The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry, and, with apologies to Robert Burns, that's not always such a bad thing, says Norman Augustine.
Left to his own adolescent devices, the speaker at Michigan Tech's 2011 Spring Commencement would probably have built a stellar career for himself in forestry. That's a noble calling but a far cry from the one that guided his steps, one unexpected milestone after another: as an engineer working on NASA's Apollo program, CEO of Lockheed Martin, undersecretary of the US Army, five-time recipient of the Department of Defense Civilian Distinguished Service Medal, on the faculty at Princeton, chair of the National Academy of Engineering . . . well, you get the idea.
That's one reason he advised the Class of 2011 not to put too much stock in long-range planning. "There are too many uncontrollable variables in life," he told them.
His own story began with an uncontrollable variable in the form of a busybody high school teacher.
"Nobody in my family had had the opportunity to go to college, though my parents were well aware of the importance of an education," he said. "One day a teacher—not one of mine—called me into his class and asked what I wanted to do when I finished high school."
Augustine hadn't given it much thought, but he loved to roam the wild country near his Denver home, so he said he wanted to be a forest ranger. The teacher was unimpressed. "He threw me out—said I had no ambition," Augustine recalled. Later, he got a second summons, believing, as he does to this day, that forestry is a worthy pursuit. But this time, the teacher merely handed him two envelopes. Inside one was an application to Williams, in the other, an application to Princeton.
"I filled them out, and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Princeton," said Augustine. "Before I got there, they asked what I wanted to study, and I said forestry. They thought that was the funniest thing."
The closest Princeton could come to forestry was geological engineering, which isn't very close at all. "I took that for a year, without much enthusiasm," Augustine said. Then, on a train ride from New York, he rescued a student who had stopped between the cars and was on the verge of falling off the train. They chatted, said Augustine, and his new friend offered some fateful advice: major in aeronautical engineering.
As it turned out, there was probably no better time in the history of the universe to be an aeronautical engineer. "Jet aircraft were coming out, and Sputnik was launched the first week I was in grad school," he said. Later, while Augustine was an engineer at Douglas Aircraft, President Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Douglas Aircraft would get the contract to design one stage of the Apollo missions' Saturn V rockets.
"In the beginning, we didn't have the faintest idea how we were going to do it, but this was a great time of opportunity," Augustine said. "I played a tiny role in putting twelve friends on the moon. I wouldn't have bet a nickel that they'd come back, and somehow they did."
Did Augustine ever think that he would end up where he is? "I could never have imagined it in a million years," he stated. "You never know what life's going to hold."
Today, if someone were to save him from falling off a train, what field of study would Augustine recommend? "The most promising field is the one you are good at," he said. "But, it's easier to build a career in growing fields. I'd say biosciences, information sciences, nanosciences . . .
Twenty years ago, if you had asked me, I never would have said biosciences. Cutting up frogs?
It also combines well with other fields."
That said, all of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—hold the promise of a better world. "There are so many problems that have technological content: preserving the environment, rebuilding the infrastructure, national security . . . ," said Augustine. "And I think an undergraduate degree in a technology-related field is a great thing, no matter what you are going to do. If you want to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a banker, be an engineering grad."
In such a climate, Michigan Tech is ideally placed, he said, and not only in terms of its curriculum. "You are able to draw on a dedicated, committed group of faculty and students," he said. "I'm impressed with that. For the twenty-first century, you are in the sweet spot."
He fears, however, that the US is losing its preeminent position on the sweet spot of the global economy, largely because our K-12 schools as a whole are doing a lousy job of developing the next generation of STEM professionals.
"This is not about creating jobs for scientists and engineers; they are only about 4 percent of the workforce," Augustine stressed. It's about the other 96 percent, whose employment ultimately hinges on the US maintaining its technological edge.
"I've found eight studies that have shown that between 50 and 85 percent of job growth and about two-thirds of increases in productivity are due to advances in science and engineering," he said.
Those advances are not always evident in the beginning. "People working in solid-state physics forty years ago never knew their work would lead to PCs and iPods. Those advances have made jobs for all the people who make, market, and even use them."
Thus, it's equally important to educate a society that supports an R&D process that by its very nature can be a bit by-guess-and-by-golly. "We need everyone to be literate in science and engineering," he said. "Sadly, in many cases, our top schoolkids don't get the opportunities they should have, and the others don't have the skills to get the jobs created by the STEM kids."
Augustine became intimately familiar with challenges hobbling the US education system as chair of a National Academies committee that authored Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. The report was predicated on the notion that Americans should be able to compete for the good jobs being created globally. Its conclusions raised a few bright red flags.
"We felt we were in trouble for two primary reasons: poor K-12 math education and a lack of investment in scientific research," he said. That was back in 2005, when the report was presented to Congress.
Six years later, not much has changed. Funding for basic research has been hammered by the recession, and solutions to improving K-12 education are not simple. "The things I always thought made a quality school system are all wrong," Augustine said. "I thought that money was important. But we're third in the world in spending on education, and in Washington, DC, the per capita spending on students is the highest in the nation. And the schools there are terrible."
The things that do make a difference in K-12 education can't necessarily be bought: parents who care and teachers who are experts in their field and love to teach.
Augustine wanted to be part of the solution, so he took an early retirement to teach. "It turns out that I'm not qualified to teach eighth-grade math, though I had tutored calculus in college," he said wryly. So, "reluctantly," he accepted a faculty job at a place that did want him: Princeton's Engineering School.
What can Washington do to make parents care and teachers teach better? "Probably not much, about the former," Augustine said. "The very people who are most likely to raise a fuss about poor schools now send their children to private schools. Also, there's a cultural outlook in this country that stems from our earliest days. The founders were suspicious of big government, and they didn't want the government teaching their kids. So now we have 14,000 autonomous school districts, while China can put out an edict that will apply to all schools in the nation."
Augustine thinks K-12 education could take a page from the universities' playbook. "What made our economy successful was free enterprise, and free enterprise has also worked for our universities. K-12 is the antithesis of that," he said. "Why would you pay a physics teacher the same as a phys ed teacher? Or a good physics teacher the same as a great physics teacher? Or tolerate a poor physics teacher?"
Higher education is also under siege, but for different reasons. "US universities are threatened by a reduction in state support," he said. "We were once the best in the world, but that's changing. I've traveled to 109 countries, and everywhere they are trying to recruit the best US professors. Our universities are still first-rate, but they are threatened for the first time in memory."
Despite the gathering storm, Augustine still hopes future generations will have the benefits he enjoyed. After all, it was his university education, particularly in engineering, that broke ground on his rich and successful life.
On his first summer job, as a roofer, Augustine got a trial run on what his own future might look like if he hadn't gone to college.
"I hated spreading tar on roofs, but I learned a lot from that," he said. "The New York Times once asked me what three things I learned from my first job. I answered that there are a lot of very fine people spreading tar on roofs. It takes a lot of tar to cover a roof. And, education is the key to getting off the roof."