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Tomorrow’s Engineers Can’t Solve Tomorrow’s Problems with Yesterday’s Thinking

By: , Posted on: October 23, 2015


Ever heard of ‘wicked problems’?

These are problems that are “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize”, and they are not only on the rise, they are constantly evolving. Within the engineering community, examples of such daunting ‘wicked’ problems are described here.

As part of Elsevier R&D Solutions, I interact with customers for our engineering solutions, Knovel and Engineering Village. In the context of increasing challenges and complexity, the question many of our customers face, especially in the academic world, is quite simply: How must we adapt to prepare the next generation of problem-solvers to tackle these big problems?

We recently hosted a webinar entitled, “Problems That Matter: Preparing the Next Generation of Engineers”, featuring Dr. Lawrence Jones, Editor of the book, Renewable Energy Integration. As Dr. Jones points out to the audience: “What is important as we go forward is to understand the evolution of the problems faced in order to be able to design solutions, and also to prepare engineers to design solutions for dealing with those problems which will constantly be evolving.” The webinar includes Dr. Jones sharing his views and examples regarding the increasing prevalence, scale, and complexity of mankind’s problems, and how engineering tools and processes are changing  – ultimately highlighting that educators should take a step back and consider paradigm shifts, if they haven’t already, as they work to equip future engineers.

Below, I share my favorite takeaways from the webinar:

  1. The problems that matter for mankind will only become more ‘wicked’ as time goes on and technology evolves. Think about the difference between having to engineer solutions for farming thousands of years ago, for building housing and shelters in the last century, for addressing the influx of challenges and opportunities when the Internet went mainstream in the early 90’s, and for today’s grand problems around energy and water poverty, healthcare, and cyber security. To quote Dr. Jones, “How will we get through the day in 5, 10 and 20 years?”
  1. Engineers will and must ensure our way of life evolves to face challenges. As we consider the complexity and scale of the problems that must be solved, what comes to mind is that they will and must be solved in great part by engineers, because of the role they play in influencing how mankind interacts with the physical world and the systems within it. This is a probably an obvious thought but still worth keeping in mind as we review our education approach. Evolving problems require that engineers not only take on new skills, processes and knowledge, but also take on adaptive mindsets. In other words, educators must ensure that future engineers are able to create sustainable solutions and anticipate the future evolution of systems and needs.
  1. We need to evolve how we prepare engineers for the workforce, starting yesterday. Jones discusses a number of trends impacting professional engineers in the industry such as 3D printing, advanced materials, hyper-integration and convergence, and more. Such trends not only illustrate the accelerated scale, speed and complexity of engineered solutions, but all together illustrate how the very tools and processes an engineer must work with and within have already changed in ways that even the most visionary people only imagined years ago. Are future engineers being equipped to solve problems given such rapid developments in all areas of technology and science, as well as actual engineering tools and processes?
  1. Finally, no one tactic is going to cut it – evolution requires thinking about the holistic culture and system. Jones emphasizes how educators need to consider the entire system of education content, structure and tools, and how it starts with a mindset change at an individual level. He offers some tactical ideas such as how to enhance curriculum to encourage ‘systems thinking’ and future adaptability, the importance of modern information tools that deliver reliable, technical data for practical problem-solving, rapid prototyping tools that support experimentation and iteration, and the need for new skills that are not traditionally viewed as ‘engineering’ related such as collaboration for working within a virtual and global team and entrepreneurial knowledge and skills.

This webinar has proven to hit upon a key issue for the wider engineering community, with almost 600 people from 72 countries registered and dozens of questions submitted from a very engaged audience during the live session. The Q&A portion was particularly interesting as well, with Dr. Jones sharing his ideas about the role librarians play and commenting on other hot topics such as women in engineering, engineering education in emerging markets, and more.

Listening to Dr. Jones and the attendees’ questions, I was reminded that there are quite possibly various differing expert opinions on what to do, how we will get there, and what is ‘there’, i.e., the vision for the future of engineering education. Evolving our education approach for engineering is in many ways a ‘wicked problem’ on its own.

I encourage you to watch the recorded webinar here – it’s engaging and thought-provoking for anyone looking to nurture and mentor students and younger engineers.

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