Green tech and needs-driven engineering will never be the new Apollo program. It does not in any way have the capacity to motivate a "tipping point" of engineers. The new Apollo program will be a manned mission to Mars. Period.
Interestingly enough, a related article at EETimes recently put NASA as the number one choice for engineering students. I don't think they want to work for NASA to send up robots or create solar panel farms - unless the goal is terraforming Mars or a return mission to the Moon. Just my two cents.
Perhaps, however, the two can be intertwined somehow. It will be clear that green tech will be required for future manned space missions - unless nuclear power will be the foregone conclusion there.
The Apollo space program, politically motivated as it was, fired up an entire generation of engineers. Even if it was a sham it was valuable for that reason alone. Green tech and needs-driven engineering may be the new Apollo program.
I think part of the problem is compensation; broadly speaking you can get paid much better with a JD or MBA than with a MS in engineering. This is a broad problem with how society "values" the contribution of a class of workers and isn't restricted to engineering (for instance schoolteachers are grossly under-compensated IMHO).
It is not the math itself that you can't gloss over, but the mental discipline of going through the problem solving process, that has always been part of the engineering education. A precise statement of the problem - is there really a problem. What info do I have? What info is missing? How can I test my guesses? Etc, etc, etc?
You cannot eliminate the hours per week of doing the homework, solving the (made up) problems. I cannot work the calc problems now, and don't really need to, but as a pretty good problem solver and troubleshooter, I know the learning of the calc and other higher level math, made me what I am today.
Back in the 50s and 60s my idealism was anti-communism and the cold war. We were in a race with the Russians. But that is not the reason I wanted to be an engineer. Most good engineers (and they know who they are), were born to be that way. I am not sure you can make them from an artificial premise. Still working in my 70s.
So long as companies continue to treat engineers as fungible assets, and until companies start showing that they really, truly believe the mantra repeated by the HR department that "our people are our most valuable resource", talented young people are going to continue to stay away from a career in engineering.
I don't know that this generation is any more idealistic than most others. Folks coming of age in the 60's wanted to save the world. Those coming of age in the 70's seem to have suffered more from malaise than most, but this brand new universe of technology was exploding into society. The 80's, while clothes and hair were pretty weird, were full of people that wanted to use this new technology to create a better world. Extrapolate backward and forward and I think that idealism will be found in almost any generation.
Quite frankly, Sylvie, I think that fluff is a distraction. Yes, maybe some people will appear more interested when you fill a curriculum with "ideology," but that aspect of the curriculum won't make them better engineers. If they squeak by based on their "ideology" scores, I'd give them a pass as an employer.
And I'm not implying that ideology doesn't matter! I'm merely saying that ideology should not distract from the rigorous course work, during the critical college and grad school years. Ideology will be part of the equation regardless.
The other thing is, I have no clue how any student would not understand the value of engineering to society, especially these days. Adding fluff to make engineering more pleasing is a questionable approach.
What is needed to get more kids into engineering, I believe, is more job prospects upon graduation. With all of the outsourcing frenzy in the daily news, it's hardly surprising that the less passionate are dissuaded. I don't think the "brightest minds" will be convinced with fluff, is my main point.
Engineering is a demanding profession. I do not see many more of the current and future generation who would be willing to go through the effort. Especially given the current educational phobia about math and science. We are doomed to see engineering skills leave this country and I see very little we can do about it.
Just my opinion.