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The power of engineering

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Students in engineering here can feel torn. Answering Notre Dame’s call to service is challenging. I considered dropping engineering as a freshman because I couldn’t connect engineering to Notre Dame’s social causes. I know now that leaving engineering would have been a terrible waste.

Ideas on this conviction come through six people interviewed in the College of Engineering, ranging from an undergraduate student to Engineering Dean Frank Incropera. The central message I want to get out to students in our college is that engineers have a tremendous power to improve society in ways the world desperately needs.

Professor Stephen Silliman, Associate Dean and 2003 College of Engineering Professor of the Year, frequently takes students to Haiti to work on water pumps. He is firm in saying “engineers are by definition in service.”

Geoscience graduate student Pamela Crane emphasizes immersion with people in a holistic approach to applying technology. She mostly grew up in developing countries since her father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Without having a personal connection, technical solutions may not be accepted by those most needing them. Effective engineering requires both technical and social understanding.

One senior mechanical engineer who started a summer camp for children of parents with cancer and who taught at AIDS seminars in Ghana through the Center for Social Concerns holds that engineers have great power in addressing non-technical problems. We have a different approach to problem solving that can be a key asset.

It can be difficult to act on these high ideals as a student, so here are four ideas that may help:

u Local schools need engineering students to tutor. The CSC has a board with tutor requests for students to fill.

u ND’s Habitat for Humanity is one of the larger chapters in the country and can expose engineering students to community needs and the needed real-world coordination skills.

u The Student International Business Club has divisions that can allow engineering students to put their technical skills to use while gaining professional business experience.

u The CSC also provides opportunities to study infrastructure and development over any break, whether in cities nationwide through the 48-hour Urban Plunge the Summer Service Learning Project.

If free time is lacking, this second set of suggestions can help students integrate service into the curriculum:

u Research Experience for Undergraduates has diverse projects allowing students to pursue their interest while gaining early research experience.

u Silliman brings students to Haiti to work on and teach about water pumps.

u Professors have research projects that help local communities which need student support. For example, Professor Jeffrey Talley is pursuing a project that would have engineering students develop sensors to monitor pollution and other environmental health issues as part of an environmental justice project in a local economically and disadvantaged community.

u Engineering Projects in Community Service links students with local businesses and government groups so they can have a local impact. Next year, this program will be executed through the departmental levels where projects will have a more direct link to one’s major.

If an upperclassmen takes three credits in any of these opportunities, it will count as a technical elective. Contact professors, your department chair, and the Dean’s office to learn more.

In the Strategic Review posted on its homepage, the College of Engineering notes that students have a lacking understanding of engineering and its impact on society. Accordingly, the College is seeking to develop courses involving economic, ethical and political issues. Incropera has an inspired vision for his graduates: “I want our engineering students to go out there and really make a difference.”

We will swear to make that difference in May. At graduation we will receive a ring and take the Obligation of the Engineer, wherein we will avow that our “skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.”

How exactly can we help the common good as professionals? The six people interviewed had the same answer: be a good engineer. Do well, gain respect in the profession, and pursue positions of influence. A solid education will reduce insufficient solutions to complex problems. Here are some other specific ideas for our profession:

1. Starting professionals in any corporation can join boards that work on developmental projects locally or abroad. We can join those boards and push organizations to do more.

2. If we manage our finances and lifestyle well, we can pursue philanthropy and donate funds to groups needing the financial mobility to do their work.

3. Many undeveloped areas, whether domestically or abroad, need only need very basic engineering solutions we can provide to halt far-reaching problems in areas such as telecommunications, sewage management, water supply and construction.

4. No matter what our involvements, we can always make space to volunteer our technical skills in local organizations and schools.

In 20 years, Notre Dame can graduate over 50,000 people. Each in this group has unique strengths. Engineers in particular have a remarkable ability to make a difference in ways no one else can. The world needs our skills. If we put them to use in even the smallest way, we will begin to realize the tremendous power of engineering.

Andrew DeBerry is a fifth-year senior studying aerospace engineering and the Hesburgh Program in Public Policy.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.