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 the audience were hacking away with questions. It was clear this was doing the original idea of the grand challenges—inspiring people.” O’Donnell thought they should try to do it again in other cities, including Seattle. “You know what happens when you say that—you get volunteered,” he jokes.

O’Donnell says his first goal for the Seattle event is to infuse the idea of societal change “into the way our students think and how they do their senior ‘capstone’ design projects.” Part of the goal here, he says, is to make engineering “much more attractive to a much more diverse group of kids.” (For example, after years of effort to diversify, he says the UW college of engineering is still only about 25 percent female.)

His second goal is to make industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists “think bigger about what engineering means.” For example, he says, “engineers can change what it means to do science, to explore space, to change health…It’s not the little $50-100K investment or [Series] A round. What’s going to make it happen is, how are we going to do these major societal pushes?”

Which is all well and good, but the reality is that most VCs need to make money more than they need to change the world—especially in the current recession. “This is more related to when [the economy] changes, are you going to change, or are you going to do stuff the same old way? It’s got to be networks of people who have gazillions of dollars,” O’Donnell admits.

One way to help bridge what I see as a cultural gap between academic computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs and investors is to focus on solving big problems that could lead to, say, the next Google or Amazon. So I asked O’Donnell about major trends in computing that entrepreneurs should pay attention to. “We have transformed a lot of areas of science from being computationally heavy and instrument heavy to being data heavy,” he says. “It’s very simple now to say, ‘I’m going to look at human interactions, social sciences within building complexes, say, and demographics of social networking.’ So you get this enormous volume of data, and you make a database. But what do you do about it? This is the whole concept of eScience [a UW effort]. How do you develop tools that allow you to deal with these massive data sets and analyze them in real-time to make decisions? How do you make a theory when you have terabytes of data? That’s the challenge for global IT. That’s the reality of modern science.”

O’Donnell, who came to UW from the University of Michigan in 2006, is bullish about the long-term prospects for Seattle to contribute to breakthroughs in science, engineering, and business. “Seattle is well above threshold,” he says. That means if you’re trying to recruit somebody from another part of the country to a startup here, he says, they will move even if there’s a reasonable chance the startup will fail, because there are enough other opportunities to keep them here. One area he says to watch: green tech, especially efforts that capitalize on regional strengths in hydro power, IT, energy efficiency, smart grid, and smart buildings. He seems less certain about the future of the aerospace industry here, though he maintains that “Boeing is strong.”

I also asked O’Donnell which part of the Seattle summit he is most jazzed about. His answer: a panel on space exploration, “just to see what these folks think” about issues like manned versus unmanned space missions, the role of the federal government, and how to commercialize space travel. “I’m a Sputnik kid,” he says, having grown up in the U.S.-Soviet space race era.

The NAE Seattle Summit kicks off the afternoon of May 2 with talks and a student poster competition at the UW. That will be followed by a full day of talks and panels on May 3 at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, which will be moderated by New York Times science and technology correspondent John Markoff.