After writing about inspiring our next engineers, the next discussion revolves around, “what do engineers do?” The main problem is, we are pretty behind the scenes for young students.
The generic common or short answer to what engineers do, (I’ve used it myself), is that engineers solve problems. Doesn’t sound too spicy or enticing.
Bottom line, engineers typically solve problems related to the designing or making of “something”. As you read this, pause, and look around yourself. No matter where you are, virtually EVERYTHING you see was brought into being by engineers. Both tangible and intangible, think electricity and software. Design, fabricating/manufacturing, or any support/ancillary activity around designing and manufacturing is all predominately done by engineers.
While sounding fun to engineers, maybe not so enticing to youth, as they can’t put their arms around what that all means. Maybe we should be talking to them about outcomes, which could be good or bad (for somebody).
I say that as this past week’s This Day in Engineering History noted August 6 as the day an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Japan in the effort to end World War II. Reading this piece, included the discussion about the ethical justification (ending the war vs the 70,000 people killed instantly and as many as 140,000 in total) and how Albert Einstein himself struggled with the ethical implication of developing the technology all while he was endorsing its pursuit.
I can relate personally. I have engineered directly or been offered opportunities to engineer, at both ends of this spectrum.
I have been part of teams that engineered lifesaving products. Drug pumps, heart valves, vein grafts, pacemakers, catheter tracking devices, implantable portals, all designed and made to help improve lives. I have friends and relatives that have directly benefitted from some of these efforts. I saw one of my drug pumps being used on a family member (and had to give the nurse some assistance in its use when she encountered difficulties). Lying on a hospital bed, I got to tell a couple of technicians that I had helped develop the first version of the catheter tracking system they were using on me that very moment.
Interspersed in those experiences, I also interviewed for munitions related engineering opportunities. In one case, working on teams developing new versions of torpedoes for naval warfare (i.e., sinking ships). Years later, I was asked, by a former college teammate, to come and interview for a land munitions engineering position. As I sat in the lobby waiting, there was a large display high on the wall highlighting their products. It could have been labelled “101 ways to blow people up from a distance”. I declined both positions for several reasons. Yet many engineers, my friend included, regarded their work as important and vital to the defense effort, which it was.
When addressing students about career investigation, I tell them as they live their lives to look around at the people performing tasks around them. Look at it in the context of what they are doing for a job, career, and does it look like something they would enjoy doing. Maybe putting engineering in a more tangible light would help younger students to “see themselves” doing those types of things as they reach adulthood.
The tough part is that young students don’t get to see engineers in action. We are behind doors that few students get to pass through.
It is up to us to open those doors. Convince the school system and educators that what we do is worth giving their students a good look at.
Life and death aside, there is a myriad of products being manufactured, as your look around earlier revealed. Introducing young minds to the concept of making those things, ANYTHING come to life, can light a fire that propels them through those math, science and technology classes that seem so irrelevant now.