Ground Shift

Ground Shift

Looking beyond mining and copper exports, Chile overhauls 10 top engineering schools in a bid to join the world’s advanced economies.

Juan Carlos de la Llera is a rarity in Chile as both an academic and an entrepreneur. A structural engineer and dean of the School of Engineering at Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica (PUC) in Santiago, de la Llera founded Sirve, a company built on technology to protect buildings from earthquakes, in 2003. Sirve proved its worth seven years later, when an 8.8-magnitude quake devastated the capital. The temblor killed 520 people and caused $30 billion in damage. But the city’s tallest building, the 52-story Torre Titanium La Portada, escaped structural damage, thanks in large part to Sirve’s steel dampers, which act like shock absorbers and dissipate damaging energy released from violently shaking earth.

By promising a measure of protection for earthquake-threatened structures around the globe, Sirve is a growing business. It’s also the kind of world-beating young company Chile’s leaders want to see more of. So the National Agency for Innovation and Development, or CORFO, launched a $62.5 million project to shake up the country’s leading engineering schools and get them to focus more on innovation, technology transfer, and entrepreneurship. Dubbed Chile New Engineering 2030, the ambitious plan aims to combine “world-class, student-centered” teaching that attracts more smart applicants to the field and high-impact applied research, particularly in health, sustainability, and information technology. The ultimate goal is a competitive First World economy that is less dependent on exports of commodities, like copper.

Why haven’t more Chilean engineering researchers followed de la Llera’s path and spun off their research into start-ups? Many think it’s because Chile’s engineering schools focus too much on theoretical engineering science and fundamental research while eschewing applied research and ignoring the needs of industry.

Pursuit of academic glory through esoteric research is a luxury that a country like Chile cannot afford, argues Dario Morales Figueroa, who heads CORFO’s Technological Center Directorate.
“That is all very well if we preferred to have mainly Ph.D.’s who win physics awards,” he says, but it does little to propel Chile from a developing to a developed economy. For that to happen, academics and students must be inspired to embrace enterprise and put their skills to use inventing new technologies and designing new products. “We’re trying to motivate universities to prepare more engineers to address the challenges of Chilean industry,” Morales explains. Adds Marcia Varela Arriagada, CORFO’s current deputy director for technology transfer and head of Engineering 2030: “The more entrepreneurial your engineers, the more innovative you are as a country.”

Beyond Mining

Chile is already one of Latin America’s political and economic bright spots. While not immune from the governance crises and corruption that plague other Latin countries, Chile has been a relatively stable democracy since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in the late 1980s. Financially sound, the country enjoys an annual growth rate of 2.41 percent, close to that of the United States, and a per capita gross domestic product well above those of Colombia and Brazil. Exports comprise a third of the nation’s economy. Mining, mainly copper, is its leading industry, but other important sectors include fishing, fruit, wine, and paper. CORFO wants engineering schools not only to help modernize existing industries but also to come up with products for new growth areas, like advanced manufacturing and bioengineering, that can tantalize global markets.

Compared with most of its Southern Hemisphere neighbors, Chile starts from a strong position in engineering. A report on a 2000 workshop funded by U.S. and Chilean government research agencies called Chile’s computer science research community “the best in South America in terms of numbers of publications and research proposals per capita,” and well positioned to be a regional leader in information technology. Lately, the country has reinforced research and development ties with the University of California system that date to the early 1960s, particularly in agriculture and water management. It’s also one of some 15 nations that welcome National Science Foundation graduate research fellows. Various Chilean universities have student exchanges or research ties with top U.S. engineering schools, including the University of Colorado, Boulder and Virginia Tech.

Still, observers have found flaws at Chilean engineering schools. While CORFO complains about an over emphasis on basic research, a 2007 study by two scholars at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile calls the schools’ research in general into question. They report that “many universities state in their mission a strong commitment to research, which is not found to be the case in practice.” They also noted low graduation rates, a seven-year average time to graduation, and a mismatch both between admission requirements and expected student performance and between curricula and expected outcomes.

Outside Advice

If it succeeds, Chile New Engineering 2030 would point both research and educational offerings in a new direction. The program began in earnest in 2013, when CORFO spent some $12.5 million so universities could develop blueprints to overhaul their engineering schools. Their plans had to be ambitious, yet realistic, and explain how they would interact with industry. CORFO wanted to see faculty thinking more about commercialization and applied R&D, along with flexible curricula that incorporated more teamwork, hands-on learning, and practical experience with industry. The agency also wanted schools to graduate engineers in five years instead of six or more.

A team of six international advisers helped CORFO pick five winning projects involving a total of 10 universities. Each project will get matching grants worth $7 million to $10 million each over six years to implement their plans. Advisers included Norman Fortenberry, ASEE’s executive director, Johan Malmqvist, dean of education at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, and Diosdado P. (Dado) Banatao, Jr., an electrical engineer, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and founder of Tallwood Venture Capital.

James Adams, a retired professor of industrial engineering at Stanford University, who was part of the advisory team, applauded CORFO’s effort as worthwhile, educational, and rewarding. “The rest of the world should take note,” Adams wrote on his blog, People and Products. He argued that too many engineering schools – in Chile and elsewhere – have been following the lead of top U.S. and European schools in embracing research of “high intellectual cachet” that may never have any real application. “But do they really need MITs and Caltechs?” he asked.

If Prism’s conversations with deans at three winning universities are representative, Chile’s engineering schools recognized that the time was ripe for CORFO’s intervention. There was indeed a need to refocus their schools more toward applied research and enterprise, the deans said, and to use more innovative teaching methods in their classrooms to get students excited about creating, designing, and building.

