Mark A. Eiteman, Ph.D.
Professor of Biological Engineering
Dr. Eiteman wants students to understand and apply approaches to solving technical problems rather than just memorizing information, since many problems they will encounter don’t have easy answers. At the University of Georgia College of Engineering, he teaches courses in Mass Transfer, Biochemical Engineering, and Bioseparations. Dr. Eiteman’s expertise is at the interface of metabolic engineering, bioprocess engineering and fermentation technology. He has also taught and engaged in research in Chennai, India at Anna University and IIT-Madras. Dr. Eiteman won the UGA Inventor of the Year Award in 2014.
“We have to communicate why we engage globally, and we have to provide students with opportunities where they can also come to appreciate the importance of our global community.”
A short conversation about engineering education with Dr. Eiteman:
What excites you about engineering education in the 21st century?
There are a number of developments that are really exciting. I’m really interested in globalization and how the concept of diversity is becoming more important as we become globally linked. My wife works at a company as a senior engineer, interacting with people from Thailand, Pakistan, and many European countries. It is apparent that people’s attitudes, value systems, and approaches, even if they’re the same age, are still very different. It might have been feasible as a graduate of the 1950s to go through a 40-year career and be fairly isolated in the work environment, not only in terms of race and even gender at that time, but also geographic location. Now things are very different: you really have to interact with very diverse groups of people. In my lab, I have researchers from Iran, Sri Lanka and India; I’m going to have someone from Mexico, and the different perspectives they bring are just really wonderful, and we are all better for it. How do we better incorporate that into our education system? I don’t think I have a good answer, but certainly I encourage our students to go on trips to foreign countries to gain some experience. I’ve had a number of students do that in my class, and I think it’s very valuable. One of the critical skills of the 21st century is the ability to work with diverse people.
Do you see any major challenges for globalization and engineering education as we move into the future?
I think there are a bunch of challenges – one major challenge that I see is scalability. A lot of things that we do might not be scalable—CURO is a big thing on campus, these undergraduate research experiences. I don’t think that 25,000 students or 30,000 students can each do a CURO project. Maybe they can on paper, but legitimately, are they going to have real projects? No. I think we’re saturated. I think the same is true with global education. The University of Georgia can’t send everybody to Oxford, but we do what we can.
Another issue I think is society itself. There is a lot of pushback on this issue of globalization that we see now. I’m not going to get into a political discussion, but the point is that whatever you do, it does fall into your own set of constraints—political, financial, and so on. I think that part of the challenge is to make the argument that globalization is a valuable thing. We have to answer the question of: Why do we even want this? Well, I think it’s very valuable and I think we can’t go back. We sell goods and services to everyone in the world, and companies are going to continue to sell their products everywhere in the world. If they don’t they’re just not going to be successful. But, if you look at the lay public, there may be some pushback. So, we have to communicate why we engage globally, and we have to provide students with opportunities where they can also come to appreciate the importance of our global community.
So that’s one discussion. The other is to make people aware of what exactly research is; not only what it does in the questions asked, but what its constraints and limitations are. Engineers and engineering researchers are going to be more successful if the general world out there knows what they’re doing. So, I think our role goes far beyond the university in a variety of ways, one of which is—when students are done here and go out in the world, if they can’t articulate what their education is about, and why the things that I’ve mentioned like globalization, diversity and research even matter, then clearly we’re not doing a good job. So we have to extend our reach beyond these walls, or we’re not going to be successful. Then we truly are just going to be an ivory tower.
How do you think engineers and researchers effectively engage the public about issues surrounding globalization and research?
I was talking with one faculty member at another university, a very distinguished faculty member, and his concept is that we have to write for the lay person. We ought to write articles that appear in the editorials of our local newspapers and local magazines. And he said, that’s the way to really reach people. Okay, interesting idea. Maybe I should write an article to the Athens paper and talk about global experiences I’ve had. I think what we have to do as academics is enter the conversation more broadly, about what are beliefs, and what is research, and what is the scientific method, and why is there globalization? Why is it a good thing? What is the United States’ place in the world? But we need to have a better way of communicating, maybe even create opportunities to make it formal in some way, and the administration needs to reward it.
In Georgia we have many very, very poor counties. What are we doing that is impacting those counties? Frankly, what I do impacts them essentially zero. Should the University give me incentive to go out and impact those counties? Well, if we don’t more directly, then why should those counties support us? Why should they care that I have two publications in Science this year, or something like that? How is that helping them eat? We’ve got to be able to explain the impact of what we’re doing and how it relates to them. Convince this person in rural Georgia that I should be teaching graduate students from Iran or India, and that doing so makes the world so much better.
What role do you see learning technologies play in engineering education?
A lot of people talk about new technology. “We’re going to have new technology in the classroom.” Well, it’s kind of funny: if you have a car, and there’s a new car coming out, you wouldn’t buy that new car just because it’s a new car coming out. You don’t buy a new car every year. It would be a waste of your money.
So you only buy things based upon need.
If you’re being treated for a disease and you use a drug that works, and a new drug comes out, you’re not going to try that drug. Why should I try the drug if what I have is satisfactory? So I’m always concerned about new technologies being adopted without a demonstrated need. This is an engineering concept; what are the design criteria that lead to adoption of new technology?
When I was going to school information was scarce, but as a result of it being scarce, it was valuable. So if I knew something, it was valuable. Well, now information is accessible to everybody, so mere information has no value. And even the truth has little value, because there is so much information and dis-information out there. Who’s to distinguish it? All “knowledge” is available; whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. So we have decreased the value of education in a sense, because now everything is available. I think there’s more of a need for teaching critical thinking than there ever has been; to help students discern relevant information. We’re not entirely geared towards doing that in our classes all the time. I mean, here’s the formula, plug in the numbers. Well, anyone can read that on the internet. Maybe you wouldn’t have read it on the internet unless I directed you to it, so there’s some value. But you see the internet is so full of information: How do you assimilate it all and actually come up with a coherent notion of the things that are important? That’s what we need to be teaching more and more of, how to evaluate information in a thoughtful way. Our increased access to information has not really come with an increase in understanding, and that’s a grave danger. We need to make sure that learning technologies provide a way for students to gain a better understanding, not just a way to disseminate information more quickly.
There’s been a lot of debate in the academic community about online classes, and there’s this idea that if you can take the courses online, take tests online, answer some multiple choice questions, do homework online and so on, why do you need the faculty and the university at all? Well, I just don’t think you can get that critical thinking online. You don’t get understanding online. But it’s also difficult to communicate that importance with lawmakers who might reasonably be thinking of ways to reduce costs “why can’t we put all these courses online?” But that’s a very difficult thing to do because going back to the real world; the students who graduate have to represent to the people that the education they’ve received has greater value than something they could have gotten off the internet by studying for two years. An education in engineering should play a key role in teaching critical thinking, to be a better citizen, not just teaching engineering knowledge.