It’s a flat, flat, flat, flat world

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On June 17, 2006

It was “a time of tremendous excitement” for engineers when Harry J. “Hank” Sauer Jr. entered graduate school at MSM-UMR 50 years ago. It had been nine years since Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier, and the U.S. seemed poised for even greater breakthroughs in flight. Fueled by the post-World War II economy and federal funding for research, MSM-UMR’s graduate programs were also poised for takeoff.

But a year later – as Sauer, ME’56, MS ME’58, joined the mechanical engineering faculty while continuing his graduate studies part time – something happened that further accelerated the research activities at MSM-UMR and other universities throughout the nation. That something was the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, a basketball-sized sphere known as Sputnik I.

That event on Oct. 4, 1957, caught the United States space program flat-footed – and propelled the U.S. into a space race with the U.S.S.R.

“It was a tremendous shock to find out how far behind we thought we were,” Sauer recalls. At that time, it was feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also meant they could hurl ballistic missiles at the United States. “It added impetus and a note of urgency to the developmental type of work and research we were already doing,” Sauer adds. “When Sputnik came along, we realized we’d better do even more.”

A new challenge

Today, 49 years after Sputnik, many observers see the United States in a similar situation. Only this time, there is no single rival, but many. The threat to our hegemony is not military, but economic. And some question whether the nation can muster the same resolve – or resources – as it did to face down the Soviet threat to our technological supremacy. The culprit? Globalization.

That single word has become a foreboding catch phrase for American business leaders, educators and government officials. It refers to the integration of markets and technologies on a global scale, coupled with the worldwide spread of information via the Internet that is leveling the economic playing field. Globalization also opens a global talent pool to companies of all sizes. In an interconnected, global marketplace, a variety of work – from aircraft design to tax preparation – can be done anywhere, at any time. As a result, many jobs formerly held by Americans have been “offshored” to nations where labor costs are cheaper.

This issue is addressed in the introduction to Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a recent report on globalization commissioned by Congress and written by a committee of leading U.S. engineers, scientists and educators. “Thanks to globalization,” the report notes, “driven by modern communications and other advances, workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away in Ireland, Finland, China, India, or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing.”

While globalization holds promise for strengthening the economies of developing nations, it also threatens to topple businesses, social institutions and perhaps entire economic systems that aren’t prepared to adapt to new ways of thinking. To the Gathering Storm authors, globalization is more of a wake-up call to the United States than Sputnik was. “We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost – and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”

That’s why major corporations like General Motors have shifted gears “to globalize our products, to keep a presence in different countries, increase market share and maintain leadership,” says Adrian Alarcon, a project manager for a General Motors foundry plant in Mexico. Alarcon is one of several GM students from around the world enrolled in a UMR project management course offered online. “Globalization,” he adds, “has become an unstoppable force in our world.”

A flatter world


Futurists and policy wonks have been talking about globalization for decades. But it took a New York Times journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, to popularize the idea and bring it to the forefront of public consciousness. In his 2005 book The World Is Flat, Friedman, drawing on real-world example after unsettling example, breathlessly describes this brave new world. “Clearly,” he writes, “it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world – using computers, email, networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software.”

Globalization also challenges businesses, governments and social institutions that have become calcified by old business and management models. Outsourcing and downsizing are but two of its symptoms. The bigger threat looming on the horizon, say Friedman and other observers, is the staggering growth of engineering, science, math and technology disciplines in the emerging economies of China, India and other nations.

As these nations invest more in engineering and science, the United States loses ground on many fronts – from elementary and secondary education to colleges and universities to federally sponsored research.

Don’t know much about…

When it comes to math and science, our high school students test out at the bottom of the international class. In 2003, America’s 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 28 nations in math proficiency, and 24th out of 40 in science. Apparently, that doesn’t bother most students. A more recent study – this one commissioned by defense contractor Raytheon – found that 84 percent of eighth-graders surveyed would rather clean their room, eat their vegetables or go to the dentist than do their math homework.

