Engineering a Better Tomorrow

Chancellor Gary May

Engineering a Better Tomorrow

Keynote address at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association’s Annual Conference & Expo in Monterey, Calif. Formally titled “Innovations in Engineering and Engineering Education to Address Grand Challenges.” (Remarks as prepared.)


Good morning everyone. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

It’s great to be here in Monterey. UC Davis is pretty far inland, so it’s always a nice change of pace to visit the coast. My surfing skills aren’t the greatest, but I hear a lot of great chardonnay comes from here, so I’ll toast to that.

More than anything, I’m happy to toast so many longtime colleagues that I see here today. My duties are much different now that I’m chancellor of UC Davis, but I’m forever intrigued by electrical and computer engineering.

As educators and engineers, we dream of building a better tomorrow. We do our best to prepare students for the working world and root for their success. And nothing beats the feeling of watching one of your own students become agents of their own success and help others along the way, just as you did for them.

Our skills as educators are needed at an especially crucial time. We are growing more connected than ever as a global society, thanks in large part to advances in personal electronics. And yet our common ground is shrinking. We face some of the most turbulent times in modern history. 

International security remains ever important, especially with the rise of cyberwarfare.  Climate change is leading to extended droughts and hurricanes that are more frequent and intense. Our health remains under threat from cancer and pandemic outbreaks.

Sooner or later, our electrical and computer engineering students will be called upon to address these critical problems. And we, as their educators, have a special calling to help prepare and empower them to make the world a better place.

The Engineer of 2020

So, how do we do that? To answer that question, I thought it would be helpful to hit the rewind button and go back to 2004. That’s when the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) published “The Engineer of 2020,” which I’m guessing many of you are familiar with.

To recap, this report sought to guide engineering educators through a brave new 21st century world of rapidly advancing technologies. It addressed some longstanding challenges of deteriorating infrastructure, environmental decay, and overconsumption of resources in a rapidly growing world. It also explored some of the new challenges faced by educators in a post-9/11 society, particularly the demand for better security technologies.

This is a good time to examine what progress has been made since “The Engineer of 2020” report—because the engineering class of 2020 has just arrived. They enrolled this past fall, and I’ve been thinking of what their world—and ours as well—looked like back in 2004.

Some technologies that are part of our everyday lives today were just emerging while others were on a path of becoming ever more powerful.

Of course, we had cell phones then, but they were “dumb” by today’s “smartphone” standards—the Commodore 64 of phone technology. iPods were the must-have music player. They’re practically extinct now that smartphones double as music players. Bluetooth technology was on the rise, and Skype surfaced as the 21st century way to make a phone call.

And 2004 saw the birth of Facebook.  Last I checked, Facebook was inching past the 2 billion users mark – and, yes, you’ll find me on there as well.

Technological progress for society vs. self

The rate of technological change continues to accelerate, to a point where 2004 seems like a lifetime ago.

Electrical and computer engineers have made so much progress in so little time, creating ever more powerful technologies to better entertain ourselves and curate our lives on social media.

So, my great hope for future engineers is that they apply at least as much vigor and ingenuity to creating technologies that liberate people from poverty, illness and suffering—technologies that will soften the effects of climate change and help us adapt to a changing environment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing or discounting the quality-of-life value of consumer and entertainment technologies. I love seeing my favorite superheroes come to life on the screen through Computer Generated Imagery. I like my smartphone as much as the next guy.

I’m simply hoping for a time when the public gets just as excited about technologies that better society as they do about those that serve the self. And, I believe we as educators of future engineers are in a position to help make this paradigm shift.

I’ve been thinking about some of the progress that’s been made over the past decade in addressing the grand challenges of our times. This 2008 NAE report outlined 14 of them. I’ll highlight just a few in the areas of human health, security, infrastructure and environmental sustainability. Some of the work happening now seems like science fiction come to life.

Human health

Let’s start with health.

We’ve seen a growth in technologies that personalize medicine in exciting new ways.  For example, prescription drugs with a one–type–fits–all approach may become a thing of the past—kind of like the flip phone.

At UC Davis, we’re working on an idea to create a Center for Precision Medicine. We envision a future in which cancer therapies target a person’s unique genomic fingerprint and are tuned to their personal lifestyle and environment. 

With the help of engineers, we’re also thinking of ways to develop diagnostic tools for home care services that scan and send patient data directly to a doctor’s office and predict a response to customized treatments—all in a matter of minutes.

We’re also seeing rapid advancements in molecular imaging to explore the human body in more expedient and less invasive ways.

One of my colleagues in the National Academy of Engineering is doing some especially groundbreaking work in this field. Simon Cherry, a distinguished professor of bioengineering at UC Davis, leads a team that’s developing a total-body PET/CT scanner. This scanner can image the entire body in less than a minute—so the patient would spend far less time in those claustrophobic machines and receive a much smaller dose of radiation.

