Q&A with Mark W. Albers, ExxonMobil senior vice president

INSPIRATION, EARLY ENGINEERING EDUCATION ARE KEYS TO ADDRESSING THE 3C’S

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Mark W. Albers, ExxonMobil senior vice president, is delivering the keynote at the regional dialogue in Houston.  He took time to give us his thoughts on the 3C’s and the importance of STEM education.

 

Engineering is sometimes referred to as the “silent E” in STEM education.  What are your thoughts on corporate America’s role in inspiring the next generation of innovative engineers?

Inspire is the right word.  Students who aspire to be future engineers typically have to make the right class choices around the 8th grade to prepare for the harder STEM subjects in high school and college.  To make sure that they’re ready, we must reach and inspire young minds at that earlier age to ensure that they get a chance to see engineering as the great and fulfilling career it is.

Many students, however, do not even consider the possibility of engineering as a career unless they have a family member or role model who is an engineer.  This is especially true among students in demographic groups that are underrepresented among STEM professions. The best way, then, to get more students in the engineering pipeline that extends from elementary school to the workplace is to develop teachers who have a passion and a talent to make STEM subjects come alive.  They must know how to make engineering real for students with hands-on learning and nuts-and-bolts projects.

With these needs in mind, ExxonMobil supports efforts to attract brilliant young minds onto a path to excel as engineers in, for example, medicine, computing, aerospace – or to become one of the 18,000 scientists and engineers who work at ExxonMobil.

One such program is a partnership with PGA golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, which brings innovative teaching methods to 600 third- through fifth-grade teachers each summer during the school break. Another is the Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, which has provided more than 8,000 underserved students with an expenses-paid, residential camp for hands-on, student-centered learning.  And we support the Sally Ride Science Academy, which has helped thousands of educators spark excitement about STEM subjects for close to 1 million students.

ExxonMobil is also a founding sponsor of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI).  Our goal is to find programs that work, and scale them up in schools and universities around the nation.

There are many such efforts supported by other businesses and non-profit organizations that help teachers inspire students in STEM subjects.  We need them all.

 

What do you believe are the essential qualities and abilities engineers need to succeed?

Beyond strong technical abilities, our engineers must have good communication skills – a requirement now being addressed by the nation’s best engineering schools.  An engineer needs the ability to work in, and effectively influence, project teams that include scientists, accountants, lawyers, and other professionals – as well as to ensure understanding about projects and the technologies we use in the communities where we all work and live.

An engineer also must have integrity.  In our field, integrity means more than tight seams and strong welds.  It means adhering to sound engineering principles, attention to detail, and an unrelenting focus on protecting people and the environment. It also means having the courage to speak the truth even though it may not be popular or well received by their audiences.

Finally, we look for leaders by seeking out graduates with leadership experience in college and extracurricular activities.  In my experience, leaders can often be identified early on.  Consider the story of David as a shepherd boy.  He was the last person you would choose to take on Goliath. He had no military rank or title. But David was the one who accepted the challenge on that day, and using the training he had, led his side to a decisive victory.  Leaders are those who have the courage to accept challenges and take them on for the benefit of others.

 

What do you believe is the key to bolstering America’s competitiveness in the global economy?

The key is education.  Our nation’s competitive abilities rest on our math and science education.  And yet, American students are not ranking as high as we need them to.

Our concern over these shortcomings is what led ExxonMobil to become a founding sponsor of National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI).  It is essential that students develop critical reasoning skills – what they should know and be able to do for later success in college and the workforce.

Beyond education, there needs to be an increased understanding by policymakers of the role of certainty and sound policy as an essential part of the business climate.  Energy projects in particular take years of planning, investment, and risk management from their conception to reality.  When policymakers and industry understand their respective roles and responsibilities, industry is free to generate new technologies and opportunities – as we see in the ongoing creation of millions of new jobs associated with the rise of unconventional oil and natural gas development in the United States.  That’s just one example of what American engineering and entrepreneurship can do.

 

Q&A WITH OAK RIDGE DIRECTOR, DR. THOM MASON

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE OF THE POSSIBLE

Dr. Thom MasonAs ORNL prepares to host a regional NEF dialogue April 18, Director Dr. Thom Mason talks about the 3C’s and engineering’s future.

Q&A

What’s it like to be part of ORNL?

All of us at ORNL are motivated by the opportunity to translate our science and engineering research into innovations that impact energy, global security and, ultimately, America’s long-term economic prospects. For me, the broad span of our research, from the very fundamental all the way to the point of application, is exciting and the ways in which we can connect together diverse elements of our expertise to do something impactful is unique.

