• U.S.

Engineers: Depletion Allowance

2 minute read

In 15 years, electronics has leaped from the vacuum tube to the transistor to the maser and laser. In less than a generation, aircraft engineering has jumped from piston to jet to rocket and next to nuclear propulsion. So fast is all technology moving these days that by one estimate new engineering graduates can expect a professional “half life” of only about ten years. Half of what they now know will be obsolete in 1973, and only half of what they will need to know is available to them at this time.

Aging young engineers obviously need a depletion allowance as their knowledge goes out of date, and last week the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided something akin to it: a $5,000,000 grant to M.I.T. for a new cram school to retrain seasoned engineers.

Along with top industrial engineers, the students will include the men who need the most help—engineering professors. They now teach youngsters who will live well past the year 2000, but their own training of two decades ago might almost as well have been in 1900. As recently as 1950, for example, few engineering undergraduates were learning much about relativity, plasma physics or probability theory, all now of major importance. “This tremendous avalanche of technological progress has outstripped them,” says Gordon S. Brown, dean of M.I.T.’s engineering school. The professors furiously read technical journals, adds Brown, “but sometimes even the stuff in the journals is two years behind.”

At the new school, the professors will mix with live engineers straight off the technological production line, get a fresh view of how to modernize their own flagging curriculums. The effort comes none too soon. The U.S. is graduating only half as many engineers as it needs, and will never get enough unless youngsters believe that what they can learn in engineering school will keep them eating past 30.

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