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June 2007

Information Takes Over

Random fact: at Lehigh the ISE (Industrial and Systems Engineering) department offers two undergraduate degrees: the traditional IE (Industrial Engineering) degree and the more recent ISE (Information and Systems Engineering) one. It is quite revealing, in a way, of the future of engineering education that the I in ISE has come to mean two different things... While the IE degree typically attracts more students because it is better-known for historical reasons, the ISE graduates tend to have better employment offers. There seems to be a need in the workforce - at least based on the recruiting done at Lehigh - for graduates who can understand the challenges related to information processes in data-intensive applications such as finance or supply chain management. This new focus on information systems is not limited to undergraduate programs: it also extends to business schools such as Stanford with its Operations, Information and Technology area and U. Maryland with its Decision and Information Technologies department. The National Science Foundation itself has recently reorganized its Engineering directorate to capture the shifting focus and new "hot areas" such as cyberinfrastructure (in NSF-speak cyberinfrastructure denotes high-performance computing, i.e., the design and analysis of systems that process vast amounts of information and solve large-scale problems in short periods of time, for instance by using a "divide and conquer" approach where many processors solve one chunk of problem at the same time.) Those changes hint at a fundamental transformation of what engineering research means, extending far beyond the proposals of individual department chairs and deans at Lehigh, Stanford or U.Maryland - I touched on this issue here. What does surprise me, though, is how little of this trickles down to the general public, although this is all posted on the Web for everyone to see - when I talk with parents of my engineering freshmen, they still think their kid is going to build or take apart bulky equipment in a lab. While the shift to information systems does not mean engineering students need to cherish coding in Java or C++ (Lehigh's ISE is not a computer science department), they certainly should be willing to spend considerable amounts of time in front of a computer. Maybe there is an academic advantage to the intensive use of Facebook or Instant Messaging after all.


100 journalists killed this year, and counting

With the advent of blogging everyone can play the journalist in the safety of her living-room. But it turns out that 100 journalists have been killed so far this year, and journalism does remain a dangerous line of work in several parts of the world. Here is a list of the victims, which I have compiled from the News Safety Institute website. (That website has more information on the circumstances surrounding these people's death.) The list is in chronological order of the discovery of their bodies, starting in January. Location is the location of death.