What about challenges with the “3C’s” of engineering: capacity, capability and competitiveness?

We compete for talent globally. Because of the investments the Department of Energy has made in our specialized facilities, our supercomputers and neutron sources for example, we offer tools that are hard to find anywhere else and that certainly helps us recruit and retain the very best. However, as a nation we struggle to find talented individuals and it is difficult to keep pace with the mission needs. We are fortunate to be able to attract staff from around the world, but that is in part necessitated by the fact we don’t cultivate enough homegrown talent within the U.S. In many cases the draw “back home” for scientists and engineers from abroad is getting stronger as economies grow globally and look to the American model of innovation to develop further.

How has ORNL contributed to making America a better engineering nation?

We like to think we push the envelope of the possible with our one-of-a-kind facilities, things like the Spallation Neutron Source, ITER, the Leadership Computing Facility, the National Transportation Research Center, etc. We have ramped up our efforts in graduate education, working with universities to bring more graduate students into the lab for thesis research. We host interns and co-op students at the undergraduate level and, recently, we have been excited to work with high school students through the FIRST program.

What engineering disciplines do you see being in demand in the near future?

We draw on the full spectrum of engineering talent. Cyber security is a growing issue as is the future of high performance computing, so all aspects of computing and software engineering are in demand. Through a combination of new technology and the demographics of the existing engineering workforce, nuclear engineering and other engineering disciplines applied to nuclear are areas where there will likely be lots of opportunity as well.

How can engineers strengthen national security and future prosperity?

I would have to say by coming to work at one of the National Laboratories!

Q&A WITH OAK RIDGE ENGINEER, DR. CHAD DUTY

CREATIVITY, INSPIRATION AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

dr-chad-duty-2010-P01216ORNL engineer Dr. Chad Duty talks about how engineers can drive a prosperous American future and change the world

Q&A

What’s your favorite part of your work?

The most exciting part of engineering is the opportunity to apply scientific principles to the world around us. Although knowledge is great, I’m more interested in what we can do with that knowledge to make someone’s life better. I’m blessed to work with a creative group of engineers who are pushing the boundaries to invent and innovate on numerous fronts – from the bacterial production of complex nanoparticles to large-scale additive manufacturing. Honestly, it’s a blast to come to work every day!

How do you view the “3C’s” of engineering, the challenges of capacity, capability and competitiveness?

Our country has some significant challenges ahead in engineering and manufacturing. There is likely to be a shortage of well-trained engineers in the marketplace over the next few decades and we need to take immediate steps to reverse that trend. In addition, the pace of innovation is accelerating so dramatically, it’s critical that we not only teach students basic principles, but also how to adapt quickly to new information and prepare them for a lifetime of learning. Fortunately, the U.S. has some of the most innovative and creative students in the world, so there is still hope that we may not only survive but flourish in this new environment.

What drew you to Oak Ridge National Laboratory?

Working at a national laboratory offers access to capabilities and resources that are unmatched anywhere else in the world. And the true value of a place like ORNL far exceeds the capital investment in specific machines or infrastructure, but lies in the people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of a specific field. ORNL’s core competencies of material science, neutron characterization, and supercomputing align with my career focus in advanced manufacturing and offer the opportunity for a bright future in this area.

How can we make engineering careers more appealing for college students?

The key to attracting more students to engineering disciplines is to inspire them at a young age with the potential impact of applied science and math. ORNL has been very involved with the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students over the last several years. To achieve the objectives of their competition, whether it’s to sink a 20-foot jump shot or toss a disc through a goal, students have to apply engineering principles. But at that point, they’re not simply doing boring math drills – they’re trying to win the game! Although they may not fully grasp the underlying theories, the relevance of engineering to their world at that moment is undeniable.

If you could work in any other engineering center, where would it be and why?

Given the opportunity, I’d like to work with a leading biomedical research institution. Since my undergraduate days, I’ve been interested in how mechanical engineering can address physiological challenges through biomechanics applications. My current research in additive manufacturing would likely offer the opportunity for significant advancements in medical device designs, such as prosthetics. In this case, I can imagine the real world impact of an engineering success would be immediate and transparent, which would be very rewarding on a personal and professional level.

Summer reading — and fall viewing — for engineers

The Martian, an Oscar-nominated feature film, began as popular novel written by an engineer and featuring one as its hero. Author Andy Weir talked to NEF about the role storytelling plays in America’s engineering enterprise.

