Leveraging STEM Education To Encourage Constructive Disruption For Good

Our 2017 Symposium will explore how higher education institutions can better prepare their students for future technological advances and changing city landscapes.

All over the world, nations are experiencing change at breakneck speed. The U.S. is adjusting to a new occupant in the White House who has an unconventional approach and unorthodox agenda. On the other side of the pond, Britain is making its way out of the European Union, something no one would have anticipated just a year ago. In places like China, Brazil and India, new economies are emerging with new influence and global impacts.

For many, all this change raises questions about where we are headed. People are apprehensive about alterations to the status quo — especially at the speed we’re seeing. But a lot of the transformation we are undergoing is constructive disruption, and we sometimes lose sight of that.

No one will argue that globalization and changing technology has advantages and disadvantages. But undeniably, changes in these areas have led us to think differently. We may not yet have solved the wealth gap but consider how advancements in technology have given people the tools to advance their education and their lives no matter where they live because of the access that technology provides. Today, more people than ever are going to college to get an education that will lead to better jobs. Worldwide, life expectancy has increased by nearly two decades in the last century thanks to technology that is improving health care. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, children’s deaths today are half of what they were in 1990. And that’s huge positive change.

So change is driving plenty of good, right now. We just don’t hear too much about it. In part because despite this progress, many people, particularly in advanced economies, feel disenfranchised. They are still living the aftermath of a financial crisis, when many lost not only their assets and livelihoods, but above all, lost their trust in the government and confidence in the “establishment”.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey of 30,000 people in 28 countries, reports that trust in all institutions — government, business, media, NGOs — has fallen dramatically, and reached all-time lows. All over the world, there are those who believe the system has failed them and that the system is broken.

To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people at the center of everything they do, acknowledging and addressing the legitimate concerns of citizens and constituents about all that is changing in our world.

So we’re challenging our tech community to step out of their comfort zones and connect with the world outside to experience how what we do affects people in their daily lives. We need to understand that amidst all this transition, in many cases, people are finding comfort in human connectedness and “what’s old is new again”. For example, think about the renaissance underway in Detroit and other similar once-abandoned urban areas. The innovation and technology behind services like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have encouraged Millennials to flock back to cities and re-create their own American Dream. They are re-imagining the sense of community that was very familiar to me as a boy in Detroit, where we walked places and we knew our neighbors and the people who owned local businesses.

With this urban renaissance, comes heightened awareness that urban development brings many challenges, including lack of funds to provide basic services, a shortage of adequate housing and declining infrastructure. So future leaders in engineering, computing, technology and the sciences must be prepared to address the challenges cities face and overcome them in ways that allow them to continue to thrive and grow, with access to basic services, energy, housing, transportation and more. Today’s students need to recognize how their work will impact our changing society in a direct and immediate way. While they are still in college, our students must not only learn to analyze and design solutions, but understand how their work will contribute to solving the trials ahead of us.

While I am painfully aware of what will need to change, I am also optimistic of our ability to get there. ABET’s preparation of tomorrow’s engineers, technologists and scientists is about more than just mastery of vocation and industry skills. We are instilling in students that their work will impact the transformation of our world.

Today, global leaders from governments, private sector and civil societies (including corporate members of ABET’s Industry Council) are aligned to address the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to help end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change. And more than ever, tech professionals who are graduates of ABET-accredited programs will be needed to collaboratively drive innovation related to the environment, transportation, infrastructure, urban planning and waste and resource management, to name a few.

You can’t hold back the revolution in whatever way it comes. But we’re striving to instill in our ABET-accredited graduates, that as they usher in the technological change and advancement of the future, their success is not just measured by professional accomplishment but by sustainable improvements to the human family.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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