A love letter to Engineers

Popular media describe engineers in two ways:

1. Bumbling white male nerds in ill-fitting garb and thick glasses with only a vague awareness of the world outside our books, computers and equations. Not evil, but frequently patsies of more worldly people like James Bond.

2. Active evil-doers in cahoots with the evil scientists, helping to create machines that will destroy mankind, if not the entire world, only to be defeated by the infinitely better looking and certainly more personable heroes.

But those of us who work as engineers, have managed engineers, are the proud parents of engineers, or just hang around with engineers, know the truth: engineers are pretty cool people.

Most of us became engineers because we like to solve problems and make things work better. Usually, we broke things as kids. We took apart watches, or cars, or (in my case) musical instruments and either succeeded or failed in putting them back together.

Somebody we respected, a teacher or parent or scout leader, suggested we should be an engineer. Little did we know how much fun engineering would be. Engineers get to take scientific discoveries and use them to improve life on our planet.

It is a well-kept secret that engineering requires extraordinary creativity alongside those familiar skills of discipline and logic. Such skills are useful in almost every possible career. Engineers do much more than traditional engineering roles. Engineers become salesman, lawyers, and doctors. Engineers teach at all levels of education—primary, secondary, and college level.

Engineering should be the greatest equal opportunity career on the planet. Engineers don’t have to be white or male. We don’t care if you are good-looking, married, gay, or disabled. We don’t care if you can run a four-minute mile or bench press 150 pounds. A true engineer cares mostly about solving the problem at hand. Anyone who can provide insight and solutions is sought out and encouraged.

Engineers moved us beyond the bounds of earth’s gravity. Engineers improve the lives of people today. Engineers will be the ones to solve future energy needs while improving the quality of the land, air, and water.

We are not those bumbling nerds people love to laugh at.

My engineering friends are gourmet cooks, master bakers, outstanding musicians, photographers, artists, actors, and writers. They love history, studied the classics, and debate the merits of the Byzantine empire.

Engineers knit, crochet, quilt, cross-stitch, and sew. They are deacons in their churches and coaches of kids’ soccer, baseball, and basketball.

Stereotypes do have a basis in fact, though. I’ve never met an engineer that doesn’t like science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is to varying degrees that we enjoy these things, but I’ll admit that I can quote the dialog to most of these shows with ease.

Without engineers, life would be shorter, dirtier, darker, and much less fun. Engineers are behind every major technology in your home and business, from light bulbs to computers to refrigerators, plumbing, and HVAC. Engineers make vacuums work better and buildings safer. They make cars faster and more efficient.

What we don’t seem to do, though, is politics. In the U.S. Congress, only five representatives and one senator are engineers.

The proud heritage of creative problem solving that is the heart of the engineer should be in Washington, D.C.

Even more importantly we should be in the state houses helping ensure decisions are being [made] with sound information and solid technical understanding of the consequences.

Question: How can you tell an extroverted engineer from an introverted one?
Answer: The extrovert looks at your shoes instead of his own.

I fear that we engineers are not working hard enough to reach out to our friends and neighbors. Too many young people today are not looking into engineering as a career. Society idolizes the gifted athlete and celebrates celebrity. Engineers are relegated to the audience, not the spotlight.

Yet that spotlight would not work without the brilliant design and technological understanding of an engineer. Not everyone can be an engineer, but everyone can understand the principles. We must find more ways to reach out to today’s youth.

If we can create celebrities at fixing houses and baking cakes, surely we can create more role-models than Bill Nye, the science guy, and MythBusters.

I am proud to proclaim my association with engineers and engineering. The men and women who work as engineers in the nuclear industry, and in every industry, are problem solvers. That, my friends, is what engineers do.

And if we are going to tackle climate change without bankrupting our economies or destroying our quality of life in the process, we will need engineers to push up their glasses, take their pencils out of their pockets and get to work.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #558, 2.27.14. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to fuelcycleweek.com or contact the publication at info@fuelcycleweek.com.