An Interview With Moshe Kam: 2016 Haraden Pratt Award Recipient

The 2011 IEEE president receives recognition for breaking down barriers of entry into the engineering field

12 May 2016

IEEE Past President Moshe Kam has served as an IEEE volunteer for three decades, promoting the engineering profession to a global audience, particularly to preuniversity students. In June at the IEEE Honors Ceremony, in New York City, the IEEE Fellow will receive the 2016 Haraden Pratt Award, which recognizes outstanding service to IEEE, for his “original and high-impact contributions to IEEE’s Educational Activities, expanding IEEE’s global reach and effectiveness.” The award is sponsored by the IEEE Foundation

In 2005, Kam spearheaded the creation of TryEngineering.org, currently one of the most popular portals on engineering education. The portal is aimed at preuniversity students, their parents, and school counselors. Kam also helped transform IEEE’s accreditation activities, spearheading the creation of new accreditation agencies in South America and the Caribbean, by using grassroots movements led by IEEE volunteers. Under his leadership, IEEE trained for the first time program evaluators for accreditation visits outside the United States.

Born and raised in Israel, Kam has been serving since September 2014 as dean of the Newark College of Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Previously, for nearly 30 years, he was professor, then head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. Kam spoke to The Institute about his work as an IEEE volunteer and in academia.

What is your fondest memory of belonging to IEEE?

In 1987, as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Drexel University, I felt the East Coast in the United States needed an in-depth conference on neural networks. I made an appointment with the executive committee of the IEEE Philadelphia Section and presented a plan. The committee responded along the lines of: “You have no idea how to organize a conference. Still, we agree that getting this conference offered is meritorious, so…we’ll help you.”

That very afternoon, they organized a conference-organizers team to book a venue, raise funds, advertise, arrange registration, and assemble a panel of speakers. With this energetic help, we got the task done. The conference was so popular we had to switch venues three times to accommodate the ever-increasing number of registrants. I received positive feedback from participants in that event then and throughout the years. In addition, the conference provided a financial surplus that allowed the section to offer additional workshops and symposia. It was an excellent lesson in what IEEE can do.

After this experience, I volunteered to serve on the executive committee of the Philadelphia Section and for decades continued to work for and with the committee. This was exactly the group of professionals with whom I wanted to associate.

Why have you dedicated so much energy to IEEE?

I have always been interested in professional, community, and educational activities. As professionals, we have a duty to organize ourselves for the benefit of the public, which is our target audience, and for improving the profession. Working with IEEE is one of the best ways to get such important objectives accomplished, reach professionals and students, help shape engineering education, and educate the public about engineering. IEEE has the means, reach, recognition, and prestige to accomplish these tasks effectively.

IEEE also has an enormous reservoir of talent. Whether it is an educational endeavor or a technical subject, you can almost always find an expert on the subject among the ranks of IEEE volunteers and members.

Speaking of preuniversity education, you were a key force behind the TryEngineering.org Web portal. Why did you create it?

I was part of a dedicated team of volunteers and staff members who supported the IEEE Educational Activities Board. We realized that though there was a lot of information on the World Wide Web about engineering education and on becoming an engineering professional, the resources were scattered and hard to integrate into a meaningful picture. Worst was their often grim, dour tone. They made readers feel that in order to succeed as engineers they had better be “geniuses” in mathematics and physics. If they actually became engineers, they would work for long hours alone in isolated cubicles.

It was a very unattractive and misleading picture. Engineering is a creative and vibrant profession that often brings engineers into contact with other professionals, decision-makers, and the public. Most importantly, you can do a lot of good for society as an engineer. These aspects were missing in the available sites.

We created TryEngineering.org, with strong support from IBM, to change the perception of engineering by young people, and to let students and their parents worldwide access reliable and useful information about our profession. We made the information on the portal friendly and approachable. We pulled together information from multiple sources to provide both general and specific answers to questions on engineering education.

If you want to know what civil engineers do, we will tell you. If you want to know where to study mechanical engineering in an urban environment in France, we have an answer for that as well. You can also find on our portal engineering-themed games and lesson plans about engineering for use in classrooms. The portal represents a very different attitude and tone than almost all online resources on engineering that preceded it, and is accessed by tens of thousands of visitors every year.

You’ve been heavily involved in global accreditation activities for engineering programs. What challenges have you encountered?

