Engineers as a whole are an altruistic lot so we are introducing a new monthly column online and in our Aug. 11 issue that explores how to mine this thick vein of talent and good will. “At Stake” will be written once a month by Southern Methodist University Engineering Dean Geoffrey Orsak, Ph.D., a passionate and energetic advocate for the engineering profession.
More than that, Geoffrey doesn't think engineers are doing enough to resolve some of the world's most pressing problems: sanitation, clean water, nutrition, reduction in greenhouse gases and education. “If the politicians are not going to do it, then maybe engineers should,” he says.
As sickening and heartbreaking as the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo is on this page, such unimaginable horrors happen thousands of times every day. And engineers can play a role, making sure there are fewer scenarios of such horrific proportion. There's more about the photo at the end of the column.
The kind of engineer Geoffrey will talk about are individuals like Dean Kamen and his company DEKA R&D Corp. Kamen has invented groundbreaking medical devices, the Segway, a novel wheelchair, a small $1,500 water purification device and a power generator for the most impoverished people in the world.
In discussing the water cleaning device, Kamen was quoted a couple of years ago: “Not required are engineers, pipelines, epidemiologists or microbiologists. You don't need any -ologists. You don't need any building permits, bribery or bureaucracies.” Disregard the engineers in this quote. Kamen, an engineering school dropout, is the epitome of who we're talking about.
The world also needs more Martin Fishers. He founded KickStart International, the organization that helps lift people out of poverty via technology entrepreneurship. Fisher holds a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Stanford University with expertise in the acoustic elasticity of aluminum alloys. But his primary focus is KickStart.
Finding more such examples will be Geoffrey's mission with his column. Both Geoffrey and I would like to hear from you on this topic or perhaps what you have done in this regard that deserves awareness and recognition. Given the subject's importance, we are creating a 2009 conference that will examine what you can do. Stay tuned.
And we are not just talking about third world countries unless you think parts of the U.S. fall into that category. The Bangor Daily News reported on May 8 that Bangor Hydro, a small utility in Maine, sent disconnection notices to 46,000 of its customers for bill non-payment. That's almost half of its 118,000 customers!
Think about it: Nearly half its customers either could not afford or would not pay their electric bills. It was illegal for Bangor Hydro to shut off the non-payers over the winter and knowing that, some hard-pressed customers opted for food, gasoline and heating oil instead.
So, there's no shortage of technical opportunities. As for the photo, I saw it a few weeks ago in the Museum of News or “Newseum” (highly recommended) in Washington, DC. It stood out among dozens of other Pulitzer Prize-winning photos that were equally heart-breaking and gripping. It was shot in 1993 in Sudan by the late Kevin Carter for the New York Times. Carter shooed away the vulture, but fearing disease, he did not pick up the dying child. Carter took his own life the following year.
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