I believe we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in these kinds of health technologies that are increasingly more powerful and more personalized.

I’ve learned about advances in fluorescence technology that make it easier for doctors to distinguish cancerous tissue during tumor-removal surgery. We’re also witnessing a rise in experiments with so-called “cancers on chips” that mimic human disease in the lab so researchers can determine which tumors would respond to chemotherapy before being used for a patient.

Transportation, security systems

Electrical and computer engineers also are making great strides toward cleaner and more efficient energy and transportation systems. The most obvious example is the rise of nonpolluting cars.

Going back again to 2004, Tesla began developing its Roadster, the first high-performance electric car, powered by lithium-ion batteries. It could travel more than 200 miles per charge.

Sales of electric cars for the rest of us rose over the decade as prices dropped, due to increased competition and batteries becoming cheaper—and better performing.  Manufacturers are expected to release 70 models of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars over the next five years, compared with 25 models on the market today.  That’s progress.

Electrical engineers are on the front lines of this steady shift away from petroleum dependence. After all, they’re developing the circuitry and components that allow these cars to run in the first place.

Electrical engineers also are in the driver’s seat of the navigation systems used for driverless cars. The public won’t take to driverless cars unless they feel safe—and that depends on the pinpoint accuracy of their navigation systems and sensors.

Electrical engineers will increasing be tapped for developing sensor and imaging technology, not only to navigate driverless cars but also to protect our entire infrastructure.

Imaging continues to play a major role in strengthening our national security, with ever-more sophisticated body scanners at airports and facial recognition technology. We’re also seeing aerial surveillance and drone technology becoming more powerful, to the point of identifying individuals in a crowded stadium. 

Environmental and agricultural sustainability

Imaging and sensor technology is also growing in the fields of agriculture and environmental sustainability, helping us keep better tabs on the health of our crops, our forests and our air.

Mobile air pollution sensors are now being deployed to advance the science of air pollution and how it affects communities at a level that has never been done before.

Google, the Environmental Defense Fund and engineering researchers with the University of Texas in Austin used this new technology last year to develop the first map showing the air quality right down to the block you live on.  

They did this in Oakland using specially equipped Google Maps cars to measure air pollutants. The results filled important data gaps in traditional stationary air monitoring, showing that urban air pollution can be highly variable from street to street.

The researchers believe that mobile sensing technology can be scaled up to track and map pollutants in cities nationwide—and perhaps across the world.

One of our biggest strengths at UC Davis is in the area of environmental sustainability, particularly in agriculture and food production. We are using the latest technologies to address the grand challenge of global food security in the face of a changing climate and a growing population.

Currently, about 28 percent of the world’s population is malnourished, and the global population is expected to grow 30 percent in the next 35 years, to 9 billion people.  Meanwhile, climate change is projected to decrease crop yields in many regions of the world over this same period, with prolonged droughts depressing yields even further.

So, obviously, we need to get a lot smarter about how we farm, taking full advantage of the new technologies available to us.

Our researchers at UC Davis have a vision about the farms of the future— “smart farms,” they’re calling them—in which life scientists develop new plants and new animals that are bred to thrive in the climate of the future.  

These researchers believe that smarter farming machines and practices along with improved plants and new sensing systems is the way to optimize food production while minimizing the environmental footprint.

We’re experimenting now with wireless networks on farms that use drones to capture real-time data on irrigation and plant nutrition. We’re using robots for precision planting and weeding and optimal dosing of pesticides and nutrients.

The smart farm of the future presents a cornucopia of opportunities for engineers, biologists and environmental scientists to optimize food production systems and the design, development and operation of smart farm machines.

Educating the engineers of tomorrow

Environmental and resource problems like food security and water scarcity, deforestation and air pollution can’t be solved by any single discipline.

There is a shift toward more integrated environmental problem-solving, not just in California, but across continents. It’s a more holistic approach driven by the urgency of climate change and the lure of economic opportunity in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The problem solvers need to be expert synthesizers. Increasingly, society needs engineers, economists, foresters and other resource specialists who can help craft solutions – not just collect and analyze data. We need more resource professionals who are capable of having substantive and productive discussions with all the different disciplines that are involved in environmental and resource problems.

So how do we as educators develop engineers who are good synthesizers and collaborators?

Universities for the most part are not well structured to cultivate interdisciplinary synthesis. Our campuses are largely collections of individual departments tightly focused on their own disciplines. Engineers share data with fellow engineers. Biologists confer with other biologists. Professors are expected to be prolific authors in single-subject journals.