Ahmed Hadi Naji (Iraq - gunned down) - Lan Chengzhang (China - beaten to death) - Khudr Younis al-Obaidi (Iraq - gunned down) - Yassin Aid Assef (Iraq - bombing) - Falah Khalaf Al Diyali (Iraq - gunned down) - Hrant Dink (Turkey - gunned down [for writing about the Armenian genocide in 1915]) -  Jean-Remy Badio (Haiti - gunned down [for photographing members of local gangs]) - Michel Barelli (USA - car accident) - Munjid Al-Tumaimi (Iraq - gunned down) - Jerome Azagoun (Benin - car accident) - Robson Barbosa Bezerra (Brazil - gunned down) - Samuel Kwabena Enin (Ghana - gunned down) - Ali Mohammed Omar (Somalia - gunned down) - Rahman Qul (Afghanistan - murdered) - Hernani Pastolero ( Philippines - gunned down) - Hussein Al Zubaydi (Iraq - gunned down) - Abdel Razeq Hashim al-Khaqani (Iraq - gunned down) - Suherman and Muhammad Guntur (Indonesia - ferry accident) - Ivan Safronov (Russia - suicide or murder) - Jamal al-Zubaidi (Iraq - gunned down) - Mohan al-Dhaher (Iraq - gunned down) - Jamal Uddin (Bangladesh - suicide or murder) - Youssef Sabri (Iraq - bombing) - Morgan Mellish (Indonesia - plane crash) - Miguel Perez Julca (Peru - gunned down) - Hussein al Jaburi (Iraq - died from injuries sustained while ambushed) - Hamid al-Duleimi (Iraq - murdered and tortured) - Edward Chikomba (Zimbabwe - beaten to death) - Thaer Ahmed Jabr and Husain Nizaer (Iraq - bombing) - Khamail Khalaf (Iraq - gunned down) - Vyacheslav Ifanov (Russia - probably murdered) - Othman al-Mashhadani (Iraq - murdered) - Amado Ramirez (Mexico - gunned down) - Ajmal Naqshbandi (Afghanistan - murdered) - Iman Yussef Abdallah (Iraq - gunned down) - Johnson Edouard (Haiti - gunned down) - Subash Chandraboas (Sri Lanka - gunned down) - Saul Martinez Ortega (Mexico - murdered) - Carmelo Palacios (Philippines - gunned down) - Mehboob Khan (Pakistan - bombing: bystander in a suicide attack against government official) - Selvarajah Rajivarman (Sri Lanka - gunned down) - Mario Rolando Lopez Sanchez (Guatemala - gunned down) - Anthony Mitchell (Cameroon - plane crash) - Luiz Carlos Barbon Filho (Brazil - gunned down) - Mohammed Abdullahi Khalif (Somalia - killed by crossfire) - Dmitry Chebotayev (Iraq - result of injuries sustained by roadside bomb) -  Raad Mutashar, Imad Abdul-Razzaq and Aqil Abdul-Qadir (Iraq - gunned down) - Suleiman Abdul-Rahim al-Ashi (Palestine - gunned down) - Mohammad Awad al-Joujou (Palestine - gunned down) - Joe Loy (USA - hit-and-run while on work assignment) - Abshir Ali Gabra and Ahmed Hassan (Somalia - gunned down) - Alix Joseph (Haiti - gunned down) - Alaa Uldeen Aziz (Iraq - gunned down) - Moses Ezulike, Agbo Isaac, Alfred James, Musa Nuhu, Judith Adama, Unknown (Nigeria - accident) - Ali Khalil (Iraq - murdered) - Francois Latour (Haiti - gunned down) - Dodie Nunez (Philippines - gunned down) - Abdel Rahman al-Issawi (Iraq - gunned down) - Mahmoud Hassib al-Qassab (Iraq - gunned down) - Nezar Abdul Wahid al-Radi (Iraq - gunned down) - Shakiba Sanga Amaj (Afghanistan - gunned down) - Noor Hakeem (Pakistan - roadside bomb) - Olive Messan Amouzou (Sierra Leone - helicopter accident) - Zakia Zaki (Afghanistan - gunned down) - Sahar al-Haideri (Iraq - gunned down) - Aref Ali (Iraq - roadside bomb) - Serge Maheshe (DR Congo - gunned down) - Flayeh Wadi Mijdab (Iraq - gunned down) - Noor Ahmed Solangi (Pakistan - gunned down) - Zeena Shakir Mahmoud (Iraq - gunned down) - Vicente Sumalpong (Philippines - gunned down) - Rahim al-Maliki (Iraq - suicide bombing) - Hamed Sarhan (Iraq - gunned down) - Luay Suleiman (Iraq - gunned down)   


Bringing technology to the neighborhood

If you have been living on a desert island for the last few weeks, you might not know that today the iPhone is going on sale. The rest of us has been watching countless advertisements, reading newspaper articles, and staring at pictures of iPhone hopefuls that would not look out of place in an account about the release of a Star Wars episode or the latest Harry Potter book. This is how business works, right? Someone invents something, the gadget hits the stores, customers snap it up and we all forget how we could have possibly lived without it (at least if we cared about it in the first place - I will admit I have only read Volume 1 of the J.K. Rowling saga and never saw the movie...) With so many popular TV series such as "Law and Order" and "CSI" relying on technological advances to break their cases, we are conditioned to think that technology falls immediately into the hands of the people who need it most. This month Allentown's Morning Call published an article (dated June 15) about the upcoming renovations at the 911 center in Carbon County [in the northern part of the Lehigh Valley]. My favorite sentence is a a quote by Commissioner Chairman William O'Gurek: "There will be a point in time where we'll be able to identify the exact location of someone calling on a cell phone." Uh... what? You mean that was not possible before? It turns out funds to upgrade the system are provided by a wireless phone tax collected by the state, which is due to expire in 2009. Researchers enjoy creating toys but lose interest in their dissemination once the technical difficulties have been resolved and the patent has been filed - it becomes someone else's problem. TV writers enjoy using just-created toys because they make for more original storylines and pretty special effects. But in the end we are the ones drawn into their fantasy world if we believe what the television tells us about the use of technology in the US.


