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Translational Engineering: Academics and Careers

Dan Vallero beside a podium, Communicating with FINESSE.
Dr. Vallero was driven to engineering based on aptitude tests; however, he was fortunate to have early exposure to social sciences and the humanities. Today, he has written 20 books and over 100 book chapters.

I have taught various courses over the years in engineering, physical sciences, and professional ethics. Although there are obvious differences in content, they share several commonalities. Every course has an array of student interests and rationales for enrolling. Some join the class because they need the course to graduate, whether as a core part of their major, or it was on a short list of allowed electives. Other students were intrinsically interested in the topic. Some were there because the time slot was convenient, or a friend would also be enrolling.

Whatever the motivation, the class is a step in the journey from academic learning to a life-long career. If I fail to convey useful information and skill sets during my brief encounter with the student, at best I have wasted the student's time. At worst, I have diverted them from their rightful path. I should say that both the student and I have failed, since the university is a social contract between the student and teacher. If we succeed in some form of enlightenment, the student may become aware of gaps in knowledge, skills, and abilities that must be closed to move through their academic training on to a professional career.

Balancing core academic requirements, such as those dictated for engineering programs by accrediting institutions like ABET can be a challenge. Most of us in the engineering world can see the inherent unevenness of an engineering degree’s rigor and demands compared to many other majors. Yet, all receive a similar “bachelors” designation. As faculty, we can remind the student that the difference will pay off in the future. The skills attained in any engineering major are more marketable and fungible than those of most academic endeavors. Indeed, many engineering majors go on to be highly successful professionals and researchers in the engineering disciplines, not to mention those whose arduous undergraduate training was preparation to become physicians, lawyers, and titans of the business world.

Of course, saying this to an undergraduate engineering major who must spend hours on homework and studies while fellow students in their dorm are out partying or otherwise “networking” is little comfort. Indeed, an engineering student must be prepared to ignore FOMO, i.e., the fear of missing out. But one of the qualities of most engineering students is the ability to delay gratification. I recall taking an urban planning course in the 1970s where the instructor reminded us that one of the key factors in the lack of socioeconomic progress is the inability to delay gratification.

We can agree that pursuing an academic engineering path is challenging and rewarding. So, let us revisit why one would pursue an engineering degree in the first place. In my case, it was initially not my own choice. My high school counselor looked at my ACT scores and suggested I consider an engineering degree. I had no idea what an engineer did (other than drive a train). I was the first in my family to enter a four-year college and had no context for what the counselor was suggesting. However, I was impressed that she thought I was smart, so I followed her suggestion.

When I arrived at college for freshman initiation, I met with an academic advisor who asked me which kind of engineer I wanted to be. I had no clue, but when she went through the litany of majors, I stopped her at electronic engineering. I love music and was already an avid consumer of LPs, so that was an obvious choice. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the coursework was a long way from cool devices, consisting exclusively of math and physics courses, with all the electrical subject matter delayed for the future.

I was growing weary of the journey. I still had little idea of what engineering was all about, yet I was supposed to be investing all this time and energy into an amorphic career goal. Fortunately, Southern Illinois University required all students to take general studies courses. Yes, even engineering majors had to take a modicum of courses in the life sciences, social sciences and the humanities. This introduced me to a range of exciting topics in philosophy, psychology, history, and biology. The environmental movement was in its early stages, so there was often a teachable moment where earth systems were described and analyzed. This was my foray into the earth sciences. I was hooked. The earth sciences offered me something that the engineering courses did not. They included content that was immediately understandable and useful. I didn’t have to wait two years to see the value of the psychic and intellectual investment.

I eventually returned to engineering, but only after years of working with many gifted engineers who somehow were able to delay gratification to land jobs that they loved. We were all engaged in cleaning up the environment, one wastewater treatment plant at a time. They reviewed and approved plans and specs. I wrote environmental impact statements on their projects. I now had context.

Some years ago, Duke’s Engineering Dean, Kristina Johnson, advocated two important goals for engineering education. She wanted to invert the curriculum and to introduce engineering students to entrepreneurship. Inverting the curriculum meant first introducing the student to real-world experiences before immersing them into the mathematical and physical fundamentals. I liken this to woodworking. If I want to teach someone about how to work with wood, I would not suggest first engaging them in the "theory of the saw." I would first show them how to use the tool, not the statics, dynamics, laws of motion, thermodynamics, metallurgy, optics, and material science of a rip saw, then a cross-cutting saw, then a table saw, then a band saw… They would spend time around the shop. Someday, they may wish to become a designer who would need all the fundamentals, but by then they would have context.

Entrepreneurial engineering introduces the student to the marketplace. It makes the engineering student think outside of the typical physics comfort zone. Whether the engineering student realizes it, the marketplace is an important context, since engineers often do all the hard work and provide the intellectual firepower for a design, a new product, or an improved process, only to turn the project over to a manager or a “suit” who takes their innovations the next step. Even if the engineer doesn’t want to get involved in the marketing, the engineer needs to understand what happens next. Where is their brainchild going? Do they want to turn it over, only to hear years down the road that their idea was realized with little or no recognition of the early, difficult stages?

Another metaphor that I often use for the transition from college to the real world is that of driver’s education. We don’t ask an untrained, inexperienced driver to merge onto an interstate highway at high speed in heavy traffic. We first give them some literary context, i.e., a book on the rules of the road. They learn the signs, distances, speeds, etc. This is very abstract. The nascent driver can pass a test on the rules but is nowhere near ready to merge onto I-40. There needs to be experience under supervision. Likewise, the engineering student gets book learning, but needs to quickly apply this learning since the slope of the memory extinction curve is very steep. As the student’s confidence and experience grow, so do judgment and intuition.

Thus, academics and professionalism lie on a continuum. They are not discrete endeavors. In fact, training and technology transfer intertwine with career advancement throughout professional work life. Education and practice are mutually beneficial. The engineering profession relies on voluntary, intergenerational knowledge transfer. The novice engineer learns from the exemplar and seasoned engineer. Both play key roles in achieving the first canon of all engineering disciplines. The profession recognizes the blend of education with practice as the best way and perhaps the only means to "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public."


Dr. Vallero conducts research on chemical, biological and physical contaminants in the environment. He also leads Duke's Pratt School's "Ethics Across the Curriculum," which addresses ethics from the introduction of academic integrity. His research interests include engineering optimization, resilience engineering, measurement and modeling in environmental systems, high throughput risk screening, tracer studies, development of pollution collection devices, biosystem engineering, life cycle analysis, and sustainable design.

He has authored 20 books, numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, and more than 100 book chapters. His two newest books, Methods and Calculations in Environmental Physics and Applications and Calculations in Environmental Physics, will be published later this year by the American Institute of Physics.


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