The Well-Rounded Engineer

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-03-18

The Bernard M. Gordon Prize, presented last month for the first time by the National Academy of Engineering (, recognizes the need to build bridges between engineers and the disciplines that surround them. Its a gold medal and a $500,000 cash award, the latter divided between the recipient and his educational institution—for the prize is awarded in the field of engineering education.

Eli Fromm, a professor at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, received the award for his 15 years of integrating multiple disciplines in a program called Enhanced Education Experience for Engineers. That effort is credited with contributing to an 86 percent increase in freshmen retention, accompanied by substantial growth in female and minority degrees.

I dont apologize for implying in my first sentence that engineering is the hub around which all else revolves. A common bumper sticker urges, "If you can read this, thank a teacher"; I might say with equal conviction that "if youre alive to read this, thank an engineer." In fact, if you survive long enough to learn to read, you have to be functioning to some degree as an engineer yourself.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology defines engineering as "the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind." When you use a tool, pay your electric bill or decide what to wear after reading the weather forecast, youre doing engineering. Why is that such an unfashionable image?

The recurring motif of the Dilbert comic strips is that no one respects co-workers outside their own specialty. It wouldnt be funny if we didnt recognize the truth that underlies the caricature.

Engineering educators need to turn out technical talent that can also interact with financial, legal and marketing colleagues. The resulting teams have to understand whats possible, identify whats useful, produce whats superior and communicate what theyve done whether to external customers or to supply chain partners.

Whenever we get away, though, from the central requirement to apply "the materials and forces of nature," we get away from reality—but not for long. Heres to Eli Fromm.

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