Engineering Excuses

There is an article in the June 19's issue of the New York Times about a 3-year-old boy who drowned in a neighbor's pool and the push to introduce legislation that would "require pool alarms - $200 to $300 devices that sound when someone enters an untended pool." Let me say first that any little boy's death is a tragedy - it is unfair, it is horrifying, and I doubt the family ever recovers from it. Trying to make something good comes out of such a terrible accident is a natural step in the grieving process. The responsibility for this sad and untimely death does lie, though, with whoever should have watched the boy (who had the time to sneak out of the house, slip into the neighbor's backyard and fall into the pool); advocacy for mandatory pool alarms shifts the blame to this shapeless, abstract concept, engineering, so that adults can feel exonerated. Later neighbors will be sued for a kid's death in their pool by parents who were not keeping an eye on their offspring. It is highly representative of America's love of laws to introduce bills to fix anything. (That bill had been introduced before; many kids die in pool drownings every year. The bill, however, had been languishing in the State Senate.) People do buy pool alarms without being required to, and engineering should not be used as a compulsory "big brother" system because people forget to watch their kids. (I am surprised that the companies manufacturing the equipment used to monitor inmates on house arrest have not found a lucrative market in worried households with children - put a bracelet on your kid's ankle and have the alarm blare if the toddler comes too close to the street, or the neighbor's yard.)

It is also very sad to read about toddlers dying in backover accidents, and yes, the thing doing the backover is the parents' SUV. My heart goes out to the families. I cannot even begin to imagine how horrendous that must be. The Morning Call's article linked above states: "Rear cameras and audible warning sensors, technology that could reduce the number of fatalities, are not considered safety equipment by automakers and are offered only as optional parking aids in most vehicles. It could be years before they become as ubiquitous as seat belts." The difference is that seat belts prevent a driver from being ejected from his car and going through the windshield when his vehicle has been hit. Rear cameras help the driver but 2-year-olds don't sneak out behind dad's SUV after watching mom dry her hair unless doors are left open. Again it is a terrible tragedy and nobody did anything wrong, but whether someone wants rear cameras on his SUV should remain his choice (I am not sure if a 2-year-old would respond to audible warning signals.) And it is a disaster of humongous proportions for the family, a nightmare that starts again every day (the mother of the dead 2-year-old expresses her husband's grief in beautiful terms), and it was an accident. People should be able to take advantage of security devices if they choose to, but technological advances should not be made mandatory in order to replace real people's attention and help them abdicate responsibility. And may those poor children rest in peace.


Those rankings we love to hate

University administrators have long been complaining about the US News rankings, but last week quite a few of them took action and announced they would drop out. The rankings are a kind of Oscar ceremony for higher education: everybody says they are meaningless until her college wins (i.e., improves its ranking). The truth is, the rankings do matter - especially at the graduate level where US News ranks not only schools (of engineering, of law, of business, etc) but departments. The magazine, however, only publishes the Top 10 at the departmental level; the rest of the rankings are communicated to department chairs who then forward the ranking to the faculty (which is how I know Lehigh's ISE department has been in the Top 15 for many years). The importance of appearing in the Top 10 cannot be underestimated; about a year ago I chatted with the person receiving graduate applications in the IE department at Penn State and she mentioned she had seen a large increase in applications when the department moved up from #4 to #3. Can one slot make such a difference? Probably, when you think that many international students want to get a degree in the US but do not quite know where to apply, and application fees are not only expensive but cumbersome for foreigners as the fees must be processed in US dollars - students will only send their file to a couple of schools. In turn, higher rankings have an immediate impact on the quality of students who enter the program, which leads to better research and in time even higher rankings, so department chairs are obviously eager to improve their score. Change, however, comes very slowly, as the rankings are mostly based on peer assessment, peers being in that case other department chairs - it takes time for modifications (such as new faculty hires, a different research focus) to be noticed by outsiders, in particular other chairs who have, after all, many more pressing things to do than keeping track of who is changing what in their curriculum. By the same token, departments that benefit from the prestigious name of the university housing them but rest on their laurels will remain highly ranked for a while. Expertises vary; you sometimes find ahead of you in the rankings departments that do very poorly what you excel in. (For instance, IE encompasses operations research [optimization], manufacturing [process flows], ergonomics, but some departments do not cover ergonomics while others are also moving away from manufacturing to focus on information technology, data mining, optimization and the like.) While we all snicker that the rankings are just a "beauty contest", this is certainly a contest where everyone hopes to be a finalist, and with that goal in mind many departments have started to develop promotional material to send to other department chairs, with the laudable goal of keep everyone aware of what everyone else is doing just in time for next year's rankings.

