New York State’s ambitious and vitally necessary plans to reduce greenhouse gases and fight climate change — by some measures, the toughest blueprint in the nation — will be for naught without a commitment to human ingenuity and growing technological innovation. In other words, strategic investments are required to educate the new generation of engineers, innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs who will drive economic development by translating to practice the transformative technologies of the future.
Yet, while more students than ever are applying to universities to pursue STEM-related degrees, New York ranks 44th in the growth of graduates earning engineering degrees. That is not a sufficient level of performance to meet the needs of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and other technological challenges. In fact, the engineering talent shortage is particularly acute on Long Island. Stony Brook interacts with the largest engineering firms in our region and we hear the same refrain from all of them: They can’t find enough local talent to fill their available positions.
And beyond just the human factor, the state is facing another major challenge. Despite surging applications and rising enrollments, our students are taught in aging facilities that are not designed to support the educational paradigms of the future to stay aligned with rapidly shifting industry needs.
We are forced to turn away highly qualified engineering applicants due to both lack of space and antiquated buildings and labs that are ill-equipped for research into such areas as artificial intelligence, offshore wind energy, solar power, safe nuclear fusion technologies, energy storage systems, next-generation modeling and simulation tools, alternative fuels and other novel technologies for decarbonizing our transportation systems, energy-efficient buildings, new materials and energy-efficient manufacturing. These are just a few examples of the high-impact, translational research we must conduct to help the state realize its climate goals. For instance, we lack the physical infrastructure for educating more engineers who will ultimately develop cybersecure digital systems for the AI-driven economy of the future.
Part of the solution is a planned engineering facility at Stony Brook University — Stony Brook's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences produces more bachelor's degrees than any other engineering school in the state — that will fuel the pipeline for such human talent and innovation for Long Island’s workforce and economy, as well as the entire state. The facility is being designed to advance research in artificial intelligence and the technologies that will help us win the fight against climate pollution. It will promote learning, inspire creativity, and emphasize innovation and entrepreneurship through state-of-the-art teaching and learning methods to elevate and set new standards for engineering excellence.
New York is not alone in its need to usher in sweeping changes in just about every aspect of human endeavor to empower us to win the battle against climate pollution. That’s why the State of Virginia recently pledged almost $1 billion to 11 of its universities to grow their tech talent pipeline. Utah is executing a similar initiative, appropriating funding for engineering and computer science programs which has increased the number of state graduates by 58%.
Game-changing laws like the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, as well as the state’s proposed $3 billion “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act,” demonstrate the kind of vision necessary to meet these goals. However, like Virginia and Utah, we must make the investment in our universities’ engineering programs to create the facilities to meet the challenge and cement the state as the nation’s leader in the fight against global warming.
Fotis Sotiropoulos is distinguished professor and dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University.