In this video segment from NASA, Dr. Ayanna Howard describes some of her responsibilities as an engineering professional, including some of the remarkable challenges she faced as a member of the recent Mars lander mission. Her insights reveal why engineering can be such a rewarding field.
Dr. Ayanna Howard is a robotics researcher at NASA's JetPropulsion Laboratory. When she talks about her job, her enthusiasm forher field is clear, and in describing engineers as "artists in thescience and math world," she illustrates two very important qualitiesthat most engineers possess: imagination and creativity.
A popular misconception holds that the word "engineer" originated todescribe people who built engines. However, its Latin root, ingeniosus,which means "skilled," indicates that a more accurate definition of anengineer is "a clever problem-solver." Another misconception is thatengineering and science are one and the same. To better grasp thedistinction between the two, it helps to think of scientists as peoplewho attempt to answer questions about the natural world and engineers asmen and women who solve problems related to human needs.
When engineers prepare to design something — such as a skyscraper, awireless phone, or a bicycle — they follow a set of steps known as thedesign process. The design process provides a general direction forengineers when they set out to solve problems. By working through eachstep in the process, engineers increase the odds that their conceptswill work, and work correctly, once they are turned into real physicalobjects.
The design process begins with identifying a challenge at hand. Once anengineer knows what needs to be accomplished — in Dr. Howard's case, itwas to design small, robotic "rovers" capable of linking together toperform more complex tasks — he or she can research and brainstormpossible solutions. This is where conceptual thinking, in other words,imagination and creativity, is required. During this stage, there arefew limitations, only possibilities. Once a potential solution has beenselected, the process becomes technical: detailed drawings andengineering models are made, tested, and modified. If — and only if —the design is proven to solve the challenge, a prototype is built. Whenthe prototype meets the design goals, which is generally after many,many modifications, the engineer will have made his or her dream areality.
Other fascinating engineering jobs that require imagination andcreativity include designing theme park rides, building undersea robots,developing spray-on skin for trauma care, and planning "green" citiesthat preserve environmental quality through recycling, energyconservation, reduced pollution, and more.
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