Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Help Others with Your Skills

"I bought my first slide rule for $30 in 1956, which would be about $200 in today's dollars."

The look on the students' faces was priceless. I'm not sure how many had even heard of a slide rule, much less held one, as the wooden and decidedly un-electronic device was passed around. Dr. Kenneth Brewer began his guest lecture to our engineering class with a history of the technology that he used as a student, then as a doctoral candidate, then as a professor of engineering. When he asked how many in the class had calculators, there was only a smattering, since most of them use the calculator through some other device like a phone or ipod!

Our second guest engineering speaker of the year, Dr. Brewer taught Civil Engineering at Iowa State for over 30 years and is now retired. Students (and I) learned that in 1970 a calculator cost him $400! And that was from a discount store!

There are several obstacles to students choosing and sticking with engineering as a major. Yes, there's the math and science background, but there are a couple of other sneaky ones. It turns out that people study such things as student motivators, and have learned that 1) negative stereotypes of engineers and a 2) lack of knowledge of what engineers do are both harmful to engineering enrollment. Students need to hear, see, and wrap their brains around lots of positive role models and creative careers. Dr. Brewer was a fantastic example.

Aside from the slide rule, the coolest things he shared were stories and pictures from volunteer work he does with Engineering Ministries International, or EMI. EMI is a faith-based non-profit that sends teams of architects, designers and engineers to areas where they can help families and children through construction projects. We saw slides of a team next to a tank in Afghanistan and on a bus in India. How amazing for students to see that something they learn now can help someone across the world build a bridge, a school or a place of worship!

Dr. Brewer kept using words like collaborate, creative, listening and constraints. A constraint in design is something that is a boundary, something that you must keep in mind when doing your work, a line not to cross. His EMI trips ran into all kinds of constraints: environmental (work in India at night with a flashlight because it's 120◦F during the day) geological (sandy site in Jordan mean extra big concrete "feet" for support) and cultural (moving from province to province in Afghanistan required armed guides).

Even he "learned with a lone wolf mentality, the game has changed and it's a team now". Thanks to him for adapting and sharing his work with us.

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