improving urban infrastructure and access to clean water to personalizing learning, have global implications for everyone, not just the engineering professions. Thus, solutions must encompass all disciplines. As the NAE report notes, institutional, political, economic, and social barriers “will repeatedly arise to impede the pursuit of solutions,” compelling engineers “to integrate their methods and solutions with the goals and desires of all society’s members.”
Who is better capable of analyzing, synthesizing, and integrating than America’s armed forces? Military engineers, in particular, possess the diverse array of technical expertise, discipline, and professionalism that solutions will require. By virtue of its worldwide presence and long involvement in advanced science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, the military can provide the technical foundation for addressing global grand challenges. STEM education also provides a sustainable opportunity for the military to tackle emerging domestic challenges in areas as diverse as carbon sequestration and cybersecurity.
As U.S. forces draw down from overseas conflicts, there is concern about what to do with the returning troops. For me, the answer is simple: Send them back to school for advanced engineering education, and turn them into engineering educators so that future students can benefit just as I did during my undergraduate engineering days. The whole enterprise of engineering education also stands to benefit from the wealth of military experience coupled with advanced engineering training that these veterans would bring.
Adedeji B. Badiru is dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Management at the Air Force Institute of Technology.