Adrian Gamboa, Design Engineer, Lockheed Martin
Going to engineering school full- time has certain advantages. One can learn new topics, advance a future career, indulge in the occasional free pizza, and sleep in. Additionally, a graduate degree automatically provides a jump-start to leadership positions and a higher level of responsibility.
After finishing my master's degree when I was 26, I quickly took a job at Lockheed Martin. My skills learned in school were very useful at work with one exception—to think flexibly. I experienced this first when I came across the task of finding the entrained mass of a large structure descending through water to the sea floor. This was part of a large project I was on to design a sub-sea landing fixture for Remote Operated Vehicles used by the Navy. I, along with the other design engineers, were worried about the structure's impact strength with the floor at peak descent rate.
Prandtl, regarded as the Father of Modern Fluid Mechanics, in 1904 established his famous boundary layer description which explained how a viscous dominate layer is formed around objects moving through a fluid. This causes a wake to follow the object and a certain amount of fluid to follow along in its path. The object's dynamic mass used in impact analysis is increased by the mass of this water. Having specialized in fluid dynamics during graduate school and considering myself a serious student of the subject, I felt the problem was right up my alley. I diligently poured over my old textbooks, searched the Internet, spoke with coworkers, and looked through more books at the local university. I examined estimations of wakes, potential flow theory, etc. After about two weeks of this it became clear to me that there was no way of finding the entrained mass without a full-size experiment or considerable numerical analysis.
At this point, almost in passing, I mentioned to the project's system engineer the difficulty I was having finding an answer to this problem. He responded, "I can write into our spec that only low velocity is used, the landing speed directly above the floor can be controlled very closely."
This extremely simple solution to my complicated problem not only applied common sense knowledge of the system but also demonstrated thinking flexibly. It would have been wonderful to use all the analytical skills I learned in school to calculate the exact entrained mass, but with such an easy alternative solution there was no point. Finding an answer to even complicated questions rarely requires in-depth calculations but rather effective use of all the simple, available avenues.
Thanks to my alma mater's (The University of Washington) curriculum, I was involved in a number of classroom group projects and a senior design project to try and emulate work place interactions where teamwork and flexibility are used. A much more structured approach would be useful as well. Today, there are a number of books on the idea of approaching problems through organizations built on learning and flexibility, such as The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge. It seems appropriate then that these ideas should be taught in school. At the least, one less fluid dynamics class in place of this type of schooling might have saved me two weeks of fruitless labor.