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National Engineering Week celebrates a challenging profession

National Engineers Week (Feb. 20-26) provides an opportunity to highlight how critical engineers and computer scientists are to our everyday life. The members of the profession, including all engineering, computer science and engineering-related disciplines, have the opportunity to celebrate its contributions to society and share the love, excitement and enthusiasm they have for their work.

Sharing the profession with society has been a challenge and many engineers and computer scientists know we need to enhance public engagement. Because our civilization and economy are increasingly based on technology and its applications, engineers and computer scientists must be willing to take on leadership roles. Governments and civic organizations need technically-educated participants and leaders to construct effective decisions on how to build a successful society.

Dr. George Bugliarello, chancellor, Polytechnic University of Brooklyn, New York, said the following: "If engineering is to be a strong interlocutor in the dialogue about the future, it needs to become more integrated with science, society and humanistic concerns. It is not enough to pursue the whys of nature or to find how we can modify nature. We must also decide what we should do. We need to decide how far and in what directions society should go in pursuit of science and engineering rather than be helplessly tossed about by waves of technological or social determinism. This is a humanistic and ethical question of great importance."

Why are engineering and computer science so central to our lifestyle and economy? The answers could fill volumes, but this article only hits the highlights. Food, air and water are the most immediate needs of people. The role played by engineering and computer science in providing these necessities is substantial, yet not widely known. The technical advances in food, air and water production, preservation and cleaning; and the modeling of complex systems, purification, monitoring and supply are directly tied to engineering and computing and information systems.

Once essential needs are met, mankind moves on to the requirements that support an advanced society such as energy, materials and information. The production delivery of energy is a true marvel of modern life that is built and maintained by engineers. Air conditioning and heating have opened up vast areas of the world to habitation and industrial development. Energy supports industrial development and manufacturing, and propels the transportation systems. Electrical power is central to many of our activities, including reducing human toil and brightening our existence through light, communication and entertainment.

The highways of commerce and business -- be they roads, airways or fiber optic cables-- are conceived, built and maintained by engineers and computer scientists. National and personal security, another high priority for our society, are largely dependent on applied technology as practiced by engineers and computer scientists.

Sophisticated defense systems controlled by computers, constructed of advanced materials and coordinated by a satellite-based Global Positioning System are key to national and personal security. Examples of how engineers and computer scientists contribute to advance health care are numerous, but note that x-rays, all kinds of imaging processes, hip, knee and bone repair, orthoscopy surgery and laser eye repair are all based on technologies conceived, designed and built by engineers. The technical professions do not make life, they make life a lot better.

The nation recently set a record of the longest period of economic growth. Why has this happened? The consensus is that information efficiencies have allowed rapid economic growth with record high employment and low inflation. The growth of wealth in the nation has never been equaled in history and the main driver is increases in productivity through technology, with special emphasis in computational and communication advances.

As old economic models become unreliable, new ones are built. Although a complete and comprehensive model of modern economic causes and effects is unavailable, the course is clear -- continue the use of technology to increase productivity. To lay the foundation for future economic growth, the nation must invest in research, innovation, engineering and computer science education, technical training and new industries. These national policy decisions need strong technical leaders at all levels of government.

Now comes a central question for the profession. Why are not more leaders engineers and computer scientists, and why are not more engineers and computer scientists leaders? The challenge for the profession is to answer this question and then take action to change the status quo. Public and economic policy must be constructed around the development, growth and use of technology. Governmental institutions charged with making national policy need leaders trained as engineers and computer scientists.

The profession and its education arm need to plan and execute curricula reforms that will guide technical graduates to leadership goals and civic responsibilities. This is an old issue with engineers that is now getting new attention. The solution is neither simple nor known. Let us hear your ideas. The beginning of the new century is an apt time to commit the profession to change our career paths, image and society.

We need to engage all disciplines in the discussion of how to build a future society using the advances in technology produced by engineers and computer scientists. Pick up your phone, pen and keyboard and help the profession engage in the public's business. Share your technical knowledge and experience, and learn to be effective in civic discourse. This will not be easy, but engineers and computer scientists love challenges and unsolvable problems.

Have a great National Engineers Week. Let us pledge to work together to take the profession to even higher levels of service and respect.

Allen C. Cogley is dean and professor of the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University. William D. Gregory is dean and professor at the Leonard C. Nelson College of Engineering, West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

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