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 Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When she talks about her job, her enthusiasm for her field is clear, and in describing engineers as "artists in the science and math world," she illustrates two very important qualities that most engineers possess: imagination and creativity.
A popular misconception holds that the word "engineer" originated to describe people who built engines. However, its Latin root, ingeniosus, which means "skilled," indicates that a more accurate definition of an engineer is "a clever problem-solver." Another misconception is that engineering and science are one and the same. To better grasp the distinction between the two, it helps to think of scientists as people who attempt to answer questions about the natural world and engineers as men and women who solve problems related to human needs.
When engineers prepare to design something — such as a skyscraper, a wireless phone, or a bicycle — they follow a set of steps known as the design process. The design process provides a general direction for engineers when they set out to solve problems. By working through each step in the process, engineers increase the odds that their concepts will work, and work correctly, once they are turned into real physical objects.
The design process begins with identifying a challenge at hand. