How to boost US productivity: produce more pragmatic engineers

The task would seem simple enough: Build a bottle opener. But look closer. It requires deciding what metals to use, how to treat, mold, and fit them together - not to mention coming up with a functional design. In other words, an alchemy of fundamental physics, chemistry, and materials processing, among other things.

Last year a team of engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) spent a full semester on the chore. It is the type of ''hands on,'' practical experience, says RPI president George Low, that engineers of the 1980s will increasingly need if the US is to remain competitive.

''That's a different kind of engineering education than we had as recently as four or five years ago,'' says the soft-spoken president of the highly regarded science and engineering school. ''We have moved into a hands-on type of engineering which just didn't exist a few years ago.''

Dr. Low's trim frame is folded in a chair in his office on the 159-year-old RPI campus, which overlooks the former textile town of Troy, severed by the lazy , mud-frothed Hudson River.

He recently took time out from what is usually a dawn-to-dusk schedule to offer views on everything from the Japanese threat in technology (formidable but not insurmountable) to space (a frontier America is not doing enough to exploit).

Dr. Low is the former NASA administrator and manager of the Apollo program who first suggested to President Kennedy, in a 1960 memo, that the US could put an astronaut on the moon by the end of that decade. His office bears memorabilia of that earlier career: models of Apollo spacecraft, a glossy snapshot of a solar eclipse taken from Skylab, a plastic prototype of the US Space Shuttle.

But most of his energies these days go into trying to make RPI, his ivy-clad alma mater, into something of an Athens of technology, a task that includes shaping a new generation of engineers.

He sees engineering schools today undergoing a much-needed shift in emphasis, away from the engineer-as-scientist toward the engineer as pencil-behind-the-ear pragmatist, tackling basic issues of production and economics.

This means more stress on manufacturing - how to promote, for instance, productivity and quality control on the factory floor. Dr. Low traces, in fact, many of America's economic problems to a preoccupation with engineering sciences a few years ago.

''We got away from those who used to like to tinker with cars . . . ,'' he says. ''That may well be a fundamental, under-lying reason for our nonproductivity in this country.

''What we are really doing now,'' he adds, ''is getting engineering students to once again appreciate the practical, to want to go into manufacturing, to want to go into design.''

In other areas, he stresses these points:

* Ways of avoiding conflicts of interest between academics and business. Guidelines governing how much time and effort faculty members can spend on extracurricular business activities must be established. RPI, like dozens of other colleges, is now formulating such guidelines.

Some universities flatly prohibit faculty members from forming companies. Others balk at professors having direct operating responsibility in firms. Dr. Low is leaving the decision up to his faculty - but doesn't see the need for such strict rules.

''Supposing I were an operating officer in the corner gas station,'' he says, ''and all I did was spend two hours in the afternoon reviewing the books. I'm not going to think a great deal about that. Where do you then draw the line from that corner gas station to the company producing widgets? You do want entrepreneurs on your faculty. So I think we will have much more broad guidelines than specific ones.''

* Science and math education. While he feels learning in these areas is running far behind what's needed, he is not pessimistic about the future. George Low is one of those who sees opportunity in disaster. It was this outlook that helped him, more than any other person, resuscitate the Apollo spacecraft after the disasterous launch-pad fire in 1967.

Now he sees the litany of books, papers, and reports on the dismal state of science and math education galvanizing a response that will result in a ''major step foward in education in this country.'' At least 45 states - New York included - are fashioning blueprints to improve teaching in these areas. ''People are jumping on the bandwagon and beginning to do something,'' he says.

At the same time, however, Dr. Low admits that changes won't be wrought overnight. For instance, take the problem with math and science teachers. A shortage of instructors now exists in at least 40 states. Worse, more than one-third of the 200,000 science and math teachers now in public schools are considered unqualified to teach in those fields.

At the root of the problem, he says, is the status of the teacher today. ''We have made teaching such a nonelite profession for so long, it will take a while to turn it around.'' One prescription: Better pay would help.

He also believes colleges and universities can play a valuable role by pitching in to help shape high school math and science curricula. One RPI math professor, for instance, is helping a suburban Albany community set up a science-oriented high school. In addition, he seconds suggestions that tougher discipline, longer classroom hours, and more homework are needed at the elementary and secondary levels. His engineer's rationale is simple but crisp: ''You can't learn how to read and write if you don't read and write.''

* Space. Not surprisingly, the man who was a chief architect of America's manned spaceflight program strongly urges a new US thrust in space. This means, among other things, a permanent manned space station. He sees much of the debate over the controversial idea, now coming to a climax in Washington, as misplaced.

''The space station does not need an economic justification,'' he argues. ''One ought to do it because it's right to do. You cannot learn about space without going there. I am really very much concerned,'' he adds, ''that the United States is losing out on manned spaceflight.''

He sees the growing trend toward international cooperation in space, such as the joint US-European effort with Spacelab, as fine for carrying out scientific experiments and fostering basic research. But manned spaceflight, he adds, should ''still be a competitive thing.'' On another controversial topic, the growing militarization of space, Dr. Low is uncertain. On the one hand, he sees the need for a strong defense. But he also recognizes the perils of an arms buildup in this new frontier.

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