My July column in Mechanical Engineering magazine:
On the day they received their engineering degrees a couple of months ago, a handful of graduating students and I were discussing innovation over Danish and coffee in a rather unremarkable looking lobby of the engineering building at Stony Brook University, prior to the beginning of the formal celebration.
But as unremarkable as that lobby may have been, the remarkable occurs in the minds of the graduates.
Today’s engineering graduates enter the workforce believing that there are no limits to what they can accomplish working as part of integrated teams. These young men and women combine smarts with an appetite for curiosity. When that occurs the ground becomes fertile for innovation—and innovation drives global economies.
The Class of 2011 has seen the growth of iPads and Facebook and Twitter. The graduates understand that design and manufacturing is not only feasible but that it occurs regularly in real time across oceans through virtual interfaces. They’ve seen the development of teams pairing engineers with medical doctors tackling issues such as the treatment of cancer cells as mechanical systems. They know how bioengineers use robotics to help patients remotely in operating rooms all over the world. They’ve seen prosthetics become near perfect replicas of human limbs.
They also have a richer understanding of communications than did those who graduated 20, 30, and 40 years ago. They understand how the scope of engineering fits into a broad global and political landscape. They understand the importance of cross-cultural teams that include other engineering disciplines, business majors, and social scientists.
These young men and women see innovation as part of their destiny. But it is also nice to see that young engineers hold on to dreams of the seemingly impossible: that trip to space, that trip to the moon, that elusive challenge that plays with the imagination.
In his last State of the Union address, President Barack Obama mentioned the word “innovation” nine times, more than any other president ever has in such a speech. And even many of his political opponents agree on its importance. Everyone wants innovation and sees it as a key to the future of this country. CNN last month broadcast an insightful exploration of the topic as it relates to maintaining U.S. competitive advantage over growing economic powers.
But when you hear engineering students talk about innovation, the conversation shifts starkly. It is the difference between listening to those who read the headlines about innovation and those who make the headlines.
Perhaps it is in part because today’s young and emerging engineers represent a collection of diverse ethnic backgrounds, but among students you don’t hear the jingoistic overtones of those who talk about international competitiveness. You hear about the possibilities for growth, not the politics of it. The focus is on technology.
Students today are eager to become engaged global citizens, ready to take on global challenges that include redefining how to use the earth’s energy resources most efficiently, and improving the quality of human life in developing countries. They are interested in strengthening American economies, as well the economies of countries worldwide.
This is what stimulates the minds of the young engineers I speak with. They are the visionaries who will embrace the opportunities and responsibilities that exist. They are ready to lead.