“We were very much devoted to fundamental research,” admits Claudio Alfredo Zaror, dean of the Universidad de Concepción (UC is partnered with the Universidad de Santiago de Chile and the Universidad Católica de Valparaiso). Alejandro Jadresic, dean of the engineering school at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI), notes that his school is historically devoted to business education, but a few years ago decided to strengthen its engineering college and remake it so it works more closely with the business school. “We wanted to do research that was relevant to industry, and to have strong technical training that was also strong in application,” Jadresic says. Winning the CORFO grants “allows us to move faster.”

High-Quality Examples

In preparing their plans, the engineering schools looked for models at a wide range of programs outside Chile. UC’s benchmark universities included MIT, Purdue, Chalmers, and Britain’s Cambridge and Oxford, while UAI’s included Olin College and Sydney, Australias University of Technology. PUC, which is partnered with the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria, chose MIT, Notre Dame, and the U.K.’s Imperial College and University College London.

The benchmarking made clear to de la Llera, PUC’s engineering dean, that the best schools not only had an entrepreneurial mission but also were intent on pursuing research at the intersection of engineering and other disciplines, including biology and medicine. “You have to try to identify opportunities at those boundaries,” he says. He now wants to see his own researchers working with geoscientists to help predict natural disasters like quakes, landslides, and floods, and to devise technologies to mitigate those dangers. He’s also keen on coming up with technologies, such as new wireless sensors, that would be useful to almost any industry. UC’s Zaror looks to improve mining with more automation, sensing, and modeling, and to develop new technology for advanced manufacturing and nuclear power.

Winning over faculty to an applied-research-and-innovation paradigm has been a challenge, Zaror and de la Llera say. “There are powerful incentives to do fundamental research,” Zaror says. Most research money comes from government agencies, he says, “and is very much tied to fundamental research. We need more change at the national level.” De la Llera agrees. He sits on a committee working to develop a new ministry for science and engineering, and one of the big questions it faces is whether to put more money into applied or blue-sky research. There’s a strong movement toward the practical, he says, but opponents counter that you cannot do applied research without a foundation of fundamental research. “So you need to do both.” CORFO is struggling to get enough government funding to build technology parks adjacent to universities.

Jadresic’s faculty is more accepting of the pivot toward applied research, because their school is relatively new and has only recently taken a plunge into R&D, he says: “We have a very motivated team of professors, most of whom are young and passionate. One advantage is we are more open to try different things.” Many of his researchers are drawn to industrial processes and environmental and energy topics, including wastewater treatment.

An enthusiastic faculty is only part of the picture, of course; any innovations that emerge from their labs still have to find a market. And transforming researchers into entrepreneurs is especially difficult in a small country with few sources of private venture capital. Accordingly, Jadresic urges his faculty – and students – to think globally and to look for investors outside Chile. “We encourage that approach,” says CORFO’s Varela, who points out that the agency funds a Go to Market program that seeks to connect Chilean entrepreneurs with investors from Silicon Valley and the high-tech community in Cambridge, England.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit?

Just as some faculty members resisted shifting their research priorities, some engineering instructors were reluctant to adopt the new active-learning pedagogy demanded as part of New Engineering 2030. But deans insist they’re making headway on that front. Eventually, faculty will be persuaded by examples of success, they say. UC has instituted first-year classes that require students to identify social, economic, or environmental problems, propose an optimal engineering solution, and, if applicable, submit a preliminary design. Classes, such as the third-semester Introduction to Chemical Engineering, use problem-based learning that involves local industry. In one example, students conduct mass and energy balances in industrial plants, collaborating with the engineering staff. “Most of the project-based courses have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Zaror says, noting that in the first-year Introduction to Engineering course one of the three projects requires students to make a business case for their invention that incorporates financing, marketing, and intellectual property protection.

At PUC, the mandatory first-year Engineering Challenges course requires students to divide into 70 teams of 10 members each and collaborate with industrial partners on designs. To further “strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem” at PUC, de la Llera says, the school has launched accelerators and incubators for students as well as faculty and is making some prototype funding available to students, as well as giving them opportunities to meet investors and industry leaders.

AIU, which stresses preparing students for the global workforce, requires them to take English or another second language. Its curriculum includes a substantial amount of liberal arts, as well. UC, AIU, and PUC have all implemented flipped classrooms in many of their courses, as well as active-learning strategies. PUC has created an Engineering Education division to help foster a cultural change toward entrepreneur-oriented education and to work on new teaching methodologies. Moreover, de la Llera says, an effort is under way at PUC to make all the design labs entrepreneurial, with students subjected to realistic situations and constraints.

CORFO’s Morales stresses that none of the five winning projects is assured of getting the full funding. At the end of each year, all of the schools must report back to CORFO, which will look at 40 different indicators to determine if they are successfully executing their plans. One indicator, for example, is that they’re increasing the number of students enrolled in engineering; another is that the number of spin-offs created by faculty continues to grow. “If a project is not meeting its goals, we could cut off funding,” Morales says. For now, at least, all of the projects appear to be safe. As of the end of the first academic year, all five were hitting their targets, Varela says. CORFO, she adds, was also impressed that all participating universities had created competitions to develop new technologies or applied R&D.

Chile New Engineering 2030 is just a step – though a big one – to a national overhaul of engineering education. The universities involved represent only a third of the country’s engineering schools. “What happens to the other two thirds? That is a major question,” Morales admits. “Hopefully CORFO will be able to fund them in the future.” For a country aspiring to the big leagues, setting up 10 centers of innovation and entrepreneurship is not a bad way to start.


By Thomas K. Grose

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.
Design by Nicola Nittoli
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