Conversation with my colleagues during my coffee breaks today centered around the evolution of education in my academic discipline. In my early career and education the identity was engineering applied to agriculture. We were concerned about agricultural machinery, farm structures, electrification, soil and water involving drainage and tillage and so on. Our education focused on assuring that our students were well versed in mathematics, engineering principles and engineering design. We were agricultural engineers.
However, by the late 1980's the advances of biological sciences began to intrude upon our domain. The focus on the physical began to be replaced by a burgeoning emphasis on biology and the engineering of biological systems. In part our knowledge in the traditional engineering disciplines and agriculture was subsumed by the biological revolution. As chair of my department in the late 1980's I recall writing about the coming emphasis on biology and the opportunities it afforded for our institution. Educationally we needed to evolve to become a biological engineering discipline. Some aspects of our traditional knowledge certainly no longer had the same value. And perhaps it became no longer relevant to the needs of our students and society. To remain valued and relevant we had to change both as mid or even late career faculty to embrace the new norm. We did change. From Agricultural and Biological Engineering in name and practice starting 1988 to Biological and Environmental Engineering in the 2000's. In the new normal we manipulate biological systems with an engineering mind set to produce devices, processes and products relevant to the new world. From this point on, the debate will be about how we need to adapt our education to be relevant for the next generation. Perhaps we need to give our graduates not just the tools for the current environment, but also instill in them attitudes and capabilities to adapt to new paradigms.
As I review the history of technology it is clear that some things we once valued become irrelevant as new technology evolves. At one time the ability to operate a telegraph key was a prized skill. With the advent of radio, television and now the internet that skill is irrelevant. In the early stages of computer programming, skill in machine language was prized since speed and memory were limited. Today with massively parallel computing these older skills are much less relevant.
Finally in my musing about value and relevance I conclude that all of us have a need to feel and be valued by someone or some institutional entity. Even though we may no longer be operating at the cutting edge of intellectual creativity we still can remain relevant.