Future Engineering Challenges: A View from the Past

Remarks by Percy A. Pierre, PhD ’67


March 11, 2021

I want to thank Dean Schlesinger for inviting me to speak to you today. It was almost 54 years ago that I graduated from The Johns Hopkins University with my PhD in electrical engineering. I have been back to campus several times since then and have followed the great progress the Whiting School has made over that time. I am proud to be a Hopkins graduate.

I would like to talk to you today about some challenges our country faces that engineers can address—at least to some extent. I also look forward to your questions and later discussion.

Fourteen such challenges were enumerated by the National Academy of Engineering some time ago. The challenges include such things as Advance Personalized learning, Engineer Better Medicines, Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure, and Provide Access to Clean water.

What these challenges have in common is that they are not just great technological challenges, but that they also are challenges that, if met, will greatly improve the lives of people on this planet. Like most professions, the engineering profession’s main purpose is to make all of our lives better.

But, I believe the biggest challenge we are facing today is not on the list of the 14 challenges stated by the National Academy of Engineering. I believe the greatest challenge facing our nation today is the national divide in our country, which was exemplified recently in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, attempting to overturn the election of our new President, Joseph Biden.

That divide is based in many things, and one of the most significant of them is the racial divide that has been a part of our country for some 400 years. I would like to talk to you today about how engineering can help close that divide, along with others.

Like many of you, I watched the January 6 insurrection unfold on television. For me, the most disturbing sight was seeing the Confederate flag flying in the Great Hall of the Congress. This flag represented the people who tried to keep my ancestors in slavery.  All eight of my great grandparents were born slaves. They lived to see freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation, which was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the height of the Civil War.

I have identified all eight of these great grandparents. I know them by name and where they lived. I know the challenges they faced in trying to secure the freedoms promised by their liberation. I’m sure they did not imagine that 150 years later, the Confederate flag would be flying in our nation’s Capital.

But what can engineering do about this divide? I believe that we can do a lot. We can do a lot as individuals, as members of a great institution like Johns Hopkins, and as engineers.

I would like to start with a story of how I came to Hopkins, and about a person who made a difference in my life. It is a story about Professor Ferdinand Hamburger, then the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, and how he convinced me to come to Hopkins.

After completing my master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame in January of 1963, one of my professors encouraged me to go on for my PhD, even though it was late in the application cycle. He warned that positions might be taken and money might be scarce.

I had very good GRE scores, so I applied to some of the top universities in the country—Johns Hopkins being one of them. I also applied for financial support. I was admitted to all of the universities to which I applied. However, most of them said that, since my application was late, they could not provide financial support until January of the following year. I had anticipated that and had saved enough money to support myself for one semester. However, one institution’s offer came back with immediate support—and that was Johns Hopkins.

You might think that it was the money that cause me to choose Hopkins, but that would be wrong. It was Professor Ferdinand Hamburger. I had exchanged several letters with Professor Hamburger. The other universities were also responsive, but there was something special about the exchange with Hamburger. He seemed to really want me to come to Hopkins. He also said that he would be my advisor when I came. I chose Hopkins.

When I arrived on campus, I went to see Professor Hamburger. I was determined to be successful in this new endeavor and wanted him to tell me exactly what I needed to do to be successful. That meeting was a revelation about the nature of the PhD program, and a little frighting for me.

The first question I asked was about what courses I had to take. To my shock and dismay, Hamburger said that there are no required courses. He said I could take courses if I wanted, but no courses were required. He explained that the only requirement was that I had to take certain exams. The first exam was the qualifying exam to see if I was ready to do research. Once I did my research, there would be a dissertation defense exam. In the meantime, I would have to pass two foreign language exams. At that time, the Hopkins PhD program was modeled after the original German model for PhDs It was primarily a mentorship, and when your advisor said you could go, you graduated.

He told me that whenever I was ready for the exams, he would schedule them, and if I passed, I could go. I was shocked. I thought for a moment. I felt he was throwing me into the unknown. Then I asked Dr. Hamburger to please tell me what courses to take. He told me what courses to take that semester.

Finally, as I was leaving his office, Hamburger told me that he had reserved an apartment for me at the University’s Bradford Apartments. He knew that in a segregated Baltimore I would have trouble finding an apartment near the campus. I felt that Hamburger understood my situation and was there to help in whatever way I needed.

