Q&A with Tarek Sobh, Dean of the School of Engineering and Senior Vice President of Graduate Studies and Research

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This week the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) updated lawmakers on Grand Challenges for Engineering, the national campaign that outlines areas of humanitarian concern that will require innovative engineering solutions.

Tarek Sobh, dean of the University’s School of Engineering and senior vice president for graduate studies and research, was among the experts who were invited to brief officials at the White House. In particular, Sobh and deans from select engineering schools across the country demonstrated how their institutions will identify and train exceptional engineering students to address the Grand Challenges, which the NAE has identified as relating to health, alternative energy, sustainability, infrastructure, virtual reality, personalized learning, scientific discovery, and cyber-security.

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Now back from Washington, D.C., Dean Sobh shares his thoughts about the experience, engineering’s transformative power, and the challenges that lie ahead:
[xa_acc style=”xa-default” ][xa_slide title=”The National Academy of Engineers has identified some of the world’s most pressing problems in its Grand Challenges Campaign. What kinds of problems are UB engineering faculty, students, and alumni already addressing, both on and off campus?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]In many cases, the Grand Challenges that have been identified by NAE are highly interdisciplinary problems that we at UB excel at solving. For example, we have the Wireless Mobile and Communications Laboratory that’s dedicated to cyber-security – one of the Grand Challenges that’s been identified. In addition, the University of Bridgeport has partnered with Face Checks, a new venture at CTech IncUBator, our on-campus, high-tech business incubator. Face Checks specializes in biometric cyber-security applications.

Another example would be within the area of energy and sustainability, which is one of the existing Grand Challenges. Here we already have a Renewable Energy Research Laboratory that works with the FuelCell Energy company on many exciting environmental projects.

A third example within the area of scientific discovery would be the research centers that we have in the fields of Robotics, Intelligence Sensing and Control (RISC) and biomedical engineering and nanotechnology, in which great advances are being discovered on a continuous basis.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”What did you share with officials at the White House?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]During my presentation, I shared the interdisciplinary programming and research activities being conducted in our research centers and laboratories – in particular, the ones that are significantly externally funded. I also shared how our entrepreneurial approach is accelerating product and service-development in these labs and research centers, and I emphasized the fact that not only are we poised to produce eminent scholars to tackle the Grand Challenges, but we are also capable of producing transformative solutions to many problems that are contained within the Grand Challenges paradigm.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”What was the most inspiring or thought-provoking part of the day? Any ideas to bring back to campus?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]That’s a very good question. There were three things that really stuck with me:

First was the answer to a question I asked during one of the meetings, along the lines of, “How could the White House help us meet the Grand Challenges project?” We were told, “We do not have significant funds at the White House, but if you tell us who to call and ask for what you need, we will do it for you, and usually that works!” That was one valuable outcome, being able to have an advocate and colleague in the White House to ask for help.

Second, what was very interesting to me was the recent approval for establishing the first engineering-based college of medicine in the world at the University of Illinois. In my mind, that could be a project for us to contemplate, given the recent exponential growth of the engineering programs at UB and the emergence of a very strong health sciences division.

Finally, I am fascinated by Humanitarian Engineering. It’s a new paradigm in engineering that’s started to emerge at a few schools across the country, but the Colorado School of Mines has taken a lead on this. Engineering is all about helping people, such as building communities that are sustainable. If nothing else, we have the beginnings of a Humanitarian Engineering program in our Technology Management department at the School of Engineering.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”The NAE wants schools to train their best engineering students to be Grand Challenge Scholars, and UB will start this program next fall. Tell us more about it if you can.” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]The University of Bridgeport’s Grand Challenges Scholars (GCS) program will include the components identified by the NAE: interdisciplinary research and development, global engagement, service, and entrepreneurship. My preferred method would be establishing a portfolio-based GCS program, so by the time they graduate, GCS engineering students will demonstrate excellence in all of these five areas in order to become certified as Grand Challenge Scholars.

For this reason, the priority will be focused on undergraduate students in the early stages of the engineering program — freshmen and sophomores — so they would have time to build their portfolios. Graduate students in the master’s program are here for two-and-half years. Unless they start building a portfolio immediately, they won’t be able complete the five areas to be certified as Grand challenge Scholars.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”Even as officials recognize that future solutions lie with engineers, we face a crisis in STEM education. Nationally, fewer than 40 percent of college students who want to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. To your mind, how can we reverse this trend even as we look to promote the brightest of these students to lead as Grand Master Scholars. What is the bigger picture?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]The problem is much worse than the 40 percent number. The U.S. is graduating 50,000 students or so with a B.S. in engineering every year, but in countries like China and India, the numbers are 1.2 million and 0.9 million. Even if you account for population differences between the countries, we’re close to an order of magnitude behind. The problem is that not many students are interested in STEM. The fact that our culture does not support or portray engineering as a very cool, rewarding, or exciting profession doesn’t help, either. The Grand Challenges paradigm is a great step in making young students understand that engineering isn’t about sitting in a cubicle. It’s a profession that helps solve some of our biggest and most serious problems in society, and this problem-solving is driven by a greater humanitarian purpose. If we can get young people to understand this, they will be much more excited about engineering.

Let me ask you to look around you – do you see anything that hasn’t been conceived, designed, built, invented, implemented, or devised by an engineer, whether it’s the building you’re in, the road you’re driving on, the computer or phone that you use? That’s what they used to tell us as kids.

When people understand how engineering can change and improve life and societies, that will be the game-changer.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”Young people need jobs. At the same time, employers say they can’t find workers who have the right skills. How can educators and the marketplace better communicate to ensure that students are graduating with relevant and valuable skills that the marketplace needs?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]In the U.S., we have 5 ½ percent unemployment, which is great, theoretically speaking. But if we count people who never entered the job stream or who have given up looking, the number is much higher. At the same time, you have hundreds of thousands of jobs within the high-tech industry that employers can’t fill because there are not enough qualified job candidates. That’s the mismatch. The curriculum at UB addresses this mismatch head on. The School of Engineering has a very active industry advisory board that is intimately involved in the curriculum and helps us make sure that the curriculum, laboratories, and research are all relevant to the marketplace.

The typical metric people use is: What is the percentage of students at your school who’ve found a job within the first six months or a year of graduating? Whenever I hear that question, I laugh; ninety-five percent of our engineering students find jobs before they graduate or immediatey thereafter! We have students who will get their degrees in May 2015 who already have offers from Cisco and Pitney Bowes, who are already working for Sikorsky, who get offers within days of applying.

The problem is getting more students into the pipeline to consider engineering. We have to reach them much earlier than high school: we have to impress them at middle school and grade school.[/xa_slide][xa_slide title=”So, we have to make engineers into today’s heroes?” openclose=”” icon=”Select Icon—“]Exactly! That’s what I’m saying.[/xa_slide][/xa_acc]

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