Julio M. Ottino

Julio M. Ottino, Dean

From the dean

Fostering creativity key to safeguarding tech leadership

At McCormick we believe that the best response to concerns about America 's technological leadership is a strong emphasis on fostering creativity in our classrooms. This op-ed I wrote for the July 1 Chicago Sun-Times, printed in lieu of a dean's message in this issue, clearly states our position. I welcome your feedback.

Imagine our world without some of the notable engineering feats of the past two centuries: electricity, telecommunications, computers, airplanes, automobiles, medical technologies, and the Internet. Engineering has changed our world and bolstered our economy with a great mix of ideas, technology, venture capital, and tolerance even appetite for risk.

But now, academics and business leaders have sounded the alarm in a recent report from the National Academies, "Rising above the Gathering Storm." It points to the growing number of engineers graduating in Asia and a steady decline in engineering enrollment. The United States ranks 17th worldwide in the number of engineering and science degrees among 18- to 24-year-olds, down from third in 1975. Compare that with China, where 50 percent of its undergraduates receive degrees in natural sciences or engineering.

Those sobering numbers hint at why so much focus has been put on the need to increase the number of engineers we produce in the United States. But even more important, we must focus on producing creative engineers. Engineers must be able to seamlessly traverse the areas of science, engineering, technology, and medicine.

Fostering creativity at every level of education is key to safeguarding America 's technological leadership. That means starting at the grade school and high school levels and seriously fostering innovation at the university level. It is no wonder that young students, who often are asked to simply absorb information about math, equate engineering with a lifetime of memorization and regurgitation.

Science and engineering have a serious public relations problem. At its heart, engineering requires the ability to think about opportunities that others may have missed, to see challenges, and to identify possibilities. Engineering is closer to art than to science. Science is inevitable; technology, like art, is not. The better we portray that reality, the more likely students will choose engineering as an exciting course of study.

At the undergraduate and graduate levels, we must treat creativity as a core competency for success in our new global environment. Today's engineering graduates are just as likely to build careers in the service industries health, consulting, law, business, information technology, etc. as in traditional engineering manufacturing jobs. They must have a broad educational background that allows them to move among a variety of careers and disciplines and we must change our curriculum accordingly.

Infusing ''design-think'' into undergraduate and graduate curriculums is one approach of top engineering schools. Students are required to engage in the process of creating new products and processes. Given opportunities to think beyond algorithms and equations, they study challenges and identify opportunities. They create, rather than simply absorb, knowledge.

Our students at Northwestern, for example, start working with clients to develop solutions to real-world problems in their first year, on projects such as treating wastewater in developing countries and inventing devices to help individuals recover from strokes.

As we foster creativity among students, we also must be aware of actions that may discourage it. Take research funding. Often research proposals are based on top-down directives, which discourage the bottom-up approach. Though these directive approaches often reflect areas of critical importance, they must be balanced with opportunities to explore new areas that could lead to unforeseen breakthroughs. The biggest discoveries often are the result of a creative, even serendipitous exploration. The list goes from Archimedes' buoyancy principle (the famous Eureka!), to Velcro® and Post-it® notes.

As America awakens to the challenges of globalization, we cannot ignore the key qualitative differential that has led to our past success: creativity. As we address concerns over the falling numbers of students entering science and engineering, we must also consider what types of engineers we want to produce and commit the necessary resources at all levels of education. America has never had the most engineers in the world, but our engineers have been known as the most creative and the most innovative. We cannot lose that distinction.

Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times