This is an old story but I think it has relevance today. Professor Hamburger was one of my first mentors. As I look back on my career as an engineer, I find that I had several mentors. In turn, I have mentored many others.

While the racial divide is still great, those of you who are faculty members can make a difference by mentoring Black and other underrepresented students in engineering. There is no magic solution to the racial divide, but all of us can make a difference.

Students can also make a difference. You may not be surprised to know that when I was at Hopkins, I was the only African American graduate student in electrical engineering. Thus, my friends in the department were all white and/or international students.

We studied together. We prepared for the qualifying exam together. We visited local restaurants together. We visited each other in our homes. While education is often an individual enterprise, having a community really helps.

After I left Hopkins, I stayed in touch with several of my friends from Hopkins. Perhaps my best friend from Hopkins was Joseph Yang. When I was appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research, Development, and Acquisition in 1977, I hired Joe as my Principal Deputy. Friendships are important for overcoming the racial divide.

Another example of friendships across racial lines was what I did at Michigan State University as a faculty member there. I started and ran a program to recruit, mentor, and support underrepresented minority engineering graduate students. We developed various kinds of educational and social activities to support minority graduate students. You probably have programs like this here now.

But I did not limit the program to minority graduate students, even though that was the primary objective of the program. Some of the strongest participants in our activities were white men and women students.

I encouraged this because I always told the minority students that they needed both minority and majority colleagues to be successful in this world. They needed to reach across racial lines if they wanted to be successful in this profession.

But the fact is, the white students also benefited. Many told me that they found the experience in a predominantly minority activity to be very enriching and fulfilling. Lifelong friendships were established.

Thus, both faculty and students here at Hopkins can make a difference towards closing the racial divide: faculty through mentoring, and students through their friendships.

So far, I have been talking about what each of you can do, as individual engineers, to address one of our nation’s great challenges, the racial divide. I would like now to return to the discussion of the grand engineering challenges program established by the National Academy of Engineering.

To get there, I’d like to revisit the past and, in particular, my past, and tell you how I view the field of engineering and what it can do to address human needs.

Over the course of my career, I have seen engineering from many perspectives. I have been an engineering researcher at Hopkins and the University of Michigan, developing mathematical formulas for solving electronic communications problems. I worked at the RAND Corporation using engineering systems theory to solve critical urban service problems like transportation, sanitation, and more. For one year, I was a White House Fellow working at the White House on housing problems. I was an engineering educator as Dean of Engineering at Howard University. Finally, I managed the U.S. Army’s weapons development program for four years where I worked on the development of the Abrams Tank, the Apache Helicopter, and the Patriot Air Defense Missile system. The project managers of each of these development programs reported to me. This was the best engineering job I ever had.

What these experiences have taught me is that engineering can make a difference in the world. I am not just talking about technology. I am talking about problem solving using the way engineers are trained to think and solve problems.

I believe that the most important result of your education at Hopkins is that you will find new ways to think about and solve problems. The knowledge you receive here also is important, because you need tools to solve problems. These tools include science, math and computer skills.

But there is another skill that engineers need to solve problems, and that is people skills. I have learned that engineering is a team sport. In large technology companies or organizations, that team might consist of thousands of engineers and non-engineers who must work together, supporting each other. The success of a team is not only related to the individual talent of the team members. In sports, some of the most talented teams lose. That is also true in engineering. Establishing a successful team is important and people skills are important in doing that. Finally, having a diverse team with diverse experiences is also important. Understanding the people served by the technologies we produce can only make those technologies better.

I have managed teams of engineers working on engineering problems and teams of others working on other problems. I must tell you that I enjoyed the engineering teams most. That is because engineers think as I do. However, we engineers have to learn how to work with people who do not think like us.

Given that broad view of engineering, I would like to talk about some problems of the racial divide that can be at least partially addressed by our engineering skills.

To put that in context, I need to tell you about a committee I chair at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The NAE is an honorific organization with a membership of about 2,500 engineers, among the almost two million engineers in the country. I was honored to be elected to that body in 2009 for the work I did at the Pentagon some time earlier. The NAE also has another mission. Together with the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine, it is chartered to advise the federal government and others on issues affected by engineering. This advice can be on some of the challenges I discussed earlier, as well as other challenges.

The committee I chair is the Racial Justice and Equity Committee. The committee was empaneled last year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and particularly, in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It consists of 14 members with extensive experience in diversity in the engineering profession. They also have extensive experiences in administrating large engineering organizations and educational organizations.