And what about undergraduate rankings? Quite frankly, I doubt they matter as much as US News would like to believe. A significant number of students pick colleges because school counselors advise them to apply there, and their advice is based on previous observations of graduates of the same high school who enjoyed that specific college. My own informal discussions at Lehigh with my freshman advisees suggest that admission officials often accept (relatively) large numbers of graduates from this or that high school because kids from those places have thrived at Lehigh in the past - and since I have not broached the topic with admission officials it is possible that they actually pay little attention to the high school when they decide whom to admit, but quite a few students explained they became interested in Lehigh because that student ahead of them had gone to Lehigh and liked it. Ranking a whole university does not do justice to programs performing above the university average, and if you want to study engineering there is little point in attending a well-ranked university whose strength lies in business. Also, parents in the Lehigh Valley will not forget about Lafayette College (Lehigh's arch-rival in football) because it dropped out of the US News rankings. Of course it will not help Lafayette raise its visibility at the national level, but again, I am not convinced that parents decide that their kids should apply to this or that college because it appears on the first page (Tier 1) of the US News rankings - instead, most follow the advice of their school counselor. A glossy brochure to thwart oblivion will come in handy; marketing campaigns are about to reach a whole new level in the war for the best college students.


Walking the talk: undergraduate engineering scholarships

A few days ago my colleagues and I were discussing merit aid - how the merit scholarships are used to lure students who have applied to schools only marginally better than Lehigh because kids accepted to the Ivy League won't come here, except students in the Integrated Business and Engineering Honors Program who will pick us over top schools such as Cornell because of the enormous prestige associated with our honors program and the incredible job opportunities at the end (the students get to select any major in business or engineering and receive special training in addition to the required courses in their major; companies fall all over themselves at graduation to snatch them.) As indicated on the IBE's website (see link above), the purpose of the program is to provide students with a better understanding of how business and technology fit together, but really it prepares tomorrow's managers to lead in times of technological innovation and the words "honors program" don't even do justice to the superb job of the students, and of the administrators who created the program. (Only about 45 students are admitted every year. When I teach seniors in industrial engineering the IBE ones consistently perform at the top of the class and they get jobs from companies that do not even bother recruiting on-campus if they can't get IBEs.) And, to go back to funding, the prestige associated with the program has reached such a level that few students will turn us down if we do not offer them merit aid, although every kid when the program was first launched received merit scholarships to put IBE on the map. And then the conversation drifted to parents negotiating better offers for their offspring by saying this competitor of ours offers that extra amount of money and their kid really wants to go to Lehigh but can we match the money, and how exactly are we supposed to know whether the parent is bluffing or relaying a genuine offer? Even families who could easily afford to pay full tuition attach much pride in saying to the neighbors that little Timmy is going to college for free, or was offered this or that amount in scholarships. Which brings me to the true point of this post: if the US want to have more students in engineering, it has to walk its talk by creating undergraduate four-year scholarships for students who commit to study engineering in college.

