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Making an Impact: Conversations with the Engineers Who Change Our World

Change is the only constant. That truth, often credited to pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, is especially true for engineers, no matter what their discipline. This year, we interviewed people involved in many various aspects of the engineering, from those who are on a mission to get kids excited about STEM to early career engineers, to entrepreneurs and seasoned veterans. All of them look at engineering from a unique perspective. All of them are on a mission to do things bigger, better, safer, faster.


Dream Big

We “dreamed big” with the filmmakers at MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF). In partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Bechtel Corporation, they produced the IMAX movie “Dream Big: Engineering Our World” showing the remarkable ways engineers are changing our world!

“The challenges engineers are taking on are the big ones: clean water, smart buildings, climate change, creating sustainable cities for tomorrow,” says ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith. “And that means there is a pressing need for lots of young people to bring their fresh ideas. We hope many will be inspired when they see how engineering can take you to different places across the globe, from China to Nepal to Seattle. You also see how different kinds of people – from Avery Bang working in Haiti to a first-generation American such as Angelica Hernandez making her dreams come true in Phoenix to Steve Burrows flying across China – can each make their own individual mark on their communities and the world at large.”


Learn More

Engineers and attorneys could learn a lot from each other, and Vanessa Adriana Nadal should know. She’s both. In May, we interviewed Nadal who is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and an attorney who earned her J.D. at Fordham University School of Law. She says engineers and lawyers have more in common than you might think, “Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.” NEF spoke with Nadal from London (where her husband, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was filming “Mary Poppins Returns”) about what engineers and attorneys can learn from each other, and the cyclical beauty of art, inspiration, and STEM.

She told us, “Math and science are so ubiquitous that people take them for granted. They are everywhere. And they are beautiful. I’m always disheartened when people say that those subjects have little application to the real world. It’s true that you aren’t going to use logarithmic equations on a daily basis, but neither do Socrates, the Iliad, or the works of Michelangelo come up in daily conversation. I think it’s both humbling and inspirational to be able to appreciate the manifestations of our math and science knowledge in our natural world.

Accordingly, one of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make our work relevant to others. Of course, engineering students have heavily-loaded majors, so there is understandably little room to incorporate enough humanities classes to turn them into great storytellers. Such is our plight.
But more than just sharing the joys of math and science with the world, good communications skills are necessary to continue being effective scientists and engineers.”


Build bridges

For people in many parts of the world, just one bridge can make all the difference. Avery Bang was featured in the IMAX film “Dream Big,” and as the Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity, she’s seen first-hand how infrastructure means more than just convenience. We talked to her this year about creativity, failure, and the life-changing power of engineering.

“The built environment is the single most important part of our daily lives – the way we get to and from places, where we sleep, how we learn – and its engineers who create this environment. In the developed world, the everyday contributions of engineers go unnoticed because a working infrastructure is already in place, but in developing countries, that’s not the case,” Bang said.

“Working in a place like Haiti, everything so bare – you don’t live in a house with insulation and bedrooms or have roads that resemble anything we would be familiar with in the U.S. When you work in an environment where there is not a lot already in place, to have something new is really obvious. Something so simple as a bridge in these developing landscapes can be the single most important part of the infrastructure and gives you an appreciation for the difference engineering can make in peoples’ lives. You can provide isolated communities with access essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities.”

Bang went on to say, “When you see engineering in a place where it is noticed and appreciated and people show up to volunteer because they know it is going to make a difference, it makes engineering very human.”


Make a difference

Dr. Menzer Pehlivan was 13 years old when she survived a devastating earthquake in Turkey. Today, she’s a geotechnical engineer working to make structures safer to reduce risk and increase resiliency from natural disasters. Through her appearance in the IMAX film “Dream Big,” she’s also working to show children the fun of engineering and its potential to change people’s lives for better.

“…As engineers, our job is to find the most efficient solution to each problem. Engineering requires teamwork, and I feel fortunate to work with talented professionals from different backgrounds throughout each project, which provides me with excellent learning opportunities every day,” Pehlivan told us in August.

“Engineering is more than just math and science. It is more about imagination, creation, innovation, and teamwork. It is about being open to new ideas, new solutions, and new visions since the engineering profession is continually advancing.”


Celebrate the can-do spirit

For engineers in the start-up space, there are a lot of hurdles to clear to get their passion project off the ground. But for those who succeed like Ben Waters of Seattle-based WiBotic, it’s worth it. WiBotic makes wireless charging solutions for robots and robot fleets, and is pioneering autonomous charging capabilities for aerial, aquatic and mobile robots. Waters told us, “I’ve been very inspired by the entire process, including the amount of work and thought that went into our strategy and financing and the diligence our investors did on our company. If WiBotic reflects other American companies in terms of the way they go about it, I believe there will be a lot of great companies that start-up. When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective, safer or enables something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.”


Bring others along

We also talked with Alaska Airlines pilot and trained engineer Jeanne Deaver about the importance of mentoring.

