I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future in terms of engineering grand challenges, engineering education, and the impact that engineering can have on the world. I recently came across a 25+ year old quote about technological change that caught my attention.
“In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.
That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.”
Technological change being ecological is one of five ideas that Neil Postman outlined in his lecture. All five ideas are:
We always pay a price for technology.
There are always winners and losers.
The technology has a philosophy (epistemological, political or social prejudice). Sometimes this bias is to our advantage, and sometimes not.
Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.
Technology tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.
The entire lecture is interesting and relevant to the various forms of technological change we have experienced since he delivered the lecture in 1997. His lecture highlights the tremendous scope of impact that enablers of technological change have on our way of living.
Technological change is often at the hands of engineers. Recognizing this motivates engineering education to empower engineering students to be able to understand and influence the ecological changes that result from technological change for the better. This lecture will guide my thinking in this area in the future.
What do you think? Are these five ideas regarding technological change still true? How would you modify or add to the list?
I recently had a conversation with a graduate from of my department who has had a highly successful career in industry for the last 25 years since earning a Bachelors degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The conversation turned toward the value of an industrial engineering degree. The value, he argued, was in educating students about the decision sciences. This captures data driven decision-making, communication, and the human side of decisions, including emotions and cognitive biases:
“Industrial engineering is ultimately about how to make decisions and how to make them well. And that’s something that every organization values.”
While there are several other valuable skills one can learn in an industrial engineering program in addition to the decision sciences, this claim resonates with me. Industrial engineers don’t make things, we make decisions, and it’s hard to overstate how valuable and interesting this is.
What aspects of industrial engineering have been most valuable to you?
It’s been one of those weeks when several articles about women in engineering found their way to me. I am very positive about my experiences being an industrial engineer. However, I was once an insecure undergraduate who didn’t quite feel like I fit in. These articles struck a chord with me for several reasons.
Lara Schubert wrote two nice articles in Structure. The first discusses the invisible gendered culture of engineering, one that I can sadly relate to. I remember being an undergraduate and wondering how I could authentically be both a woman and an engineer. I feel no such conflict now, but I’m older and wiser. Plus, IE and OR/MS have a higher proportion of women than many other fields of engineering so I don’t feel like I stick out quite so much. The second article discusses the consequences of said gendered culture of engineering. Both are a must read, especially for men who mentor or manage women engineers.
On a related note, I put together a talk for students about women in engineering for my seminar at Texas A&M last year, which was in part sponsored by the NSF ADVANCE award at A&M. I commend Halit Uster in particular for organizing an entire seminar series in industrial engineering around women. I gave a regular seminar and a talk to graduate students (both men and women). It was a nice experience to put together a few slides about women in engineering and STEM fields. There are a lot of positives (a lot!) but as part of my preparation, I found out that only ~10% of people who identify themselves as engineers are women. Women have been receiving > 20% of engineering BS degrees for a long time now, which means that women are not staying in engineering. In fact, research shows that women leave engineering at a higher rate than other STEM fields (see the recommended reading below). This trend is troubling, and it’s a big reason why I often blog about women in engineering.