Too much emphasis on specialization at universities, panelists say

  • 30-Jun-2008 06:26 EDT

Participating on the AeroTech plenary panel were (left to right) William Scott, David Urie, Jay Davis, Terry "Houston" Hawkins, and Peter Cochrane.

Participants in the opening panel at SAE's AeroTech Congress and Exhibition are distinguished engineers/scientists all, not educators, but they had a thing or two to say about university education and career development.

The September 17-20 conference was held in Los Angeles.

David Urie, Senior Consultant at Colbaugh & Heinsheimer Consulting, encouraged engineers to cultivate some degree of “unspecialization.” He said specialization, taken too far, creates an environment in which new ideas that do not fit squarely into a particular field might “whistle right between the specialties” in the same way that fly balls to Lucy in the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip drop right beside her because she pays no attention to anything outside her precise position. He suggested to engineers in the room that taking in an AeroTech technical session outside his or her specialty would be a good exercise in unspecialization.

And a way for America as a nation to further unspecialization is to have its universities begin awarding degrees in the broad areas of science and engineering vs. specialized degrees, Urie said. He described a science or engineering degree as a “ticket to go out and commit science or commit engineering.”

Said Peter Cochrane, a self-described futurist with his own firm, Cochrane Associates: “What we’ve created in our education system are silos of ignorance where we say, ‘You do physics, you do chemistry, you do biology.’  Well, there is no physics, there is no chemistry, there is no biology; there is only science. And in a world that is becoming more complex, we’ve got to become much more multidisciplinary to understand some of this [future technology].”

U.S. Air Force retired general Houston “Terry” Hawkins thinks that “what we’ve done in science is build artificial boxes so we can have titles. But I think fundamentally we have to be scientists who are currently working in biology, or scientists who are currently working in chemistry. We need to never lose sight of the fact that we’re, foremost, scientists. If you stay in one area too long, you’ll tend to atrophy.”

Strategic and scientific consultant Jay Davis, a physicist, said the country’s universities are lagging behind the national laboratories and industrial research companies, “who understand the future is multidisciplinary stuff.”

Most people end up working in a field other than their specialty anyway, said panel moderator William Scott, President of Scott Systems. “For the longest time, I just thought I couldn’t hold a job,” he said in explanation of having a career that has spanned electrical engineering and journalism.

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