“When I was a little girl growing up in western Nebraska, there were very few women in STEM. There were even fewer flying Boeing airplanes at a major airline. I believe the reason I was successful is because of my mentors who provided the guidance and encouragement necessary to help me stay focused. Their words helped shape my inner dialog when things became difficult. I am so thankful to all of them for helping me succeed. This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor at Raisbeck Aviation High School, through Amelia’s Aero Club at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.”


Inspire the future

Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

Anderson told us about testing the toys with focus groups of kids and even giving the children of Spin Master employees take-home prototypes. “This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions,” he said.


Try something new

No two roads to leadership are the same. As a Smart Building Practice Co-Leader at Deloitte, Joann Michalis is like many engineers, she solves problems – and takes risks.

She says, “Engineers are particularly good at learning something new or experimenting with a new idea…Leadership is built with the help of others. Your network and your ability to learn will see you through as long as you are willing to push yourself forward. You make mistakes, but that is OK – just don’t make the same mistake twice.”

“The rate of change is rapidly increasing and jobs will be changing. Your path to leadership is not the path I took, but the one you craft. Build a team. Implement a project. Ride each wave; grab the next wave and ride that one. Just don’t give up learning and trying new things.”


We can’t wait to see what 2018 holds for engineers and their impact on the world we live in.

Engineering Summer Fun

Summer pushes the mercury higher, makes the days longer and because we’re NEF, gives us plenty of reminders about why engineering is awesome. Every four years, the world tunes in to watch the best athletes in the world compete in the Olympic Games. So until the Games in Tokyo in 2020, athletes are training hard and from fluid dynamics to biomechanics, engineering principles are everywhere as the athlete get into top shape and look for every advantage. Check out this amazing video series exploring engineering’s impact on competitive sports. It was put together for the 2012 games, but it’s still relevant – and fascinating. Chances are you’ll be watching most athletic competitions from the comfort of your couch, with the AC keeping you cool. Engineer Willis Haviland Carrier designed the first modern air-conditioning system in 1902.

Head out to your own backyard to help kids to engineer a whole summer’s worth of fun with ideas from this site including how-tos for baking soda powered boats, a Nerf battle zone, and so much more. If you’re looking for something with a little more adrenaline, there are an abundance of scream-worthy roller coasters making their debuts at amusement parks across the country. Of course there’s also LEGOLAND which celebrates the construction toy that’s inspired generations of engineers. When you need to cool off in the nearest pool, take a moment to honor the man who invented the modern diving board in 1949. Ray Rude, an engineer who spent part of his career at Lockheed Aircraft Company, used an airplane wing for his first diving board. And of course you can’t have all that fun without a little sustenance. Summer is the perfect time to engineer the perfect burger, traditional or veggie, followed by some homemade ice cream, perhaps using the recipe from one of our nation’s Founding Fathers and engineer Thomas Jefferson.


Hoverboards aren’t just a hot item on wish lists. They’re also a hot topic, from rules about where you can and can’t take one to concerns about safety.

Forget riding your new hoverboard through New York City streets or Quicken Loans Arena where the Cleveland Cavaliers play. And if you’re headed to the airport, be sure you check travel regulations. They vary from airline to airline, and you can bet there will be changes as the travel season heats up.

Then there’s the crash and burn factor – or factors – in this case. Some hoverboarders report spontaneous combustion during use or charging and you can find plenty of videos online showing how easy it is to fall off a hoverboard. We’d link to them, but then we’d have to include an “adult language” warning.

While hoverboards are teaching plenty of people some important lessons in gravity, drones are helping thousands of others defy it. With hundreds of thousands of new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the air this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), isn’t so sure about the trend and is reviewing recommendations for keeping track of who’s got what in the air. So before you launch that UAS from Santa, make sure know whether you need to register as a pilot. The proposed registration would be done online and is pretty easy, for those of you who want to dig deeper, here’s the report.

And whether they’re zooming through the skies or zipping down the street, it’s nice to know that as Americans celebrate the season, they’re celebrating engineering, too.


Albert Manero is using the power of engineering to make life better for children who need prosthetic limbs. Manero is the keynote speaker at the Nov. 9 NEF Orlando regional dialogue and Executive Director of Limbitless Solutions.

Prosthetic arms can cost about $40,000, and access for children is limited in part because they grow so quickly. For many kids like 7-year-old Alex Pring, that means a prosthesis is out of reach. That’s where groups like Limbitless Solutions come in, with a mission, in part, to “use additive manufacturing to advance personalized bionics and solutions for disabilities. We believe that no family should have to pay for their child to receive an arm.”

Alex got a Limbitless Solutions arm earlier this year, and he got famous, as a viral video showed actor and star of “Iron Man” movies Robert Downey, Jr. delivering the new arm. As Alex grows, his arm can be adjusted for a cost of about $100 to create new 3D-printed parts.

Participants at the Nov. 9 NEF Orlando regional dialogue will hear more about the life-changing power of engineering as Manero, who is a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Central Florida, delivers the keynote at the dialogue hosted by UCF.

Stories like this one demonstrate the power of engineering and the importance of the NEF mission to find solutions to the challenges facing American engineering – the 3C’s – how many engineers our country needs (capacity), what skills they require (capabilities), and how they affect our way of life and world leadership (competitiveness). As Manero says on his website, “Let’s show students that engineering is a tool to change the world.”