It’s little surprise, then, that only about 5 percent of high school students show an interest in studying engineering in college. Last year’s ACT student interest data indicated that fewer than 800 of Missouri’s 42,000 college-bound high school seniors – just 2.3 percent – expressed an interest in studying engineering and were prepared for trigonometry.

“We are very concerned about continued declines of prepared students interested in pursuing the engineering and natural science careers,” says Jay Goff, UMR’s dean of enrollment management. “Industry has many high-paying jobs for engineering and science graduates, but the student pipeline has become so narrow that many organizations now worry about the future impact the smaller technological workforce will have on the nation’s economy and defense programs.”

Then there’s the growing research gap. Federal funding for non-military research has been flat since the early 1990s, with the exception of the National Institutes of Health. Other nations, meanwhile, are investing more into their national research programs. The United States ranked seventh in the world for research spending as a percentage of gross domestic product in 2003, according to statistics cited in a recent Time article on globalization. This has a ripple effect on graduate programs, which end up with less federal funding for graduate fellowships. Even the number of international students coming to the United States for advanced degrees is on the decline, due in part to tougher visa regulations put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Leading the way

So, how are universities in the United States responding? At UMR, the approach has been two-pronged. One effort addresses the so-called “pipeline” issue to generate more interest in engineering, science and math among pre-college students. The other involves globalizing how we teach in order to prepare our students for the world that awaits them after graduation.

For years, UMR has offered summer programs to get high school juniors and seniors interested in studying engineering at UMR. But studies show that many potential engineers lose interest in the basics – math and science – long before they get to high school. “There’s a middle ground of students who got off the math train too early,” says Ralph E. Flori Jr., PetE’79, MS PetE’81, PhD PetE’87, assistant dean for pre-college and undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering. As the statewide director of Project Lead the Way, a national initiative to generate more interest in engineering at all levels of elementary and secondary education, Flori’s mission is to reverse that trend.

Flori describes Project Lead the Way as a “pre-engineering curriculum” that begins in middle school and continues through high school. “We’re reaching students who never even thought about engineering, or even knew what engineering is,” Flori says. The project aims to inspire budding technologists by introducing them to the “manufactured world” of engineering – the world of cell phones, iPods, video games and fast cars – and by incorporating engineering concepts into traditional science coursework.
“Traditional high school science focuses on the natural world, which is good,” Flori says. “But Project Lead the Way focuses on the manufactured world, the invented world, the designed world. So all of a sudden, students
are appreciating the value of manufactured things.”

Now in its fourth year in Missouri, the program is in 33 of Missouri’s 500-plus school districts, with 15 or more districts coming on board this year and another 15 or more planned for 2007. Flori hopes to see Project Lead the Way courses available to 80 percent of Missouri high school students by 2012.

UMR also offers programs that bring pre-college students to campus in hopes of piquing their interest in engineering and science. Aerospace Camp, a popular summer event since 1999, attracts 10- to 12-year-olds from around Missouri for two, three-day sessions in which they build and launch their own rockets, learn to use GPS devices and link up with NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Other summer programs are geared to specific disciplines, such as transportation, nuclear energy, wind and water power, computers and even explosives. This year, UMR will offer a program just for middle school girls, called “It’s a Girl Thing.”

Another program, Expanding Your Horizons, a one-day session for seventh- and eighth-grade girls, is also popular. Last November’s program attracted nearly 600 girls, who worked on 22 different hands-on projects, from isolating DNA to making glass and experimenting with electricity and magnets.

It’s too early to say whether these efforts will inspire students to prefer math over their vegetables. But even the small percentage of high school graduates who decide to study engineering in college face challenges previous generations never imagined.

Preparing for the future

“I tell our (American) students that we have to be nice to our Chinese and Indian students because we’re going to be working for them someday,” says Duke Dow, a lecturer in engineering management and systems engineering. “The Chinese and Indian students just smile, and the American students give me a dirty look. But in the back of their minds they know I’m only partially kidding.”