Our job is to come up with ideas for mitigating the problems of the racial divide in those areas impacted by the engineering profession, as well as seeing these ideas implemented.

I have already discussed the racial divide in engineering education and how many of you can make a difference in your own environment. The RJ&E committee is looking at ways to have broader impact on the engineering educational system.

The Academy has a history of working to increase the number of minorities in the field of engineering. In 1973, I chaired a symposium of the National Academy of Engineering on increasing minority engineering graduates.

That symposium was very successful. In collaboration with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it helped create many independent organizations to work with universities to graduate more minority engineers. I was also the program officer for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation at that time. Thus, I was in a coordinating role for the two organizations.

Some of you may be familiar with some of the organizations created as a result of that effort. One is called the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering that has a scholarship program for underrepresented students. Another is the GEM Fellowship Consortium providing fellowships for graduate study for underrepresented students. Some of you might be familiar with MESA, Math Engineering and Science Achievement. It works with high school students to educate them about engineering and help prepare them for college. These are just a few of the programs resulting from the minority engineering effort.

While in the effort’s first 30 years, the number of minority engineers increased dramatically, over the past 18 years, that progress has slowed considerably.

People have asked me why I think progress has slowed and I think one reason was the passage of many anti-affirmative action laws and constitutional amendments in states, like California, in 1996, and Michigan, in 2006. These laws prohibited targeting minorities through quotas in programs at state universities and programs supported with state funds. The stated purpose was to prevent discrimination against white students.

In addition, in many states, non-minority students sued universities over their minority programs. Many of these cases went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that diversity is a lawful goal, but it must be advanced in a very tailored way. Nonetheless, most universities decided to deemphasize race, in spite of the permission of the Supreme Court.

Given the legal obstacles to increasing diversity in state-supported institutions, it is even more important that private institutions and individuals do what they can to help bridge this racial decide.

The RJ&E Committee will be sponsoring several meetings to bring people together from all over the nation to study the problem and to create a plan to do something about it. That will include both state- supported institutions and private institutions. As mentioned above, the private institutions have more latitude in what they can do.

One initiative we are looking at is using information technology (IT) to help link the disparate organizations working on the problem (such as those mentioned above). The purpose is to facilitate movement of students from one program to the next level of programming. I’m sure that Hopkins has programs working with minority students at different educational levels. We want to assist Hopkins and make sure that the graduates of their programs move successfully to the next level.

Another initiative we have is a workshop on community colleges where many minority students matriculate. We hope to smooth their transition from community college to an engineering school.

However, the racial divide applies to more than education. While engineering provides solutions to many problems, the benefits of those solutions do not always impact everyone the same way. A major concern of ours is the disproportionate impact of technologies on different racial and ethnic groups, particularly African Americans.

Perhaps, the best-known example of that is the algorithms that are used in facial recognition programs. As you know, algorithms have to be trained to do their jobs. Usually, that is done by providing the algorithm with many faces to train on. If the algorithm has not seen many Black faces, it will not be able to clearly distinguish one Black face from another, which can lead to misidentifications by the police and others. What can we do about this? First of all, we need to be aware of the potential for harm. That should be a part of the education of students and practitioners.

Another example of the disproportionate impact of technology is the uneven distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine between African American and others. A distribution problem like this is a classical operations research problem. For those of you who have not heard of operations research, this is a discipline developed during the Second World War that helps people use technological systems better. I am sure if you gave an operations research specialist the problem and told the researcher to minimize disparities based on race, we would have a better system. What we need is a system that automatically adjusts to insure equitable distribution.

COVID-19 and the quarantines that have ensued have highlighted another disparity. When grade schools were forced to operate remotely, there was concern for those children that did not have great technology at home, or did not have parents or siblings who could support them in operating remotely. Many are concerned that might be long-term educational damage to some students because of this disproportionate impact based on race. Can we build technologies and support systems that would mitigate that problem?

There are many other areas that could benefit from engineering thinking to mitigate the disparities that we see in the nation.

What I would like to see is that one of the design criteria for all technological development be to mitigate disproportionate impact of technology on disadvantaged people.

I hope I have convinced you that all of you can make a difference on the racial decide, both now and in the future.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to your questions.

Rewind: Opening the Door

Percy Pierre is a key architect of the nation’s minority engineering effort.