Engineering is the process of problem solving for the good of humanity. I never thought that I would spend my forty-year college teaching career in the humanities and social sciences at technical colleges. I was blessed in that my career was satisfying in every way. On several occasions at year-end reviews I was asked how I was able to combine teaching, scholarship and service work ( including a career-long involvement with college athletics) with a fairly high level of energy. My answer was simple: There were those people who worked at the college and there were those who enjoyed the college. I had decided early on to enjoy the college.
My first exposure to engineering school was when I was pursuing my master’s degree at Purdue University. It was there that I met the “can do” attitude. I was the only “humanities” guy on my floor of twenty graduate students in the graduate dorm. At the time people were working on ways to improve Purdue football (no small matter at a Big Ten school.) Some suggested laying down artificial turf on the playing surface of Ross-Ade Stadium. The faculty went wild! By golly we were a major school of agriculture and Purdue men would play on grass! Purdue developed its own variety of turf and the civil engineers redid the field foundation and its drainage system. The result is that you can have 4 inches of rain on the morning of the game and still be able to play.
I would feel the “can do” attitude in high gear during my years at Sothern Tech and Wentworth. One of my good friends in the Southern Tech electronics department invited me to visit his senior-project lab. The students were buzzing around using Apple computer products. My friend informed that Apple had said that it was not possible to use their equipment for precisely the types of projects his students were working on.
One of my most entertaining and gratifying experiences of my years at Wentworth was observing the students in industrial design, environmental engineering and biomedical engineering. One industrial design student was an outstanding lacrosse player. He thought that lacrosse gloves were badly designed. His senior project was an improved lacrosse glove. He was so successful that Brine Athletic, a major lacrosse equipment manufacturer bought his design and offered him a design position.
The biomedical engineering students were amazing. One student’s senior project was an improved insulin pump. Another project that went into immediate production was an improved body brace for people with scoliosis. The new brace was lighter, more flexible and cooler to wear. Another project was an “electronic cap” a monitoring tool to be worn by premature babies in their nursery. This design was immediately adopted by Children’s Hospital in Boston. I remember poking my best faculty friend in the ribs at graduation as the audience was being told of some of these feats. I remember saying, “OK, these students are barely into their twenties, what have we done lately?”
Of tremendous satisfaction was to see what the environmental engineering students did on their summer trips to Central America. People in isolated villages cooked the same way they had done it for hundreds of years. People cooked inside their poorly ventilated huts. Everyone chronic lung problems from inhaling cooking smoke. What the faculty and students did was to develop cheap, simple, well-vented cooking stoves made from concrete block: no more lung disease.
It is a sad fact that the villagers, like half of the world’s population lacked clean water. Wells are often to shallow and too easily contaminated. What the Wentworth folks did was to build mechanical water-filtering machines, no bigger than a water cooler, that would produce one gallon of clean water at a time: fewer water-borne illnesses.
I remember talking with my aging father when he came to visit us at the holidays. My Dad lived from 1907 to 1989, or as I like to say roughly from Kitty Hawk to the Space Shuttle. My Dad would just smile and nod when I would tell him about the wonderful things that the young people could do and what bright futures lay before them. He would simply say, “Nothing they do surprises me: they will do anything and everything.”
In this terrible pandemic we see the same “can do” attitude. People are in fact, blessings. A company found that they needed a repetitive-action motor for ventilators. The answer was to use automobile -windshield wiper motors. A doctoral student at the University of Minnesota was able to show how a ventilator could be constructed from $150 worth of off-the-shelf parts. Another group of engineers found that ventilators could be manufactured from sleep-apnea equipment. Soon they were able to ship 600 “surplus” ventilators to Ecuador.
Thank heavens for the students who are burdened with the “knack,” the tendency to see what might work, the optimism to try, and the desire to be of service.