Featured Engineer

Interview with Geoffrey Orsak

Geoffrey Orsak

Geoffrey Orsak - Dean, SMU Lyle School of Engineering

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

My father was an electrical engineer, but surprisingly that was not the reason I got into the field. Of course I was thrilled to follow in his footsteps after undertaking a somewhat circuitous journey. I originally planned on going to med school, so in college I started out in the life sciences. But during my first serious biology course, I realized that there was so little room for creativity. And to make matters worse, the studying was mind numbing – it seemed to me at the time that all I was doing was memorizing terms and chemical processes. So I needed to look elsewhere, and fast. My closest friend was talking an electrical engineering course in intro circuits from a legendary professor, so I decided to sneak in the back of the room to check it out. One lecture later, I was hooked and have been a champion for engineering, creativity and innovation ever since.

What is on your bookshelf?

As a faculty member, I have all the typical engineering text books from my field, mostly in the area of digital signal processing and communication systems. But as a dean, I have become very interested these days in the intersection between technology, economic development, and progress in the human condition. I really enjoyed Juan Enriquez’s As the Future Catches You. I was also inspired by Emily Pilloton’s entertaining compilation Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People. This is a great book to share with others in and out of the tech field.

I am also very concerned and troubled by the state of education here in the US. I have closely followed the National Academy of Engineering’s reports on the subject – there is a series of monographs starting with The Engineer of 2020. If you are not concerned about the future that our kids will inherit from us, I strongly urge you to consider reading these texts. The evidence is mounting and overwhelming – without fundament massive change, our generation just might be the last to enjoy our current standard of living for some time. Not a good thing to happen on our watch.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?

My basic approach to all problem solving is to try to not focus on the constraints too soon, and take some real time blue skying the solution space. This has helped me avoid arriving at incremental solutions. Finding new breakthrough ideas is never easy, but limiting yourself with numerous hard constraints drives us toward a more conservative design methodology. We need to imagine the big possible first. This elevates excitement among the team and creates a willingness to take on big challenges – and helps keep everyone focused on the end game. Yes, we are engineers and “we design under constraint”, but let’s try be more visionary and take more chances with our ideas.

What has been your favorite project?

In 1999 I was concerned that young kids were not getting an accurate view of our field. The overriding message to these impressionable students was that engineering was nothing more than an application of math and science. It seemed obvious to me that young teens needed something that was true to the best of our field if they were going to fall in love with engineering. So, I had the vision that engineering should be part of the “normal” high school experience – not different from biology, Spanish, pre-calc. The acid test was to walk into any high school and see kids carrying textbooks with the name ENGINEERING on it and not thinking this was somehow nerdy and strange.

The Infinity Project was born to achieve this goal. By putting a team composed of remarkable engineering experts and educators, business partners, and a fantastic publisher, over the last decade, thousands of teachers have been trained to teach real design engineering using modern technology and tools. Students in more than 40 states today are signing up for engineering using our textbook entitled ENGINEERING: Our Digital Future. While there are many more schools and teachers to reach, the Infinity Project has had a profound impact on who is learning engineering today, and just as important, how it is taught. You can learn more here.

What are you currently working on?

Today, I am working on one of the most ambitious and difficult challenges of my career. I am leading a team trying to bring the power of innovation to the poorest of the poor around the globe. There are nearly one billion humans who struggle to survive without access to clean water, a reliable food supply, shelter of any kind, basic health care, and access to even the most primitive education. I believe strongly that we can bring hope and personal ownership to people around the world who are living on $1-$2 per day by leveraging the same creativity that have given rise to the technologies that have shaped our modern lives.

Our first major project will be with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and will focus on addressing the myriad challenges in refugee camps and urban slums. While much smaller than the general population of the global poor, this community still approaches 50 million men, women, and children facing some of the most dire conditions on the planet. We hope to roll this effort out this fall with the deployment of R&D centers (we call them “Field Innovation Centers”) right in the middle of the refugee camps and slums so that engineers and scientists can see firsthand what the real challenges are in producing solutions that work in these difficult environments. We have learned just how hard it is to make durable and practical progress from the comfortable environments of our modern workplaces.

What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?

My business is educating young engineers who will go out and create value. Kids interested in STEM fields have been pretty hard to find over the last few decades. We have had to go looking for them in places you wouldn’t typically imagine – like cheerleading squads, sports teams, student governments. These “new” engineering students have greatly enlivened our student body, and have also stretched us in moving beyond the traditional and somewhat outdated approach of problem-solution based engineering education, to one where design, innovation, and team work are highly valued.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

Workforce seems to always be right at the top of the list of big challenges for the engineering community. Many fields are facing a huge loss in talent and experience due to retirements. The energy sector is looking at the most difficult workforce challenges with nearly half of their professionals retiring in the next decade.

Who is going to come in and address these increasingly complex problems of the future?

There is no question that the world is growing its engineering talent pool, but because of the unique business advantages of the USA, we will always need great engineers here leading both global businesses, and creating new start-ups.

What worries you most about the future of education in the USA?

Our K-12 system is in dire condition, we continue to spend more and more but seem to get less and less out of it. Clearly we don’t have a model that works in the face of the complexities of today’s environments. We need some really bold thinking to imagine a new way to provide the best education possible. It is about all we really give our children.

With respect to higher education, I am very concerned about the escalating cost. I am proud of the quality of the education we provide, but at the cost of $100K-$200K for an undergraduate degree, families are going to start asking for us to justify the return on investment. As a parent with young kids, I hope we can collectively find ways to protect what makes our higher-ed system the envy of the world, while also dramatically reducing the financial burden we place on families.

Using your crystal ball, what excites you about our future?

Let me take a century long view for this question. I am fairly confident that we will shift off of traditional sources of energy to newer, clean forms of energy which will be good for not only the environment, but also national security. I also believe that we will see dramatic improvements in treating some of the most deadly diseases, and thereby increase the life expectancy of humans. We added nearly four decades last century – I can see adding 1-2 decades this century. I hope we can continue space exploration. Think of all we accomplished in the last forty years of twentieth century – the potential for change of our entire perception of humanity just might be found through exploration. And of course, I am always excited and amazed by the creativity of singular individuals that see solutions that others don’t.

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