Augustine: Unlikely sources can inform, guide the future of engineering

By Michael Casper
May 20, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Norman Augustine addressed the audience gathered in Penn State’s Bill Freeman Auditorium on April 28, he left students, faculty, staff and administrators thinking about a lot of things.  

Chances are it wasn’t the first time.

Augustine delivered the Distinguished Lecture for Penn State’s Engineering Systems Program. His talk was titled “Socio-engineering: Technology, Business, and Policy Systems for 21st Century Leadership.”

First, let’s be clear: Augustine is not exactly your average “man on the street.”

He has served at the highest levels of leadership in business, government and academia, including undersecretary of the U.S. Army, chairman of the council of the National Academy of Engineering and trustee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University.  

A trustee emeritus of Johns Hopkins University, he served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and is a former chairman of the Defense Science Board.  Among his awards and honors are the National Medal of Technology, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Public Service Award and five Distinguished Civilian Service Awards. In 2010, Augustine was awarded an honorary doctorate from Penn State. He was named to the 2014 U.S. News & World Report STEM Leadership Hall of Fame.

Penn State Provost Nicholas Jones introduced Augustine as “the most interesting man in the world,” and, despite having to follow such a lofty acknowledgment, his lecture did not disappoint.

Far from a dry expounding of facts and theories, Augustine’s remarks were a lively selection of observations drawing on his broad view of history, science and culture as well as his personal encounters with world leaders in business, education and policy.

Tracing the route of innovation across several millennia into modern times, Augustine noted that a striking majority of key advances were in the field of engineering.

Yet, frequently these initiatives were met, at least initially, with distrust from the public, and sometimes even from the inventors themselves.

Augustine noted that Thomas Edison, who developed a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, had in his time concluded that alternating current would be useless and was just plain dangerous.

Augustine’s style is frank and forward. When he was unable to open the packaging of a small medical product of a major corporation on whose board he served, he carried it to the next board meeting and challenged everyone present to try, offering a $5 prize.

“I still have the 5 dollars,” he noted.

Though his paths have traversed scores of board rooms and halls of government, academia remains a key passion for Augustine.

Looking to the evolving fields of engineering and the complex issues that future engineers will need to address, Augustine was quick to note that a background in the arts and humanities and a solid training in ethics should be paramount to career formation. And he believes that making the master’s degree the basic engineer’s education would allow that vital aspect to be incorporated into the professional preparation.

“Engineering teaches us what we can do. The arts and humanities teach us what we should do.”

Augustine recalled a business situation in which the question arose whether a company should keep or sell off a product, and he turned to an unlikely source for advisement: Shakespeare, noting the poet's well-informed understanding of people.

Augustine’s own works also may provide food for the interested mind of both the enterprising student and the career professional. They include: Augustine's Laws and Shakespeare in Charge.

Augustine’s lecture is also available by visiting the Penn State University Libraries website .

Penn State’s Engineering Systems Program, as organizer of the lecture, served a unique function for Penn State.

“As technology becomes more complex and engineers become more specialized,” said Martin Pietrucha, the program’s director, “there is a tendency to lose sight of the larger context in which these technologies and engineering specializations exist. Engineers need to have a sense of how the technological systems that they are so familiar with interact with the governmental, economic and social systems that can aid or impede the development of the engineered systems that are so ubiquitous today.”

Augustine’s visit included discussions with faculty and students from across the University about the future of higher education, the transfer of technology from University research and innovation in engineering systems research, teaching and societal engagement.

For more information on the Engineering Systems Program call Darryl Farber, managing director of the program, at 814-865-3042.

Last Updated May 21, 2015