When small children hear the word “engineer,” they may picture someone driving a locomotive. National Engineers Week, which runs from February 16-22, is an opportunity to show them another meaning of the word. Engineers use math and science to solve practical problems and invent new products. And older students should be interested to learn that engineering is a growing field with a diverse array of high-paying jobs.
For a sampling of the many different specialties that make up this field, check out the overviews at DiscoverE of disciplines such as aerospace, electrical, and civil engineering. This survey offers examples that draw on all of the sciences, and can be discussed in combination with course units on Learner.org. For example:
- Unit 5 of Science in Focus: Energy explains how humans get the energy that they need to survive from food. Agricultural and biological engineers help people produce enough food to meet demand by designing farm equipment and innovative ways to grow food, such as hydroponic systems. They also design farming equipment, help farmers find new ways to plant and harvest, and develop ways to keep food fresh and safe while it is stored and transported to markets.
- Unit 8, section 4 of The Habitable Planet describes how water moves through the ground and interacts with soil and rock. What happens if chemicals are spilled and seep down into groundwater that communities use for drinking? Environmental engineers know the chemical properties of pollutants and can calculate where they will flow and how quickly they will move. They also monitor and protect water supplies to keep them safe.
- Unit 7 of Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions explains how engineers use thermodynamics to make cleaner and more efficient automobile engines.
Sometimes engineers have to invent completely new solutions to problems that have never been seen before. One famous example was the Apollo 13 flight in 1970, which was dramatized in the movie Apollo 13. During a mission to the moon, an oxygen tank on the spacecraft exploded and ruptured, leaving the crippled flight with limited electricity and oxygen. The crew and flight controllers on the ground had to invent a new plan for getting the astronauts back to Earth.
“All we had to work with was time and experience,” flight director Gene Kranz wrote later. Engineers had to invent many new procedures and improvise a system for filtering carbon dioxide out of the spacecraft’s cabin so that the astronauts could breathe. After the successful return, President Nixon awarded the astronauts and flight operations team the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “We often speak of scientific ‘miracles’ – forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence,” the award citation stated.
Inspire your students to become engineers with these examples and more of the important work engineers do.