There’s good reason why universities are set up this way. One of the core missions of graduate and professional schools, of course, is to develop expertise.

Our challenge then is to develop these multidisciplinary synthesizers in a way that helps society better understand and solve complex societal problems without producing academic lightweights. You can be a great synthesizer and collaborator but not particularly useful if you don’t bring expertise in at least one discipline to the problem-solving table.

I think we are up to meeting this challenge, but it has been slow going.  

One of the provocative areas highlighted in the 2004 National Academy of Engineering report was the nationwide problem of undergraduates with engineering degrees pursuing degrees and careers in other fields like science and business management once they graduate. The national average retention rate at large public universities, then—and now—is around 50 percent.

So, there’s been hardly any improvement, and I think this is primarily because our undergraduates are not having much fun. 

The real fun begins with they apply theory to practice. It begins when they get a taste of what it’s like to work in problem-solving teams with people whose expertise and perspectives are different than their own.

The real fun begins at the intersection of disciplines where they see how their training and education connects to real-world problems that people care about, like food safety or public health or climate change.

We’re only just now beginning to move toward project-based learning. Many in the engineering class of 2020 will graduate with some training in making presentations to clients. They’ll also have some experience analyzing projects not only for their engineering integrity but also for environmental and economic impacts.

At UC Davis, we have a Student Design Center, where students work in teams to fabricate innovative products.

The lab has all manner of welders, drill presses, mills and engravers—even a high-powered water-jet cutter that can slice through almost any material at any thickness. The center is almost always at maximum capacity, as you can see in this slide (PPT presentation accompanied chancellor’s remarks).

Many other engineering schools are providing their undergraduates with these design-and-build innovation spaces. I think it’s the wave of the future.

The 15th Grand Challenge: Diversity in STEM

I would like to close by directing your attention to one more grand challenge for engineering. You won’t find it among the 14 “grand challenges” that the NAE drew up a decade ago. I’m talking about an ideal we share of building something that will outlast us—not bridges, building or dams, of course, but something much more transformational.

I’m talking about accelerating the pace of diversity and inclusion in engineering education and industry. This is the challenge I undertook as engineering dean at Georgia Tech and now as UC Davis chancellor.

At times, it may seem that we don’t need to even talk about diversity in academia, especially at institutions like UC Davis and UC Berkeley that are among the most diverse higher-education institutions in the nation.

Yet, for all our progress over the past 40 years, the demographics of UC students and faculty still have a way to go to reflect the makeup of California’s diverse population.

The demographic disparities in California and nationally are especially apparent in the STEM fields. If you look at engineering in particular––at the bachelor’s, masters and PhD levels––you’ll see that women and minorities are severely underrepresented.

Nationally, African Americans in engineering get about 4 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 2 percent of the master’s and about 1.4 percent of the PhD’s.

It’s important that people understand why we champion diversity. It’s not only for the sake of social equity, which is important, or because it’s the right thing to do, which it is.  I actually promote diversity because it gives our society better outcomes and I’ll give a few examples of that from the STEM perspective.

The first auto airbags in the auto industry almost killed women passengers. That’s because they had been tested only on crash test dummies with male anatomies. So, when the air bags deployed, they often hit the woman in the head and could have snapped the neck or caused burns or other injuries. That was a result of not having women on the design team.

Similarly, the first voice activated devices—like we all like to talk to Alexa in our houses now and Siri on our phones—the first voice-activated devices, such as the children’s Speak & Spell made by Texas Instruments back in the 80’s and 70’s—those devices didn’t respond to a girl’s voice because there were no women on the design team.

One more example, which is relevant even today: In some public restrooms, when I put my hands under an automated faucet or soap dispenser with my palms down like this, I don’t get any water or soap. But, if I put my hands palms up, I do, because the sensors are not properly calibrated for the pigment of my skin.

So, again, diversity is a practical matter that leads to better outcomes. If there were diverse engineers on those design teams, they may have not overlooked these particular glitches.

So, the point is that diversity is not just a buzzword. It’s not window dressing or about political correctness. Diversity is one of the great strengths of our society. It’s integral to our success.

The main lesson here is to always be aware that engineering and science does not operate in a vacuum. Science and engineering, no matter how good it is, always operates in the context of socioeconomic, cultural and political realities.

It’s more crucial than ever that we build on the educational aims that the National Academy of Engineering set in “The Engineer of 2020” report.

As the workforce continues to grow more global in scope, and our global environmental issues become more complex, the fields of engineering must become more interdisciplinary and more diverse. We must become more engaged with public policy to inspire and retain more of our undergraduate students

We need more engineers who are broadly educated, who see themselves as global citizens, who can be leaders in business and public service, and who truly want to make the world a better place.

Thank you.


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