Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harvard, training ground for nation-builders?

Over the years, I have come to believe that engineering, done well, is easily the most important and history-changing of all the professions.  To be good at this occupation, an engineer must be inventive, visionary, thoroughly grounded in the sciences, and decisive, among other notable virtues.  Engineers have designed how we grow our food, transport ourselves, create shelter and advanced medicines, and the rest of the umbilical cords that keep us alive.

Unfortunately, like in any other profession, the great engineers constitute a small minority of the practitioners.  Even so, Thorstein Veblen himself hoped that engineers would become the vanguard of advanced social organization.  I am quite certain if he came back, the fact that this did not come true would be among his greatest disappointments.  We had two engineers as Presidents in USA, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, and neither did a very good job.

Because both climate change and the end of the Age of Petroleum are energy related problems, they are largely the sort of thing that would be considered "engineering problems."  I would put the split at 35% economic and 65% engineering.  Almost nothing else matters.  And even IF we were to come up with the large pile of money necessary to build the fire-free society, actually pulling the off the conversion must still rely of millions of engineering decisions made by the best-trained people that can be assembled.

Which leads to the following story.  Harvard is arguably the epicenter of Leisure Class education.  That they even have an engineering school kind of baffles me. Training engineers as nation-builders has never been important at Harvard.  In fact, the New England schools including MIT have pretty much been MIA ever since they sat out the space program in the 1960s.  But now Harvard has announced an interdisciplinary engineering program to tackle large problems.  Such a degree path is devoutly to be wished—especially by folks like me who consider climate change to be an engineering matter.  But whether a school whose primary goal for generations has been to train industrial saboteurs in the form of investment bankers and hedge-fund operators, is now somehow qualified to begin turning out big-picture engineers, is highly questionable.

Harvard Launches Design Engineering Master's Program to Tackle Multi-Scale Problems

Next year, the Graduate School of Design and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will join forces in a uniquely collaborative, open-ended program


The evolution of design education will take another step forward in the fall of 2016, when Harvard University will begin offering a Master in Design Engineering. The two-year program—which will be taught by faculty from both the Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)—has its origins in a lunchtime conversations series called "Now?" which, over the course of several years, brought together people from throughout the campus to discuss their work with a focus on problem-solving in the present, rather than the past or for the future.

GSD's dean, Mohsen Mostafavi, spoke in a recent interview about how the new program fits into the current discourse around design thinking, while highlighting its emphasis on "preparing individuals to take a multidisciplinary mindset into a project environment and work across fields."

[Editors Note: For more on interdisciplinary design programs, see Matthew Kressy's piece on MIT's Integrated Design and Management program's approach to engineering, business and design.]

The goal is not to turn designers into engineers or engineers into designers, but rather to foster a "genuinely collaborative" environment where students develop a robust, multi-disciplinary toolkit. The curriculum will emphasize the studio model and include four classes per semester, culminating in a design project during the second year. The types of real-world questions that the students will tackle will ring similar to these:

• What would it take to convert the U.S. transportation system from its almost total reliance on gasoline to more stable, economical, and environmentally friendly alternatives?
• How could the health care delivery system be transformed to yield better outcomes at lower cost?
• What steps can cities take to adapt to rising sea levels and other climate change-induced environmental impacts with minimal disruption to society?
• How can homes be designed to consume zero net energy by minimizing year-round heat transfer and incorporating on-site generation of electricity?
• In developing products that integrate into the Internet of Things, how should companies design devices and services that balance individual privacy and security with the benefits of networked intelligence?

Initially, the program will look for candidates with backgrounds in design, architecture and engineering. But will ultimately extend their reach to people of different backgrounds including, "urban planning, the various fields of engineering, industrial design, manufacturing, even the arts."

Mostafavi also underlined the entrepreneurial dimension of the program, noting that "the combination of design and engineering needs to be understood in the broader context of how future leaders will realize projects." Regarding potential career paths after the program, the Deans believe "there will be a lot of possibilities for people who don't want to work for anybody else, who want to start their own companies to develop their own ideas, people who really want to be innovative entrepreneurs." more

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