Many students compete every year for Fulbright scholarships ("to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries"), Marshall scholarships ("to commemorate the human ideals of the European Recovery Programme (the Marshall Plan)") and Truman scholarships (to recognize students "with exceptional leadership potential", "committed to making a difference through public service"). Those scholarships are all intended for college graduates, but when it comes to engineering the excellent work of the National Science Foundation, which offers Americans highly competitive fellowships for graduate studies in science and engineering, occurs at a point where many students have already decided they preferred to work in industry, and often in consulting. Reversing the current trends in enrollment would require the massive injection of prestige into engineering undergraduate programs and prestige, well, has long been associated with money: allowing the best undergraduates to go to college on a full ride if they study engineering would send a powerful message that the US take their leadership seriously. In 2005 Senator Joe Lieberman co-sponsored a bill called the National Innovation Act to "ensure the United States remains the lead in innovation, research and development and the training of scientists and engineers." Here is an excerpt of the press release:

"Features of the bill include:   

• Establishes the President’s Council on Innovation to develop a comprehensive agenda to promote innovation in the public and private sectors.

• Establishes the Innovation Acceleration Grants Program which encourages federal agencies funding research in science and technology to allocate 3% of their Research and Development (R&D) budgets to grants directed toward high-risk frontier research.

• Increases the national commitment to basic research by nearly doubling research funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) by FY 2011.

• Makes permanent the Research and Experimentation (R&E) tax credit with modifications expanding eligibility for incentives to a greater number of firms.

• Expands existing educational programs in the physical sciences and engineering by increasing funding for NSF graduate research fellowship programs as well as Department of Defense science and engineering scholarship programs.

• Authorizes the Department of Defense to create a competitive traineeship program for undergraduate and graduate students in defense science and engineering that focuses on multidisciplinary learning and innovation-oriented studies.

• Authorizes funding for new and existing Professional Science Master’s Degree Programs to increase the number of qualified scientists and engineers entering the workforce.

• Authorizes the Department of Commerce to promote the development and implementation of state-of-the art advanced manufacturing systems and to support up to three Pilot Test Beds of Excellence for such systems.

• Encourages the development of regional clusters (”hot spots”) of technology innovation throughout the United States.

• Empowers the Department of Defense to identify and accelerate the transition of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes that will improve productivity of the defense manufacturing base."

Those ideas are laudable and will certainly contribute to improve the current situation if implemented, but with the exception of the Department of Defense's traineeship program, there is no mention of advocacy at the undergraduate level for careers in engineering - the pool of college-trained engineers is not going to increase just because the government says it would be so much better for the country if more people chose that career path, especially at a time where many companies are re-centering their US activities on services, not engineering. Creating undergraduate fellowships would send a powerful message that the US stands by its commitment to engineering, beyond the pretty words of its politicians. Since Marshall, Fulbright and Truman left their name on scholarships, "all we have to do now" is finding a politician who cares a bit about engineering and innovation, and will give his name to the program... Well, I guess that leaves us with Lieberman. Someone should let him know.


An unexpected side effect of online forums

It has become common practice for news organizations to host blogs and let readers post comments to the journalists' posts, and sometimes to the online version of their articles. The New York Times for instance hosts a political blog and readers last week posted 224 well-thought-out and articulate responses to The Backstory on Obama-Clinton Attack Memos. The forum is moderated and what ends up online brings neither shame nor embarrassment to the newspaper. A similar example of comments contributing to the national debate of some sort can be found in the NPR blog of Leroy Sievers, a journalist struggling with brain cancer; readers send support messages to Leroy, whose tumor has recently reappeared in his spine, and share their own grief or survival stories. That forum is moderated as well.

So online forums present everyday people with a great opportunity to use their own knowledge to benefit other readers, right?... Unfortunately, the quality of the comments drops (tumbles, crashes) to abysmal levels when readers are allowed to post unmoderated thoughts about newspaper articles - as a result of the move to hyperlocal journalism, many readers know whoever happens to be in the newspaper and quite frankly the comments don't inspire much confidence in small-town America. For an example, go to Allentown's Morning Call and click on an article, then on "view comments" at the bottom. (Note that this will take you to another website; the comments are not hosted by the Morning Call itself.) Let's use "A father's tough love, a son's forgiveness", about a police officer who turned in his 28-year-old drug-addicted son to law enforcement after seeing surveillance photos of a bank robber and realizing it was his own offspring. You can read comments on the Lord's divine intervention, accusations on father and son by "people in the know", defense of the father, the son's wife telling everyone to leave the family alone, and posters insulting each other (you are a busybody, I know what you are, etc). In the comments for "Vigil tonight for 6-year-old hit by car", we hear that the mother (who was not around at the time of the accident when her son was hit by a car trying to follow his elder brother who had crossed a busy intersection) has questionable pastimes and has been investigated by children services; we also read prayers for the boy and comments from the family defending the mother. (It goes on and on; "Coroner: Bethlehem teen driver drunk before fatal crash" turns into "I told you so", comments on parenting and the friends who had insisted their pals - 18-year-old driver and 17-year-old passenger - were not drunk and "let's ban all alcoholic beverages".)

