UW’s O’Donnell Leads National Summit to “Sexify” Engineering, Inspire Students, Entrepreneurs, VCs

Xconomy Seattle — 

Engineering has an image problem. Sure, it’s the technical backbone of many things people use every day, from airplanes, cars, and buildings to new medicines, mobile devices, and the Internet. But it doesn’t always attract the best and brightest young people interested in solving society’s biggest problems or changing the world. That’s because people often have a narrow view of what engineering entails, or think it’s too boring, geeky, or technically difficult to pursue.

Enter the “grand challenges summit” organized by the National Academy of Engineering, which is coming to Seattle next week on May 2-3. This is part of an ongoing series of six NAE events around the U.S. this year that are meant to inspire students and rally faculty, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors around some of society’s most important problems. The plan is to concentrate on big ideas like improving healthcare, producing clean energy, providing access to clean water, restoring urban infrastructure, preventing nuclear terror, and making computer systems secure.

The Seattle event features an all-star cast of speakers, including Bruce Montgomery from Gilead Sciences, Larry Smarr from Calit2 and UC San Diego, Ed Crawley from MIT, former NASA administrator Mike Griffin (now at the University of Alabama), and former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar (now CEO of the Museum of Flight). They will be joined by engineers from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and General Electric, as well as prominent scholars from the UW, including Matt O’Donnell, dean of engineering, Ed Lazowska from computer science & engineering, and Suzie Pun from bioengineering. The sessions will focus on how engineers can make better medicines, as well as better tools for scientific discovery in computing and aerospace.

O’Donnell, who helped bring the summit to Seattle, says the number of students interested in engineering has been declining for the past couple of decades—in particular, the percentage of U.S. students (compared with international students) enrolled in the nation’s graduate programs. “Engineering ain’t too sexy in society,” says O’Donnell, a biomedical engineer with expertise in ultrasound and other diagnostic imaging technologies. “A lot of folks in engineering are worried.”

Matt O'Donnell

He says the idea behind the grand challenges is, “Let’s excite people about what engineering can do for society. It’s not just about having your startup and making money—which is cool, and we all love that. But it’s not just the next PDA or iPhone app.” The goal, he says, is to “sexify” engineering and show that “it’s a way of thinking and analyzing systems, integrating quantitative [methods] with real-world concerns. You can build a bridge or PDA, but you can also think about sustainable systems, urban development, or how you put markets together.” (The NAE summits strike me as an adult complement to the FIRST Robotics competitions for middle-school and high-school kids, which are also about inspiring a new generation of engineers and changing the popular culture around engineering.)

The first grand challenges summit took place in early 2009 and was the brainchild of Tom Katsouleas, the dean of engineering at Duke University. O’Donnell was invited to moderate a panel on engineering new medicines. “It was absolutely a blast,” he says. “But then the kids and professionals in … Next Page »

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