This month, our series on the 3C’s – capacity, capability, and competitiveness – focuses on competitiveness. The engineering community must work more creatively and collaboratively – alongside political leaders and media – and make the case for the essential role engineering plays in fueling our economy, bolstering national security, and advancing U.S. leadership.

1-Ga Tech Dean May photo for Nov newsletterDr. Gary S. May, dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology

[NEF dialogues] serve as an industry and government affirmation that engineering is key to long-term economic growth.  Innovation requires public and private sector investment operating synergistically. These dialogues ensure we are on the same page as we go forward and foster awareness of social, economic and cultural forces which affect engineering’s future, such as student demographics and global demands. We need to make sure those issues are raised from all who have a vested interest in our nation’s economic well-being, which is directly tied to engineering.


Cassidy_5531e[4][2]C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Reasearch Alliance

Since engineering is inherent in modern-day problem solving, the NEF dialogues add fuel to a larger conversation about our nation’s future and the well-being of humankind. They also point the way to the action steps we must take. As a result, the collective follow-up to the dialogues is just as important – we have to work to turn conversation into change.


Olin Headshots Richard K. MillerDr. Rick Miller, president of the Olin College of Engineering 

There is broad consensus that science- and engineering-based innovation drive economic growth and job creation. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if we can’t figure out new ways to educate technological leaders, America’s prosperity and reputation as an innovation groundbreaker could be called into question. Only through collaboration and dialogue can we form the coalitions among business, academia and government to confront this challenge. I’m optimistic we’ll succeed.






The next slate of NEF regional dialogues starts this fall in Orlando, Florida, hosted by the University of Central Florida on Nov. 9. UCF’s vision “is to educate the next generation of engineers and scientists and perform impactful research that advances the technologies of the 21st century.”  The keynote speaker will be Albert Manero, a UCF doctoral student in mechanical engineering and executive director of Limbitless Solutions where he “leads the team to develop and distribute new arms, and encourage children to dream big dreams in engineering.” On February 2, Oklahoma State University hosts the Stillwater, Oklahoma regional dialogue. Dean Dr. Paul J. Tikalsky says OSU’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology is focused on ensuring graduates are “to understand the world in its broadest context.” Just a few weeks later, NEF will be in South Carolina where Clemson University will host a regional dialogue. Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science is following a strategic plan for “innovation through translation” meaning “transforming knowledge that creates high impact on society.” A Denver regional dialogue is being planned as well. Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, where the College of Engineering and Computational Sciences focuses its research on “improving people’s lives by attacking fundamental problems facing society.”

These four dialogues will bring the NEF dialogue count to 20 regional events across the country, focusing on the 3C’s – how many engineers our country needs (capacity), what skills they require (capabilities), and how they affect our way of life and world leadership (competitiveness). These 3C’s — capacity, capability and competitiveness — encourage us to see engineering holistically and the ideas generated at regional events are forming the foundation for a national cornerstone event.


This month, our series on the 3C’s focuses on capability. The 3C’s are challenges facing American engineering – capacity, capability, and competitiveness. Emerging, multi-disciplinary engineering and technology fields need a workforce trained to solve challenges in sustainability, climate change and evolving areas such as cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, cloud architecture, energy, and healthcare…


“Our goal is to graduate students who are well-rounded with a truly global perspective—to accomplish that, we need to provide our engineering students with a menu of academic and co-curricular opportunities…”

Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering Dr. Ian Robertson


“The greatest areas for advancement will be those that fall between traditional disciplines. That is where our greatest challenges lie and where we will need engineers and scientists who can work seamlessly across disciplines.”

Arizona State University President Dr. Michael M. Crow


“Universities need to create interdisciplinary education and experiences including project-based learning in a collaborative environment.  That is what will be required to solve tomorrow’s complex technical challenges.  And, to get the best ideas, this collaboration must produce graduates that reflect diverse backgrounds.”

Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation Inc. Keith Nosbusch


“We need to demonstrate that engineering is one of the best ways to help people and make a major difference in the world. If we can do that, we can begin to address the diversity problem.”

Olin College of Engineering President Dr. Rick Miller


“We need to be thinking of ways to improve a student’s awareness of the wonders of engineering, and create viable opportunities to act on their interests. We need to help them understand how exciting a career in engineering can be and fuel their dreams and aspirations with compelling stories such as self-driving cars, land, air and space robotics, medical devices, and smart urban infrastructure.”

Carnegie Mellon University Dean of Engineering Dr. James H. Garrett 


“We need to focus on encouraging students to “stay with it” and provide mentoring and role models. While majoring in a STEM field is rigorous, it is extremely rewarding.”

Georgia Institute of Technology Dean of the College of Engineering Dr. Gary S. May


“We live in a big world, with a lot of opportunities, a lot of issues, and a lot of complexity. We need to show students they can make a difference by becoming master learners who are capable of tackling any challenge.”

Arizona State University President Dr. Michael M. Crow