What struck me most is neither the small-mindedness of some comments (this is small-town America, what do you expect) nor the thought of lost productivity at all these people spitting their hatred on the Internet instead of getting any work done. It is the spelling mistakes some posters make - on a few occasions I actually had to read the word aloud to understand what they meant ("aloud" for "allowed", "right" for "write", etc). In the end, an unexpected side effect of unmoderated online forums is to show the rest of the world many people in the US do not know how to spell. And until they learn I am going to stick with the NYT's blogs.


MIT's Dean for Graduate Students

At the end of the month, Ike Colbert will retire from his position of Dean for Graduate Students at MIT; he has been heading the Graduate Students Office (GSO) since 1999. 1999 is the year I arrived at MIT, and later I had the opportunity to work with Ike when I co-chaired the Academics, Research and Careers Committee of MIT's Graduate Student Council (GSC) in 2001-2002. Ike played a key role in the major changes that have occurred at MIT at the graduate student level; of course he was not alone in bringing those changes about - the Graduate Student Council deserves many thanks too - but because the GSC's executive committee varies from year to year while Ike stayed in his position for eight years, he provided a continuity in those efforts that gave them a much greater chance of success.

So what are those big changes I am referring to? Simply put, MIT now has a graduate student community. Until about a decade ago, graduate students were treated more like postdocs - staff members whose main purpose is to produce research results for their advisor and spend very long hours in lab with little interaction with their peers - than undergraduates - students who participate in many extra-curricular activities, contribute to associations and generally speaking view their time in college as one for exploration. (I am not including professional schools here: no business school, no law school.) Graduate school, in particular at the doctoral level, has its fair share of setbacks and loneliness; grad students were also left to fend for themselves to make ends meet on their meager stipend and figure out what to do with their degree. Another disadvantage for them, compared to undergraduates, has long been that professionals typically give money to their undergraduate alma mater; there is little incentive for administrators to "cuddle" grad students since few of them are going to show their gratitude in monetary terms down the road. (For the 2005-2006 year, MIT's alumni from the undergraduate classes, about 52,000 people, achieved a participation rate in the alumni fund of 37% and contributed a total exceeding 23 million dollars; MIT's alumni from the graduate classes, about 47,000 people, achieved a participation rate in the alumni fund of 26% and contributed a total of about 8.5 million dollars. And the graduate numbers are high compared to peer institutions.) In this climate, it will remain Ike Colbert's legacy to have understood the need for a graduate student community, not only because that was the "nice thing to do" (although it was), but as a way to preserve MIT's competitive advantage over other famous US institutions; as an example, two graduate dorms opened (The Warehouse and Sidney-Pacific) opened in the second half of Ike's tenure - a key step in ensuring affordable housing for grad students. GSC of course also strongly advocated for this.

