OTC News Archive

Engineering the future

Gregory L. Fenves, Austin American-Statesman
March 4, 2011

The University of Texas at Austin welcomes visitors of all ages from across the state to Explore UT today. Many will come to the northeast area of campus, where the Cockrell School of Engineering lives, and discover the exciting technologies that improve our quality of life.

Though Explore UT shows the fun side of higher education, our motive is serious. The state of Texas needs to increase the number of students pursuing degrees in science, math and engineering. The kids visiting UT today can become the future leaders who will drive innovation and economic growth by creating the technologies, products, and services that will solve grand challenges in areas such as energy, health care, manufacturing and infrastructure.

Texans depend on the fruits of past investments in innovation. It starts with great ideas, often based on game-changing concepts. Think of the silicon chip that powers everything electronic, the Internet, MRI, biotechnology, and the production of shale gas, just to name a few transformative technologies. The United States, however, is at a vulnerable juncture while emerging economies of other countries are gaining momentum through education and research in science and engineering. Growing economies and increasing living standards around the world are benefits to all, but our nation is losing ground.

Recently, the National Academies, the leading authority on science, engineering and medicine, published “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited.” The academies concluded, “For the first time in history, America’s younger generation is less well-educated than its parents … and only a minority of American adults believe the standard of living of their children will be higher than what they themselves have enjoyed.” One fact is striking: A generation ago, the U.S. had the highest percentage among the developed nations for number of college graduates. It now ranks 10th.

The good news is there are strategies that will make a difference, and education is the key. Not only do we need more students to go to college and study math, science and engineering, we must encourage them to pursue advanced degrees.

At the Cockrell School, we have an important role in engineering education for Texas, the United States, and the world. UT graduates over 1,000 engineering students with bachelor degrees each year who go on to work and contribute to the economy. As important as an undergraduate degree is, work in advanced technology often requires a graduate degree.

Most engineering Ph.D graduates work in companies large and small. Annually, about 8,000 students in the United States receive Ph.Ds in engineering (of which approximately 200 each year graduate from the Cockrell School). It’s a small number in comparison to the 150,000 students receiving MBAs and 44,000 completing law degrees annually in the United States. As the economy pulls out of the recession, the employment demand for engineers with advanced degrees has increased, and I hope we can fulfill this need.

A fundamental measure of competitiveness is the number and quality of jobs, which determine the quality of life for all. Economic growth depends upon two important “products” of the University of Texas: human capital and knowledge capital. Both enable future private investment and provide the resources for security, infrastructure, and education. It is the ultimate virtuous circle.

Technology companies, in particular, gravitate to where they can recruit an innovative work force. Eight of the 10 global companies with the largest research and development budgets have established operations in China, India or both. Seventy-seven percent of companies in a recent survey say they plan to build research facilities in those countries.

So how does Texas compete in this global arena?

What is needed is long-term commitment to university-based research closely tied to undergraduate education in engineering and science; scholarships to attract students to study these fields; modern laboratories for students and faculty to create and discover; and strong connections between universities with companies, management talent, and investment capital. Finally, we need comprehensive programs for K-12 students to encourage them to graduate from high school and study science and engineering in Texas universities.

The Cockrell School is a central player in the Texas ecosystem through use-inspired research, high-quality undergraduate education, technology commercialization and outreach programs for students of all ages and backgrounds.

As we welcome thousands of kids today with the goal of exciting them about engineering, I will be looking for our leaders of tomorrow. And on Monday, the University of Texas faculty and staff will be back at work inspiring our current students to learn, create, and solve problems.

Fenves is dean of UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

[ Dean Gregory Fenves ]