 

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NEF: In our discussions with engineering leaders around the country, we hear a recurring theme that engineers don’t do a good job of telling their own story. As someone who tells engineering stories masterfully, what’s your take on how engineers could better communicate their value?

AW: Aww, thanks. I think the humor made digesting the technical info more palatable for the readers. So I guess my advice would be “be funny.”

NEF: The Martian is renowned for its technical depth and accuracy. What was your reaction when you discovered there was such a broad audience for that kind of approach?

AW: I was very surprised. I had no idea a mainstream audience would have any interest. When I wrote the story, I wrote it for nerds like me. I assumed technically-minded people would be the only ones who could be interested. I’m glad it worked out how it did, but I still don’t know what I did right.

NEF: How did you decide how much was too much, in terms of getting the engineering and technology details right?

AW: That was a fine line. There was scientific information I needed the reader to know, but I didn’t want the story to read like a Wikipedia article. There’s no easy answer there. It was all about balance.

NEF: How did you get the NASA culture right?

AW: I didn’t know anyone at NASA or in aerospace at all when I wrote the book. However, I had spent many years working for Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore. I figured one large, federally-funded research facility would be similar to another, so I projected my Sandia experience onto NASA. Turns out they were pretty similar.

NEF: What kind of feedback do you hear from actual engineers about some of the solutions you imagined in the Martian? Is there any particular part of the story that engineers like to discuss with you?

AW: I get very positive feedback from engineers. They’ll tell me where I messed up, of course (it’s how we engineers are!) but they’re still extremely happy at the level of accuracy found in the book. For the most part, they want to talk about places where I got the science wrong. But that’s how engineers have fun. And I have fun talking to them about it, too.

NEF: What other engineering stories are swirling around in your head?

AW: I’ve got some ideas, but I don’t want to tell people about them. I want to use them as plot points in future books.

NEF: The largest burden to human life in space is the psychological impact on the individual. Mark is extremely funny and sarcastic in the book. Did you intentionally give him these characteristics because you knew, from research, that he’d need these qualities for extended human space flight?

AW: Yes, definitely. And not just for their own psychological health, but for the cohesive social structure of the crew. If you’re going to have six people live in a small space for over a year, you better make sure you get people who will get along.

NEF: Where did you get information and architectures for the Hab on Mars?

AW: I can’t really cite a specific source. Many people have suggested inflatable habitats for Martian (and lunar) missions. It’s sort of a self-evident idea.

NEF: Have you had any interest from space organizations in your designs and conclusions?

AW: No. Remember, I’m just an enthusiast. The people who actually make these things are experts. There’s nothing I come up with that they haven’t already considered long ago. And for the most part, the tech in the book is stuff that either already exists or is being actively researched.

NEF: When do you think we’ll be able to send people to Mars, if ever?

AW: I’m guessing around 2050. NASA says 2035, and I have no doubt that they could reach that goal if their funding isn’t cut. I just don’t have faith in Congress not to cut their funding.

Tech industry needs people with passion

sandra persing headshot for Q&ASandra Persing, Senior Developer Relationship Manager for Events and Engagement at Mozilla and a leader in Seattle’s Women Who Code organization on diversity in engineering and the future of the tech industry.

What ultimately led you to work with Mozilla and Women Who Code?

[At Mozilla,] my responsibilities include reviewing and investing in sponsorship opportunities for our Tech Evangelism team and to produce our company’s global web developer conferences. I also lead the Seattle chapter of Women Who Code as the co-director, working with a core team of 7 volunteers and inspiring 2k local members. I can proudly claim to have a very literal definition of a liberal arts background. I studied English literature and psychology for my BA, spent years abroad as a Fulbright Scholar studying language diaspora, and earned my MBA in management consulting. On the side, I worked in luxury hospitality management and even founded my own technical startup in the wellness industry. Before my current positions at Mozilla and Women Who Code, I spent significant time producing and advising technical events, mostly in the form of hackathons. In every step of my journey, I followed my passion to fix things – identify a need and find or create solutions. And this is what the tech industry needs. People passionate about facing problems head on, and to use all of their intelligence, experience and connections to find the best solutions.

 

Why should Americans care about supporting and nurturing a diverse engineering community? How does it benefit the collective for there to be more women working in technology and engineering related fields?

Americans must support and nurture people to come in and thrive in the engineering community who are from diverse backgrounds – whether that’s the person’s gender, race, sexuality, education, language. Solutions do not arise from vacuums. The problems in the engineering world are becoming highly complex and demand answers that can be generated through a system of collaboration.