Personally, I remember Ike most for Grad School 101, a seminar series he held for first-year grad students with Prof. Steve Lerman, then Chair of the Faculty at MIT, because I coordinated the series on the GSC side. (There is a blurb on the series that year towards the middle of the page here. The current Grad School 101 seminar appears to differ widely from the one I knew, probably because it was redesigned to be meaningful for non-doctoral graduate students as well.) Back then GS 101 was held over four evenings during the academic year, and the most popular was on picking an advisor, especially for doctoral students. Ike used his observations on students who came to see him with their advising issues and Steve relied on his own experience as a faculty advisor; they both provided fascinating insights on the advisor's perspective to the advisor-advisee relationship and made many comments I still refer to today, when my undergraduate students move away for grad school and have to select their own advisor. Their advice also benefits me in a different measure, now that I advise students - I have enjoyed knowing about their own advising challenges. (Want a sneak peak?... For advisees: Ike and Steve were the first faculty members I know who articulated the importance of the personal relationship between student and faculty member. This is not about making friends with your advisor. But many students, at MIT and beyond, just pick a research supervisor because he is well-known or has a PhD from a famous institution, and that is really not a good way to pick someone you are going to spend years working for. Ike and Steve advised to talk with other students working with the same faculty member and research the time to degree and the attrition rates. In other words, how many of the students who start working for that person graduate in a reasonable amount of time and leave the lab at least moderately happy with their experience? Looking back, I have had some good students with potential who wasted their time working with me either because I knew from the start I would not enjoy working with the person but had to fund the student as nobody else had money left, or because it turned out the student's personal style was such that he would not do anything unless I was constantly checking in on him and that's not how I wanted to spend my days. Relationships!)

As luck would have it, MIT announced a couple of days ago who would succeed Ike as Dean for Graduate Students; MIT had expressed the desire that the position go to a faculty member. And who was appointed? Steve Lerman! I was not surprised at all. From the Grad School 101 days I remember Steve as someone who cares deeply for graduate students (he is also the housemaster in one of the grad-student dorms) and I am sure he will do a terrific job in continuing Ike's work.


The future of engineering

A June 11th article in the New York Times on "Fewer Journalists Seeking Fellowships" ends with the following quote by the head of the Knight Science Fellowships at MIT: "I feel a little queasy encouraging young people into journalism. It's such a precarious industry right now." Well, I feel the same way about engineering sometimes; I doubt many of the incoming freshmen at Lehigh who are about to enter the College of Engineering have any clue what they are getting themselves into. I suspect they will end up very pleased with their choice... especially when they realize large numbers of engineering graduates before them did not take jobs as engineers but instead were hired as consultants - as a result many graduates are paid much higher salaries than they would have dreamt of as freshmen. In my own limited experience in industrial engineering at Lehigh, the better half of the students goes to work for consulting firms, the lower half goes to work for manufacturing companies. (This post of mine emphasizes my point.)

The truth is, many engineers-by-training in the US have become sophisticated number-crunchers in charge of extracting meaning from large amounts of data, and that suits the services industry just well. But isn't it a waste of time and resources, then, at least for the professors, to train students on materials strength and bridge resistance if the kids all migrate towards information management when they get their degree? (No, I am not bitter; I teach quantitative management models heavily used in the consulting business.) When you think of the traditional division of economy in three sectors - agriculture, manufacturing and services - you cannot help but wonder whether farmers around 1950 felt as engineers feel today: an endangered species. Maybe my view is a bit distorted by the nature of my department, which straddles manufacturing and services - and manufacturing in the US doesn't have much of a future - but it seems that when the brightest kids of the department don't go into consulting they go into finance (New York City's siren song...) and engineering might well run the risk of becoming a profession for also-rans. At MIT many PhD holders in science and engineering have ended up as "quants" on Wall Street, again thanks to their analytical skills. (See here for more information on that.)  Many people have written on the future of engineering by now - an excellent article on the topic is due to Rosalind Williams ("Education for the Profession Formerly Known as Engineering," Chronicle of Higher Education, 2003); she points out that "Fewer faculty members in engineering actually make things; more work with symbols and models" and that "Engineering (...) has developed its own theoretical wing, with practitioners who never actually build things and whose research takes them well beyond the range of common-sense experience."

University administrators (former MIT president Charles Vest, who will become the NAE's president next month, and Shirley Ann Jackson are the most famous examples) worry about the competition waged by foreign universities as education goes global. But are they waging a rearguard battle, will the US become a services-land where most of the real engineering is outsourced to countries that value science more, and where the so-called engineers are number-crunching problem-solvers who stare at computers all day long? Or will the pendulum swing back in the engineers' favor after a Sputnik-like incident that will bring engineering back into the list of national priorities?