September 12, 2007

What makes engineers tick?

  • Several ACEC Engineers of the Year share their thoughts on why they chose their profession, what the future holds and other issues.

    The American Council of Engineering Companies of Washington named its first Engineer of the Year in 1959. Since then, the award has been given to engineers who have made significant contributions to the profession and their communities.

    Talking with 10 past Engineers of the Year reveals how much has changed over the past 50 years as engineers have said hello to women and goodbye to the slide rule. Advances bring new challenges, but the creativity and inspirations motivating today’s engineers remain much the same as 50 years ago.

    Why did you become an engineer?

    The award winners unanimously embraced math and science as students and loved putting things together, as well as taking them apart. They were drawn to the field’s creativity and the opportunity to put science into practice.

    The 1999 winner, Jim Duncan, recalled: “When I was five, (my parents) gave me a box of wires, lights, bells, switches and a battery. In short time I hooked up the battery and the bell and when the bell rang, I yelled with joy. Much to their surprise and regret, that bell rang many times for many weeks.”

    Many of the engineers were encouraged to join the profession by fathers already in the engineering or construction industries, though Amy Haugerud remembers being somewhat of an “alien” at a 1977 job fair. “When I started engineering school, the population was about 1 percent women,” she said. “When I graduated, it was closer to 10 percent.”

    What challenges did you wish to address when you became an engineer?

    Although none of the winners retold a childhood dream to build sewer plants, their inspirations came from wanting to make changes in the world.

    “My vision was to help construct outstanding structures that serve a great need,” said Ark Chin, the 1987 winner.

    Jeff Daggett, 2004 Engineer of the Year, said: “I really wanted to try and make the world a better place. I think that we can do that through engineering more so than through any other field. We have the technology to fix things and the understanding of how to do it.”

    So whether their initial goal was to design bridges or skyscrapers or to reclaim lands and waters impacted by mining and industry, the engineers started their careers with the goal of having a positive impact on the world around them.

    Tell us about your favorite engineering project of your career.

    The engineers’ favorite projects ranged from the simple to the grand. Projects were chosen for their uniqueness and their complexity, but as the field progressed, the projects that were once cutting-edge became archaic.

    No one knows this better than 1965 Engineer of the Year and former governor and legislator Dan Evans. Named Engineer of Change in the June 2007 issue of Columns magazine, he discussed how he helped draw up plans for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He joked that he’d lived too long “because that marvelous, permanent structure that I helped design is now under fire, and they want to take it down.”

    Most often, engineers named projects that personally impacted them.

    Haugerud’s favorite was the Fauntleroy Creek project replacing a culvert into Puget Sound. “Four weeks after the project was done, there were salmon returning after being absent for 90 years,” she said.

    Daggett remembered bringing a water system to a small community in Eastern Oregon. “A lot of small communities had no public water system, so designing those and creating fresh, safe drinking water for people was important,” he said. “It wasn’t the biggest, not the most exciting project, but it was the most satisfying.”

    Bill Ward, 1991 winner, recalled the unique design of the pedestal building, the Rainier Tower, in Seattle that he “worked on for three years and still finds impressive.”

    What do you consider a recent major accomplishment in your field?

    Undeniably, the industry has changed dramatically with the use of the computer for design and calculations and most past award winners mentioned starting out using slide rules.

    “Today there is more technology in my hand-held device than we even knew about when I started out,” said Gary Bourne, 2007 winner.

    But the computation capability and speed of computers can lead to dependence and a loss of intuitive thinking cautions 1995 recipient Marty Dirks. “Doing things the old way gave us a sense of how materials worked and how they should perform,” he said.

    Jerry A. Williams, 1997 Engineer of the Year, said, “It is easy to input data into a program and accept the result calculated by a computer as correct.”

    Others emphasized the impact of technology beyond computers.

    Callie Ridolfi, 2003 winner, and Haugerud emphasized the positive impact of new emphases on sustainability and green building.

    “Design for the environment systems minimize the life-cycle environmental impact of product or process sourcing and uses nature or biomimicry as a model to solve design problems,” Ridolfi said.

    What are the main challenges facing engineers today?

    The panel foresaw a range of challenges facing the industry, including a growing societal lack of awareness about the importance of what engineers do.

    “Engineering is taken for granted,” Duncan said. “Electrical power and technology is critical for our lives. When we flip a switch, we expect our lights to turn on.”

    This lack of awareness can also lead to a nonchalant attitude towards investing in infrastructure and in the profession itself.

    “It’s not politically popular to back infrastructure, but it catches up with us,” said Daggett. “Like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis ... we need infrastructure for the country to keep building itself.”

    Of course, the industry is also challenged by a lack of up-and-coming engineers. All emphasized the importance of encouraging young people to take math and science courses and introduce them to the challenges and opportunities of engineering.

    “There’s a huge shortage of technically trained engineers,” said Bourne. “And there is such an emphasis on keeping prices low that it can have a negative impact on quality-based selection. We need to remember that we want the best qualified, not the least expensive, engineers to design our built environments — we want our infrastructure to last for 50 to 100 years.”

    What advice would you give to engineers just starting out?

    With years of experience and professional insight behind them, the panel directed its advice to the hearts of the young engineers as much as their minds. Engineers are often pressed to sell their ideas to clients, public agencies and the public but aren’t typically known for their communication skills.

    “Engineers need to realize that life is much more than calculations,” said Joe Lamont, 1974 Engineer of the Year. “We need to build relationships.”

    Dirks said he encourages young engineers to “move around until they find what they love — it has an incredible effect on one’s entire life.”

    Finally, Chin offered advice that we should all heed: “Do your work with integrity. Follow your heart as well as your brain.”

    Other Stories:

    Copyright ©2009 Seattle Daily Journal and DJC.COM.
    Comments? Questions? Contact us.