2018 has been declared the Year of Engineering in the UK and this week is National Engineers Week in the U.S. (Australian Engineering Week is coming in August.) Around the world engineers and educators will be using these events to bring the important contributions that engineers make to our society to public attention, and encourage kids to get excited about science, technology, engineering, and maths.
As an engineer and scientist, one thing I feel engineering lacks is some celebrity engineers. Physics and astronomy have stars like Brian Cox and Neil Degrasse Tyson, while the natural sciences have David Attenborough, scientists who can draw huge, screaming crowds to sell-out events for the purpose of learning something amazing. I think engineering needs someone who can do the same, a rock star engineer who can enthrall a crowd, work the media, and make engineering exciting.
And I have a few engineers in mind…
Adam Steltzner is an NASA engineer who works for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He has left his mark across much of the solar system, working on pioneering spacecraft including Galileo, Cassini, Mars Pathfinder, and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. As lead engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory’s Entry, Descent and Landing phase, Steltzner lead the team that developed the ludicrous, but amazing, sky crane that safely deposited the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012. (Do you remember where you were when Curiosity landed? I do. I was sitting in an engineering tribology lecture, sneakily watching the live stream with my friend on his laptop.) Steltzner has shown he’s got what it takes to front the media and is often presented as a “rock and roll” engineer. Having titled his book The Right Kind of Crazy, he clearly knows what it takes to push the boundaries of what is possible.
Known to the internet as ladyada, Limor Fried is an electrical engineer who founded Adafruit Industries, one of the go-to places on the internet for open-source electronics. Fried started Adafruit Industries in her dorm room in 2005 and, under her direction, it has gone on to be a huge success, shipping over a million orders. Fried has worked to make Adafruit a resource not just for advanced electronics hobbyists, but for kids and anyone else developing an interest in making their own electronic inventions. The Adafruit website includes a huge range of written tutorials and introductory videos, as well as kits that get kids into electronics and engineering through practical projects. Fried is an inspiration to anyone who dreams of bringing their inventions to life.
I guess it’s not surprising that there are multiple engineers with NASA connections on this list. Lobbing robots into deep space has been at the pinnacle of human engineering endeavor for half a century.
Mark Rober is another JPL engineer with The Right Kind of Crazy and has contributed to several JPL missions including the Curiosity rover. He shot to internet fame in 2011 when his YouTube video of a Halloween costume that used iPads to fake a hole through his torso went viral. In 2013, with growing success as a YouTuber, inventor, and TV personality, Rober left NASA. He is best known for his science videos, including measuring how much pee is in your pool and ideas for science fair projects, and for unusual inventions such as the automatic bullseye dartboard and the world’s largest Nerf gun. Rober describes his approach to science education as getting you hooked with something interesting, and then pouncing on you with science when you least expect it.
Margaret “Maggie” Aderin-Pocock is a British space scientist and science educator with a PhD in mechanical engineering. She has worked on a wide variety of projects including aircraft missile warning systems, landmine detectors, and instruments for telescopes and satellites. As well as being a talented and hard-working engineer, Aderin-Pocock is a prominent figure in public science communication in the UK. She has appeared on popular science television shows including The Sky at Night, and even runs her own science communication and engagement company. Aderin-Pocock inspires children to get into science by sharing her own passion for space.
This short list contains only a few of the amazing engineers that I personally look up to and who I think have what it takes to be a celebrity engineer, a rock star of STEM who can teach the world about the amazing engineering going on every day and inspire kids to become engineers themselves. There are many more who I do not have time to cover but who I also think would also do an amazing job, outstanding engineers such as Mae Jemison and Burt Rutan.
Generations of engineers have shaped the world around us, and continue to do so today. I think the general public need to be a bit more aware of what we have achieved as a species, and where our imagination and efforts could take us in the future.