The IEEE Committee on Global Accreditation Activities faced a philosophical challenge in the late 1990s. We went to the four corners of the world to teach university faculty and academic administrators about accreditation of academic engineering programs. This is the quality control and review process that provides these programs with a stamp of approval from a professional body specializing in engineering education. Our challenge was that after telling our audiences for years what has been done in the United States about accreditation, there was often no further action. No new accreditation activities ensued. Moreover, it became increasingly apparent that techniques that have been successful in the United States are not always suitable in other regions and countries.

There was a yearning among IEEE volunteers in many countries to develop new local accreditation agencies, but no organization was available to help with such development and with accreditation-evaluator training. We decided to enter this arena by helping several existing accreditation agencies, mostly in China and India. We provided them with a comprehensive introduction to accreditation as it is being done in several countries, not just the United States, and helped them write accreditation criteria and train program evaluators. We helped volunteers in Peru, Mexico, and the Caribbean form new accreditation agencies. These activities signified an important shift of focus for IEEE, and made IEEE much more effective and useful in engineering accreditation.

You have held two leadership positions in academia, as department head and dean. Tell us about your responsibilities.

In both positions, I was and am a member of the faculty who continues to teach in the classroom, advise graduate students, and conduct research. As department head at Drexel and now as dean at NJIT, I help our faculty and university administrators make and implement decisions that affect the way we educate the next generation of engineers. These include decisions about curriculum, faculty, research directions, and resource allocation. A significant portion of my time is devoted to building and maintaining infrastructure that supports education and research. One of my current infrastructure projects is a Makerspace for NJIT students of all levels, a large facility that would provide for hands-on experimentation and opportunities for collaborative design.

As dean of an engineering school, what are your biggest challenges?

We face several major challenges in ensuring that the education we provide future engineers will enable long-term productive, beneficial, and rewarding careers. One of these challenges is the proper incorporation of progress in computing and networking technology into the engineering curriculum. Educators like me grew up well before the computing revolution, and many of us tend to underestimate the need to include computing and networking among the fundamental bases for engineering education. In my view, they should have equal footing to calculus and physics, which are widely recognized as building blocks of engineering education. We are still far from this goal.

 A second challenge is to educate our students to work in teams, preferably with students and professionals from other engineering and non-engineering disciplines. Our educational traditions focus on individual efforts and on assessment of students based on their compartmentalized individual work. In the real-world design of a complex prototype, developing of an elaborate algorithm, building, testing, and validating often require a team effort. We are struggling to develop the appropriate team experience as part of the engineering student curriculum.

Finally, engineering schools tend to educate technocrats. For many years we neglected to instill in our students a true sense of social responsibility and obligation to the public. Most engineering schools are still short on exposing students to the economic, legal, and social issues that are at the heart of the engineering enterprise. Finding an appropriate and effective way to remedy this deficiency is one of our major challenges.

As a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?

I wanted to be an archaeologist. In grade school in Israel, the Hebrew Bible is read as part of the curriculum, and this experience inspired me to be among those who would search for actual physical evidence of life in previous eras. My parents suggested that perhaps I should dedicate my life to the future and not to the past, though in retrospect the view of archaeology, as a profession that is focused solely on the past was perhaps somewhat simplistic. In any case, I was persuaded by my parents to choose a profession that in our view could “move the world forward.” Engineering was the choice, and I am very glad I made it.

What inspires you as an engineer?

I am awed by the potential of engineers to improve the welfare of society and protect the environment. At the same time, I am terrified at the destructive potential of engineering in the wrong hands.

These conflicting views have inspired me to devote much of my career to educating engineers not only about what they can do but also about the enormous power they possess. With this power comes enormous social responsibility.

Within IEEE and elsewhere, I have therefore focused on bringing engineering students into contact with their target audiences, have them do some of their studies within the community, and spend time in industry and among customers, clients, and others who are affected by the work of engineers. Visiting and working with different communities, near and far, is part of this experience. It is important that engineering students think not only about the affluent consumers who would buy the gadgets they would invent but also about the individuals who would toil to make these gadgets, and on the environmental consequences of their manufacture.

I also strive to place engineering and technology in the curriculum in their historical and social context. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the engineering graduate is not just a technical assistant but a fully informed participant in the process of advancing and building the community. We want to educate intellectuals, not technocrats.

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