AI Pioneer David E. Goldberg on His Lifetime of Inspiring Cultural Change Within Engineering Education

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The rapid rise of generative artificial intelligence in recent times has created an enormous upheaval in the field of education. Educators all over the world are grappling with how AI will affect the learning and education of students, with some fearing current generative and human-competitive AI models could be returning incorrect answers as well as create students that are unmotivated to learn, as well as overly reliant on AI, merely parroting what the AI gives them rather than understanding the material.

On the other hand, AI can also affect education positively, similar to the invention of the calculator. While it allows students to quickly make complex computations, they are still taught the basics, such as long division. Once they have mastered the basics, students can use a calculator to skip the basic steps, instead concentrating on a higher-level of mathematical problem. Another analogy would be the invention of the printing press, which led to the widespread dissemination of knowledge but did not eliminate the need for handwriting.

Unbeknownst to many, the impressive capabilities of AI on display today were built over decades of research, dating back to the 1950s, when the philosophical and theoretical foundations of AI were laid. In 1989, David E. Goldberg, PhD, then an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, published his book, Genetic Algorithms in Search Optimization and Machine Learning, which became a seminal work in the field of genetic algorithms, which takes inspiration from biological processes such as evolution and governs how AI solves problems without human intervention at each step. Without genetic algorithms, today’s generative AI programs would not have been able to be developed. The book, which has been cited more than 107,497 times across various academic works, served as an inspiration for thousands of people to study artificial intelligence in their Masters and Ph.D. research.

As one of the world’s foremost experts on AI, Goldberg taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1990 to 2010, for the Engineering and Computer Science departments. In 2007, he co-founded and co-directed the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in

Engineering Education (iFoundry), is a bottom-up incubator for educational change, particularly in the field of engineering. 

With his decades of experience in engineering and artificial intelligence, Goldberg saw that the world would soon be changing massively, with AI contributing significantly, which is why the process of education must also evolve and adapt to the new reality. While Goldberg was not the only expert who realized this, others focused on creating a new curriculum or pedagogy, while he argued that it’s the culture and emotion around education that must change to keep up with the times. Goldberg wrote about this in his 2014 book, A Whole New Engineer, which details how the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering pioneered an innovative way of teaching engineering. Goldberg says that he observed how Olin College’s first- and second-year students were already confident in themselves and acted in ways that a young engineer at a traditional program would not. 

As co-head of iFoundry, Goldberg brokered a partnership between Olin College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to learn how Olin College was able to transform its engineering program. Goldberg argues that fostering joy, trust, openness, and connection are the keys to unleashing young, courageous engineers, rather than changing how the facts are taught.

“Midway through the first semester of the partnership, our students were starting to take responsibility for their education, and we experienced an unbelievable explosion of student engagement, which made me realize that we were really onto something,” Goldberg says. “I called this the Olin Effect. My colleagues couldn’t believe it, because we didn’t change much about the curriculum. But we had changed the culture and the emotion around the teaching of engineering, and it resulted in a huge transformation.”

In 2010, Goldberg left the University of Illinois, forming ThreeJoy Associates, a consulting, coaching, and inspirational speaking practice that seeks to bring three transformative joys to higher education – the joy of vocation, the joy of community, and the joy of learning – and build on the results of the iFoundry experiment. 

Goldberg then brought the model to the National University of Singapore, where it showed encouraging results, despite Singapore’s reputation as an unemotional culture. And, despite the purported shyness of the students, they opened up due to a more supportive atmosphere. With the success of the program, Goldberg was invited to teach students and guide administrators in various universities across Brazil, the Netherlands, and the US. 

After laying out the theory in A Whole New Engineer, Goldberg released A Field Manual for a Whole New Education in 2023, which explores the various crises facing higher education, as well as how to solve them. These include declining enrolment, as well as the digital gaggle, composed of generative AI, machine learning, robotics, and apps. It presents a wide range of methods, formulated and adapted by Goldberg over his decades as a researcher, engineer, and professor, such as the five shifts in skill and mindset to unleash lifelong learners and their educators, and the four sprints and spirits to overcome faculty ego and design great programs.

“A university’s purpose is to preserve the past – the oldest existing university, the University of Bologna, dates back to 1088, more than 900 years ago,” Goldberg says. “However, generative AI such as ChatGPT diminishes returns to expertise, as it can be trained on anything. While it’s not perfect, it’s improving rapidly, and it’s going to be good at theory. That presents a huge challenge for us, as humans still need to learn that theory, but they’re going to be up against artificial systems that are as good as or better than humans. From an educational point of view, we need to define the place for human intelligence in an increasingly AI-dominated world, and this is what my life’s work is about. Students will still be taught basic theories, but they will use AI to fill the blanks. Thus, we need to emphasize the other side, where we humans use our embodied feelings and intuition to solve what AI cannot.”


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