American students may not be working for internationals in Dow’s classes, but they’re learning to work alongside them. In one project management course he teaches, some 30 graduate students – a mix of on-campus students and distance learners, two-thirds of them from General Motors – work in virtual teams of three to manage real-world projects. The teams are reviewing the design of a foundry for a GM plant outside Mexico City, planning a robotic powertrain-fastening operation in Australia and overseeing the construction schedule of Toomey Hall, UMR’s mechanical and aerospace building. Because the students on each team are spread across the globe, “they have to figure out how to set up times to meet to get their projects done,” Dow says.

Learning to work in such virtual teams is an important skill for UMR students to learn as they prepare to enter the global work force, Dow says. Gaining a broader international perspective is also valuable, he adds. “In the global market, U.S. managers are very limited because they only speak English, whereas in the European and Asian companies, some managers speak three or four languages.”

Dow would like to see UMR offer more exchange programs for students and faculty in order to broaden their international understanding.

This is a concern shared by Keith D. Strassner, Chem ‘79, director of technology commercialization and economic development at UMR. Prior to joining UMR last year, Strassner was director of global alliances for Brewer Science, a Rolla-based manufacturer of coatings and other products for microchips and related products. His job frequently took him to Asia and Europe. Now, he teaches the Global Entrepreneurship class in UMR’s Residential College. On his first day in the classroom last fall, he asked the class of 65 students how many of them had been outside the United States. “Just a handful of hands went up, and all of those had been to France or England on a high school trip,” he says. “None of them had been to Asia.”

Like Dow, Strassner would like to see UMR offer more exchange programs with other universities. “If I were a student today,” he says, “I would push to go overseas.”

Lessons from the real worlds

For some UMR graduates, globalization is just an office or cubicle away. As a senior associate engineer in metallurgical research for heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, Natalie Vanderspiegel, CerE’02, MS CerE’04, is rubbing elbows with co-workers from a variety of cultures. Working on R&D projects “that are 10 to 15 years out of production,” Vanderspiegel credits her communications minor from UMR with helping her navigate the cultural divide she encounters in her daily work.

Another Caterpillar employee, Justin W. McMenamy, ME’03, MS ME’04, navigates a complex maze of international regulations in his work on global engine development. “Caterpillar wants to sell one product that is compliant globally,” says McMenamy. But the multitude of markets and environmental regulations make it tough to build one-size-fits-all equipment. “With different governments, the rules of business are different,” he says. In North America, for example, emissions is a chief concern. But in Africa, customers are “more concerned with fuel consumption and durability.”

Other multinational companies also face new challenges due to international forces. For the GM employees in Dow’s project management classes, the challenges are not just academic. Alarcon, the 22-year GM employee from the Mexico foundry, says the course is helping him to better understand how global forces affect his work. “We compete with companies – not just other GM foundries – to get a contract to supply parts,” he says, “so if we don’t supply parts with good quality, competitive cost and on time, someone else will.”

A connection to the flat world

Globalization’s impact on the world offers opportunities for schools like UMR. “We could become a connection for our alumni to the flat world,” says Bob Mitchell, former dean of UMR’s School of Engineering. By enrolling in continuing education courses, offered online or via satellite, alumni “can stay connected with us and can help us stay connected with the needs of the business world.”

That’s what Dow is doing with his project management course. Designed specifically to meet GM’s needs for a flexible, real-world “international flavor,” the course not only meets GM’s needs, but gives other students a leg up on the global competition as well.

Globalization may be the buzzword of our times, but it is nothing new, says Flori. “UMR was founded as a land-grand university,” he says, “but really our first graduates went around the world. … In some ways this isn’t a new thing. We just need to look at new ways to meet the needs of society.”

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On June 17, 2006. Posted in Features, Summer 2006