 

You recently mentored on behalf of Women Who Code at a hackathon for women in tech students at Facebook’s Seattle offices. What surprised you about that event and why would you encourage companies to look for similar opportunities to host a hackathon?  

The biggest surprise from mentoring at the Facebook hackathon was my own renewed sense of faith and enthusiasm for the event. I started in the hackathon world and after a few years became disillusioned with the fixed process and the large cash payouts. At the Facebook event, there was diversity with not just gender but talent and a real drive towards emphasizing teamwork to build awesome products. I felt my faith renewed in supporting events that allow ideas to be tested. I actively encourage and advise companies now to go forth and plan hacks to get innovation and passion flowing within their teams!

Universities must teach engineers depth and context

Simon Pitts, department director of the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership at Northeastern University holds the National Academy of Engineering’s 2015 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering Leadership and Technology Education for “developing an innovative method to provide graduate engineers with the necessary personal skills to become effective engineering leaders.” We talked to him about the 3C’s and the future of engineering…

How can we inspire the next generation of innovative engineers?

We need to take every opportunity to highlight the role of the engineer in events, achievements, and challenges. We need to rebalance the media and political messages to elevate the status of the engineer.

We also need to share how challenging and fulfilling it is to innovate new engineering solutions. Applying the deep technical expertise of a team of engineers – combined with the open thinking needed to create elegant, efficient solutions – to real world challenges is currently a well-kept secret rather than a rallying cry for the profession.

How can universities ensure that the engineers entering the job market have the right skills and abilities for solving 21st century challenges?

Universities have to concentrate on the fundamentals and teach technical depth, as well as the context in which engineering is practiced. “Fresh out” graduates who cannot create engineering solutions that are appropriate, robust and which deliver customer and stakeholder value, are of limited benefit to the organization that hires them. Engineering education must ensure that graduates will be able to generate their own realistic assumptions, work with imperfect data, and self-generate the appropriate degree of rigor. They need to be able to work across disciplines and functions to generate and deliver optimized solutions in teams, rather than be narrow experts in one area.

What is engineering’s role in keeping America competitive in a global economy?

Engineers have a role to translate possibilities into realities; two key examples of how they can drive America’s competitiveness are, firstly, to create new products and services and deliver them to the market. Secondly, to develop new technologies that allow they or others to derive applications that provide new levels of performance, cost and capability that satisfy either existing or currently unmet commercial and/or societal needs. These actions will drive our economy by sustaining and creating companies and jobs.

You’ve noted that the competitiveness challenge is difficult to address in academia. What are your thoughts for better preparing future engineers with how to handle the competitiveness they will experience if they choose a career in industry?

In academia it is frequently the case that the professor teaching an engineering topic has not been exposed to the tough competition of the commercial world. The fact that the engineering solution or product you are working on could be worthless if another company and or country comes to market with an alternative that has better customer value (either new levels of functionality or better function at less cost) is something that is generally not taught. Adding interactions between students and companies during the course has helped fill this void, particularly if the interaction is crafted around projects and/or technology selection for a market.

Tell us about the Northeastern University’s Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership’s five fundamental “pillars” and how they align to the 3C’s.

The five “pillars” comprise of Leadership Capabilities, Leadership Laboratories, Product Development Process, Scientific Foundations, and the Challenge project. These pillars are integrated into and learning framework with additional elements that prepare students to invent, innovate, and implement projects by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to cross-functional engineering teams.

Capacity: all five pillars contribute to accelerating the career path and capability of engineers who have already taken a first degree; we are making them more valuable to their company by giving them the ability to lead larger teams earlier in their career.

Capability: the Scientific Foundations pillar is a key enabler to working across disciplines.  Product development teaches them how to produce solutions to challenges that meet customer and business needs, and the Challenge project provides a learning experience where they practice the concepts of delivering what that they have just learned on time, to performance/quality standards, and on budget.

Competiveness: the learning of the program’s 14 Leadership capabilities, and demonstrating mastery of them in leadership laboratories, produces engineers who not only understand the competitive environment they are operating in, but also have the awareness, confidence, vision, and technical dexterity to achieve the goals of their stakeholders.

What has winning the Gordon Prize meant to you? What has it enabled you to do that you hadn’t done before?

Winning the Gordon Prize is a wonderful recognition of the work that the team here at Northeastern has achieved in creating and delivering the focused engineering leadership education we think is so important nationally. It is providing the resources to further develop case studies and program material to inculcate practical examples of the 14 engineering leadership capabilities in a business environment.