Humanitarian Goups

Happy last day of Engineer’s Week! National Engineer’s Week is celebrated during the week of George Washington’s birthday. President Washington was a land surveyor and widely recognized as America’s father of engineering. This year marks the 61th anniversary of National Engineers Week, originally established by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951 to raise awareness of engineers’ contribution to the world.

This year’s E-week theme is 7 billion people. 7 billion dreams. 7 billion chances for engineers to turn dreams into reality.

This actually dovetails well with concerns that the agriculture industry has been discussing a lot lately: how will we feed 7 billion people? Clearly not with the traditional food systems we have now. We will need to introduce significant new technology into agriculture to meet this demand. Farming isn’t for proverbial uneducated country bumpkins anymore: it needs serious science and innovation to move to the next level. And that is something that intrigues me, is how engineering skills are being required by the food system more and more in modern times. 

I am an Electrical Engineer by education, though my career focus has been on software engineering, and more recently, project management. The company where I work makes a big deal about E-week, Wednesday we had a speaker, a technology fair, science and technology activities for kids, and an egg drop contest. And, of course, junk food for everybody! Cool!

I thought engineering school was hard. It took me six years to finish my four year degree, albeit I worked a lot of hours in a restaurant during much of that time. More than once I thought of quitting. No matter which discipline of engineering you choose as your major, they make you learn something of the other degrees too. This is so you will be qualified to take the Professional Engineer (PE) exam, which covers all the disciplines.

I remember grumbling over taking mechanical and civil engineering classes, physics, chemistry, and other stuff that didn’t seem directly related to my major. EE was hard enough, why did I have to learn to calculate the strength of I-beams, at what incline a 1o pound box would slide off a moving truck bed, when a substance changes from liquid to gas, or at which temperature a certain propane tank would explode?

I no longer remember a lot of the details of what I learned in college, but I do remember doing really hard problems. All the time. Some homework problems would take me days to figure out, or even teams of us days to figure out. Over, and over, and over, we did hard problems.

I didn’t realize it then, but I think that’s really the whole point of engineering school. More than anything, it’s psychological training. They make you solve so many problems which initially seem unsolvable that eventually you get immune to the feeling of I don’t know how to get to the answer. You become conditioned to the idea that if you persist on a mysterious problem; reading, thinking, experimenting, tinkering, breaking it down, eventually, you will figure it out. Unsolved problems lose their sense of frustration, and you can view them with the detachment of knowing that the answer will emerge, in time. This profound sense of patience with difficult problems is the most useful and amazing outcome of that degree that I can see in myself.

I first started to notice it when I was a few years out of college, and I worked with a group of people who had two-year technician degrees. They were all very bright and talented people with a lot of technical knowledge. But often when they encountered a problem where the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to them, they would abandon it. And I would get stuck with it. And I realized that engineers don’t have anybody else to whom they can hand off a problem. So that’s our job, is to figure out the stuff other people gave up on figuring out.

Now, I notice this trait all the time when I’m around non-engineers, the contrast in patience with technical difficulties. If something breaks, I am inclined to take it apart and figure out how to fix it. If software is misbehaving, I can see it is an unintended bug, and I can fiddle until I find a logic path around it to get things working again. If I need to do something technical that I’ve never done before, I can pick up a book and glean what I need to get the job done. If I need to build something from scratch, I can glance at examples or photos of it and make my own version that meets my requirements. If something needs calculating, I can plod through the math until the answer pops out.

Where other people may walk away from a hard problem, I am drawn in, curious. When someone else puts down a non-working thing in defeat, I find myself asking, can I try? When I’m helping someone fix something that’s broken, they’ll ask, what do you think is wrong with it? They seem exasperated when I neutrally reply, I don’t know. I sometimes forget to communicate, don’t worry, I don’t know, yet; but I will know. Just give me an hour or so and I’ll probably figure it out. Sometimes, I need to sleep on it, or let it sit for a while. But amazingly, answers almost always come.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t innate in my case, it was learned. And for that, I credit my education, and all my professors who insisted upon the rigor of of this over-and-over solving of miserably challenging and seemingly impossible problems. So, here’s to engineers. We have this 7-billion-people problem in front of us, and I have no idea how we’re going to solve it. But somehow, I suspect, we’ll figure it out in time. It seems we always do.

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