Dr. Paul Oh, Associate Professor at Drexel's Mechanical Engineering Department
In 1989, after a grueling 4 years of engineering school, I was ready to take on the world. But before I did, I needed a break. Many in my graduating class felt the same way and boarded airplanes to Europe. Since I didn’t have any family or friends in Europe, I decided to go to Korea. My original plan was to take a 6 month break. But as fate would have it, I ended up living, studying and working in Korea for 4 years! Little did I know but this experience profoundly shaped me. 20 years have past and now I am the Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I manage a portfolio that oversees and funds almost all fundamental robotics research in the nation.
I largely attribute my appointment as the nation’s overseer of robotics to my experiences abroad. Between 1989 and 1993 I saw America from the other side of the world. I saw the Berlin Wall collapse, witnessed the dominance of Japan’s growing automotive and electronics industries; watched as Iraq invaded Kuwait and the resulting Gulf War; and looked on as tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in China. As Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book would say, this unfolding of history was a flattening of the world. Observing these watershed moments in 20th century history, from the Asia, taught me the importance of America’s role in the world and that technological leadership is critical. This drove me to pursue doctoral studies in robotics and seek out a faculty position at a school that embraced technology – namely Drexel.
Indeed, we live in a global economy. Many companies, like Boeing, IBM and HP no longer see themselves as American companies but as multi-national ones. As such, today’s engineer must have skills to work in global teams. At NSF, I learned that US science and engineering students are ill-equipped for such careers. Less than 3% of US engineering students spend any substantial time studying or interning abroad. By contrast, over 50% of European and Asian undergrads leave their continents to study abroad for 3 months or more. These students will have the global skills that multi-national companies demand. The net effect is that without global experiences, American engineering students will have a harder time finding jobs.
At Drexel, I do my best to plant the seed of studying or interning abroad to all my students. I evangelize this in my Freshmen Design classes. I take several students with me to Korea during Spring Break. My lab currently has a research project to design and build humanoids with Korea. Each co-op cycle, I send two undergrads to spend 6-month paid co-ops in the Humanoid Lab at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) – a world leader in humanoid design. Testimonies from students have been wonderful. While timid at first, at the prospect of leaving home, they are now intrepid. They return from abroad with newfound confidence with the realization that they can go anywhere and work with anyone. Indeed, they will be ready to take on the world when they graduate. Who knows, maybe 20 years later, they will be the new NSF Program Directors, Captains of Industry, leaders of government or even humble Drexel professors?
Paul Oh is an Associate Professor at Drexel's Mechanical Engineering Department. He received mechanical engineering degrees from McGill (B.Eng 1989), Seoul National (M.Sc 1992), and Columbia (PhD 1999). Honors include faculty fellowships at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (2002), Naval Research Lab (2003), the NSF CAREER award (2004), the SAE Ralph Teetor Award for Engineering Education Excellence (2005) and being named a Boeing Welliver Fellow (2006). He is the Director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab and also the Founding Chair of the IEEE Technical Committee on Aerial Robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Currently he is on academic leave, serving as Program Director for Robotics for the National Science Foundation.