Tomorrow’s complex global challenges will require profound shifts in how we educate engineers today.
Opinion by Marielza Oliveira
We live in a changing world. Population growth is accelerating, with 2 billion more people projected to inhabit our crowded planet by 2050. Global economic growth is slowing, and unemployment, underemployment, and inequality are on the rise. Meanwhile, climate change threatens health and livelihoods even as we overshoot the planet’s ability to renew environmental resources at the same pace they are consumed.
This also is a world of much promise and innovation, however. Countries like China, the leading patent holder in green technologies, are investing heavily in clean energy and other environment-friendly solutions. Information and computer technologies are forging closer connections and speeding productivity gains around the globe, while biotech is setting the stage for eradication of diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia. Crowdsourcing and the sharing economy are reducing resource consumption rates and waste.
Advances in science and engineering have been central to human progress ever since the invention of the wheel. But for the world to progress sustainably, as envisioned by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, we must participate not only in creating and sharing knowledge and innovation but also in ensuring that such progress is grounded in ethics and universal human values. Automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics promise incredible economic growth, yet they also can exacerbate inequality within and between nations and contribute to unemployment.
Changes of such magnitude require an equally profound transformation in the education systems that equip engineers with the skills and competencies needed for rapidly evolving markets and societies as well as for fields and occupations that have yet to emerge.
Engineering education has never played a more crucial role—in empowering people to live dignified lives, supporting economies to correct imbalances and thrive, helping left-behind areas incorporate digital technologies, facilitating transitions to green and sustainable societies, and fostering international cooperation for peace and sustainable development. Engineering education is so important that UNESCO is dedicating its next Engineering Report, being written in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, to understanding the opportunities and gaps the world faces in this area.
Engineering educators have a responsibility to chart a more inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and shared future for all humanity. Decisions on how technologies are designed, developed, and deployed are made by scientists and innovators often beyond the scrutiny or even the understanding of the ordinary people who will bear the consequences of those choices, such as the impact of fossil fuel technologies on the environment. Our AI and other “techies” no longer can simply chase unicorns in a no-man’s-land, devoid of shared ethical standards that ensure respect for human dignity and rights.
Our systems need to produce engineers who fully understand the economic, social, environmental, and international impacts and contexts of their professional activities and inventions. We need engineers who can explain to ordinary people what they expect to achieve and help citizens make good policy choices. And we need engineers who understand legal issues beyond intellectual property rights and patents, so they can help formulate principles, standards, and frameworks that uphold human values and protect the vulnerable.
We need a new vision of engineering education, one that embraces a lifelong perspective in learning and transforms, rather than merely strengthens, the linkages between education and the broader development framework. This new vision must start with basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in primary and secondary schools, including exposing students to engineering concepts and ethical values as early as possible. Beyond technical skills, higher education also needs to discuss how to instill essential global competencies. Engineering talent is sought internationally, and engineers require significant intercultural skills to collaborate with colleagues who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Inclusion also must be addressed, particularly how to ensure gender equality in fields like IT, which is leaving women behind at an increasing pace. We need to discuss how international cooperation will mitigate the “brain drain” in less developed countries as the global competition for engineering and science talent heats up. And we need to increase accessibility in engineering education, where the enormous capacities and talents of persons with disabilities such as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking often get overlooked.
Engineering education systems can do more and better. As the “best of the best” in their fields, engineering educators surely will bring new ideas to the table.
Marielza Oliveira is director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Beijing office, which covers China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and the Republic of Korea. This article was adapted from her speech at the International Forum on Engineering Education at Tsinghua University on Sept. 24, 2018.