Engineering is more than math skills: a conversation with UCF’s provost

Dale Whittaker, provost and executive vice president at the University of Central Florida, is the chief academic leader for the country’s second-largest university and the No. 1 workforce supplier worldwide for Lockheed Martin, Harris Corporation and Siemens Energy. A professor of agricultural and biological engineering, Whittaker launched an interdisciplinary faculty research program at UCF last year to encourage scholarship across disciplines. We talked with him about integrating creativity into engineering curricula and solving global problems through innovative engineering…

What’s your one sentence definition of engineering?

Engineering is the creative application of science to solve challenging problems in a practical way.

How can we inspire the next generation of innovative engineers?

Articulating that engineering is about solving hard problems and focusing on impacts rather than technological processes is what attracts more people to the field. By showing real people from different backgrounds solving human problems, we create role models throughout our communities and across the globe. Innovation comes from different lived perspectives – so we should be encouraging more diversity and inspiring people from varied backgrounds to become engineers.

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

Engineering is a creative profession that gives students the opportunity to work in authentic learning environments on open-ended problems. It’s not simply about learning math. We need to make sure that our curricula require students to develop their trans-disciplinary skills, intellectual and cultural competency and teamwork abilities. Traditionally, we have been good at producing students with quantitative and analytical depth, but students also need to apply analyses across a broad range of disciplines and problems. And that’s best done in partnership with companies, through the quality of problems that we pose to our students and the environments we ask them to work in, such as team-based or international.

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

Engineers not only imagine new goods and services, but have the capacity to bring them to market to generate wealth – economic, cultural and social – to keep us competitive. It’s not only about doing things more efficiently. It’s about innovating us out of problems. Consider the escalating issues of food and water security amidst population pressures. As our population grows, those relationships between food, water and people are tightening. Early in my career, I saw engineering as a way to solve hunger while healing the Earth through knowledge.