Sandia LabNews

Accelerating engineering innovation: Sandia hosts summit of leaders from industry, government, and academia

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Making math and science exciting for young people, rethinking how engineering is done, and exploring what drives creativity and innovation were among topics discussed by some 50 leaders from industry, universities, government, and national laboratories at Albuquerque’s Hyatt Regency May 31. The gathering, hosted by Sandia, kicked off a daylong summit focused on accelerating innovation in engineering and creating a highly qualified workforce of the future as a linchpin to American industrial competitiveness and national security.

“The security of our nation may depend more on a commitment to research and education than on any other factor, including the strength of our military,” said Sandia Labs

President and Director Tom Hunter in his opening remarks, summarizing conclusions of a National Academies of Science report released last fall. Compiled by a blue-ribbon panel of business leaders, scientists, and educators led by retired Lockheed Martin Chairman Norm Augustine, Rising Above the Gathering Storm made strong recommendations for federal action to enhance US science and technology and maintain competitiveness in the 21st century.

Growing out of the NAS report was President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. In February, Tom participated in a panel discussion led by the president at Intel’s Rio Rancho plant, along with then Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

The National Academies has identified accelerating engineering innovation as a critical element in achieving the goals of the American Competitiveness Initiative. The initiative calls for $5.9 billion in FY2007 to increase investments in R&D, strengthen education, and encourage entrepreneurship and also includes additional funding over a 10-year period for research and R&D tax incentives.

Sandia hosted the summit to bring together potential partners to explore ways to improve engineering education and accelerate engineering innovation, and to discuss how government, industry, universities, and the national labs might work together toward this goal, particularly in the area of nanoengineering, building on Sandia’s capabilities in high-performance computing, MESA, and CINT.

Tom said one of the challenges the group and the nation faces is doing a better job of promoting engineering as an exciting career with good income potential. Recruiting students to engineering fields can be challenging in a society that doesn’t place a strong emphasis in science and engineering, as it did during the time of Sputnik and the US-USSR space race of the late 1950s.

He said a friend who is a professor at a major university jokingly bemoaned the fact that there’s never been a television show called “L.A. Engineering” to help glamorize the profession.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said the country needs another initiative like the post-Sputnik education push to excite kids about math and science, suggesting that dealing with the energy crisis could be the focus.

“You really need to set a national strategy or priority and show that it can be solved and in fact is important to the government; science and technology is important to us all,” he said. “Then you’d get it out of the backwater that it’s in and get it on the front page.”

Role of education

Of particular importance to Sandia is cultivating a highly qualified workforce to undertake next-generation engineering for its national security missions. This may require rethinking how engineering is done and taught to enable us “to leapfrog ahead” and get to the creative results faster, Tom said. For example, computing needs to be regarded less as a means for calculating and more as a means of learning and idea sharing, he said.

Barrett described concerns about America’s K-16 education system discouraging kids who might be interested in math and science. “We’re not doing a particularly good job of creating smart people with US passports,” he said. One problem is a lack of qualified teachers for science and math.

Another problem is that the US educational system is not setting high enough expectation levels, something you learn right away in running operations for an international company. He talked about the potential of charter schools and competition within the K-12 educational system as potentially a positive force for improving quality.

On the positive side, Barrett said that with both political parties vying for leadership on this topic and an election coming up, the opportunity is ripe.

“We have the best timing in the world to focus on this,” he said.

The schedule for the following day included panel discussions to identify and address key aspects of the engineering innovation dilemma through multi-institutional partnerships, presentations and discussion on Discovery Science and Engineering Institutes, and small group breakout sessions.

Tom Hunter and Div. 1000 VP and Chief Technology Officer Rick Stulen hosted the summit. Sandians led or facilitated various working sessions, presentations, and discussions during the summit.

In addition to the Sandia contingent, attendees included industry executives from Intel, Monsanto, Goodyear, Microsoft, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed Martin, IBM, HP, and Procter & Gamble. Representing academia were engineering deans or their representatives from Harvard, University of Florida, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, University of Texas, Harvey Mudd College, Yale, MIT, University of New Mexico, UC Davis, and UC Santa Barbara. Attendees also included science and engineering leaders from DOE, NNSA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Academy of Engineering.