David Goldberg is the founder and president of Big Beacon, as well as the mind behind University of Illinois’s iFoundry incubator. He recently co-authored the book A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education. Here, he sits down with create to discuss the new skills engineers will need as the employment landscape changes.
create: Your book is subtitled The Coming Revolution. Could you summarise that revolution for us?
DAVID GOLDBERG: It relates to a more holistic or well-rounded engineer who has great technical skills and the great fundamental skills of practice, which really revolve around conversation and action, being able to interact with the situation and converse with others in order to bring great technology into the world that serves people.
create: Is this being driven by changes in engineering, or is the education system inadequate?
DG: It’s a bit of both. The ability for us to communicate around the world by video or audio, to send documents over the internet, has really changed the nature of information. And that ready access to information has actually diminished returns to expertise. So being an expert and standing in front of the classroom and delivering content is no longer as valuable as it was, when you can go online and watch a professor at a famous school halfway around the world for free.
The thing that the web has not reduced the need for is the ability to design and to interact with a situation and to collaborate with others. The skills necessary for that are collaborative, they’re in conversation, but they’re also, in some sense, less about what some have called technical rationality, and they have more to do with things like emotion and culture.
It shifts the kinds of things that we should be teaching and the ways that we should be teaching. Being the experts on the stage is no longer as valuable as being more of a coach who can help draw out a person’s potential and help them find a way to lead a productive and authentic life.
create: If the profession was more diverse, would some of those skills filter through more naturally?
DG: I’m going to flip it around. When we have a more balanced curriculum, when we have a culture that values emotional skills as much as the technical skills, what we end up seeing is more gender balance. My co-author on the book is Mark Somerville at Olin College. Olin from its very beginning has had no trouble having roughly 50/50 gender balance in both faculty and students and that’s very unusual.
If you look at, say, Olin’s ranking in Princeton reviews and other student review sites, Olin’s listed as among the most challenging educational experiences and the most fun. That’s what we want. We want to get the good stuff, we want to be challenged and we want to have fun doing it, and there’s no contradiction in terms if you get these poles right; teaching, research, individual, team.
create: So what are Olin and Illinois doing to turn this around and to appeal?
DG: When we start talking about reform or educational change, it sort of begins and ends with content, curriculum and pedagogy. But that’s actually not the starting place. The starting place is to examine at the organisational level your culture, and at the individual level opportunities for deep engagement.
We did this in iFoundry, and Olin did it when they started. Essentially the first step is to tell a new story about what it is that you’re doing, and that sounds funny to engineering ears because stories are the things of public relations people and marketing people and salesmen, which engineers traditionally have not valued very much. But actually the change in story is not PR. It’s helping create a new culture over and over again at Illinois and at Olin.
create: Are there other universities doing the right job when it comes to creating engineers of the future?
DG: There are quite a few schools engaged in this. A great little program that not many people know about is at James Madison University in Virginia. It’s got a lot of student engagement and a lot of project work throughout the curriculum.