A View from the Academic World: If there is truth in what scientists do, we need to raise consciousness that it is important.Interview conducted in June 2020
Dr. G. and Dr. L. are professors of engineering in the United States. The former teaches at a large, public midwestern university, the latter at a large, southern public university. Both have been active members of SAE International. Dr. G’s instruction and SAE committee work focuses on automotive human factors. Dr. L.’s specializes in automotive vehicle crashworthiness, with a particular emphasis on material science. Among their concerns were the absence of in-person interactions in classrooms, at conferences and in hands-on projects as well as dramatically reduced funding for research. Backgrounding these were fears that the diminished priority for scientific and technical work, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, would be further exacerbated by COVID's economic and social consequences. Both shared a strong conviction for the importance of professional associations.
One immediate outcome of this discussion: SAE offered its WCX and Aerotech Virtual Summits at no charge to any student with a valid identification.
SAE: We want each of you to think back to New Year's Day, 2020. A new decade had started. Few of us had heard about COVID-19. How would you have defined your goals then?
Dr. L.: I was hopeful about the coming year and a new decade. I thought: I'm ready to advance my career, not only as a researcher in materials and light-weighting, but also as an administrator. I'm currently a faculty advisor of the Formula SAE team and I planned a series of design evaluation sessions with our student officers and the Wuhan (China) team. Last year we did not do very well: an overall ranking of 70-something; but this year wanted to place among the top 50.
Dr. G.: I had plans to go to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society meeting; and I require my students to go. The meeting became virtual, and that had direct impact on them. The networking is so critical and there’s no substitute for doing this face-to-face. That's one of the reasons why I've been so active in SAE: the people you meet and talk to. You're not going to find the answer to every question on the Internet. At an SAE conference you can meet someone you can call for advice or an answer to a problem. That personal interaction is what COVID has changed.
SAE: Do the students see it in a similar way?
Dr. L.: They don’t have the opportunity to complete their projects in person. They learn to work in a team, soft skills like communication and project management, how to apply knowledge they learn from the class to solve real-world problems. I think that's a big loss due to this COVID. The same is true for e-learning.
Dr. G.: I agree. While we’ve been videoconferencing for 14 years, it still took time to build expertise with online tools. And it took students the time as well. I told them: although it's a disadvantage for your learning now, knowing how to use these tools means you'll be more effective when you enter the business world.
SAE: Compare this to the Great Recession: does it feel similar, worse, or is it too early to tell?
Dr. L.: I think it's worse than 12 years ago. Then the Obama administration offered a stimulus package for federal grant agencies like the National Science Foundation. But so far, I haven't heard of this happening. If you look at our university, we’ve lost revenue. We have to refund the students’ housing fees and money from football tickets. We're a state university and heavily rely on state government resources. If we don't collect enough support from the state, it will affect our research. The only hope is if we can expand our distance education programs. During hard times, more people want to go back to school to re-sharpen their tools.
Dr. G.: I'm hearing that the greatest suffering will be among universities with the smallest resources. Tier three universities will be in significant trouble. Some may fail, and that has some long-term implications. The second is the composition of the student body. People come from all over the world to the United States to get an education. Immigration policies will discourage students coming from China and other parts of the world. Informal interactions play a role as well and have a great deal to do with how the world looks. Students are growing up, meeting new people, forming ideas, not just about technical things, but also about other people. Being among a diverse student population makes them citizens of the world. And the absence of that is a real tragedy.
SAE: What advice do you have for us that will help you?
Dr. G.: You need to get as many students as possible to your conferences. Think back: what was your first professional meeting like? And how did your perspective of what professional societies could do change after that? It made a huge difference. How else do we turn on that switch for students to realize college is done, this is the way you'll go to the next level? It's not just the sessions; after a session, you go and talk to the speaker and ask questions. Getting that face-to-face time is really important. If we can't meet in person, those events, those activities can still continue virtually. And really, it's not just getting the graduate students and the best students; they normally go anyway. It's the average students who have no idea what these conferences really are. Getting them to show up makes a huge difference.
SAE: Where can SAE play a role in bringing back funding for research and conferences?
Dr. G.: Professional societies can’t do this on their own. They have to work together, as a collective, to support research. They need to raise their voices and say that support for science, engineering and technology is important. If there is truth in what scientists do, we need to raise consciousness that it is important.
SAE: Coming to a close, what would you say should be the biggest takeaway from our dialogue here?
Dr. L: I want to say two things. First, after this COVID crisis, I think the tendency of moving to online meetings and online educational model is unstoppable. Second, still the traditional education mode, the face-to-face meeting, their values still remain. And one more thing is that I'm still optimistic about this future of the society as well as the economy. I think as a society, as a country, we will come back stronger and much better. I'm always optimistic about this.
SAE: Well, I would love to keep this as last words. Therefore, thank you both for some excellent feedback. You have given us a whole range of ideas for our events and for our education.