Monday, October 11, 2010

Grand Challenges: Keys to Future Training

How do you know when a new technology is becoming mainstream?  Conversely, what trends can you afford to ignore?  Where are the signals that suggest permanence - or at least a long run?  I wouldn't put my money on media hype.  The New-New can very quickly be about as appetizing as yesterday's oatmeal.

One sure indicator of a technology that is here to say is the emergence of training programs.    When employers are looking for skilled people, it is safe bet that the early risks of new technologies have passed.

If you look back at technology history, you can see the pattern.  In the late 1400s, the craft of printing exploded.  Printing was taught as a legitimate craft complete with guilds and master craftsmen.  In the 19th century, engineering emerged as a recognized discipline that was capable of far more than what had been the domain of the earlier military engineers.  Huge public works like the Erie Canal were built in the early 1800s by self-taught surveyors.  By the latter half of the century engineering, lead by civil engineering, was a mainstay at many larger colleges.  Specialty schools were founded which focused solely on science and engineering (e.g., MIT, CalTech, RPI, etc.).  In the last thirty years the emergence of the discipline of computer science has attracted students who wanted to work on the cutting edge of technology.

So what are the new training programs that are emerging that foretell the next wave of mainstream technology?  A quick scan of leading technology universities hints at some directions but one organization that cuts across many of the leading institutions is the National Academy of Engineering.  The leadership of the NAE has pulled together a list of what it calls Grand Challenges that represent some of the major issues facing our global society.  Here's the list:

  1. Make solar energy economical
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advance personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

When I looked over the list, it didn't seem to me that all these challenges were defined from the same altitude.  Some are very broad (e.g., prevent nuclear terror), while others are down in the trenches (enhance virtual reality).  But some broad themes emerge and these would be good bets for training for the future.  I would categorize the themes as energy, the environment, better health care, security, and retooling learning.

Energy and the environment are no brainers.  If we don't start to take these seriously, we will be in a world of hurt. The trick is to move mega-issues like these down into actionable projects which demand trained people.  There is, however, the little matter of who will write the paychecks?  The most sustainable solution is for private enterprise to emerge as a leader but at this stage it will take a public-private partnership to prime the pump.

Better health care is not new but two forces are coming into play to change the game.  The first is the diminishing viability of the old health care model.  This encompasses everything from HMOs to the pharmaceutical drug discovery model (which, as they say, is busted).  The cost increases in the current model are just not sustainable.  But help may be on the way in the form of sophisticated heath informatics to outline better and more cost-effective treatment protocols.  Bioinformatics is at the core of genomic medicine.  Computational power will have even higher leverage in health care in the future.

Another theme in the Grand Challenges is retooling learning.  Again, forces are in direct collision.  The current public education system in this country is failing miserably.  Government initiatives that demand uniform testing may be of some help but the bigger problem is that society, and particularly the family, are being redefined in the Age of Globalization.  On the positive side, virtually every college in the country now has so-called distance learning.  If you don't care about college credit, they even give away courses for free on the web.  The Gates Foundation is focusing billions on improving public education as they research new tools and techniques.  In the end, however, education takes individual concentration and effort.  No amount of technology replaces the desire to learn.

If I were going to college today, choosing a path from the Grand Challenges list would be a good place to start.  In the end, however, it is good to remember that every training and college program is willed into being by a demand for people with particular skills - skills where the demand outstrips the supply. We need to do all we can to make sure the demand is there.  The supply will follow naturally.

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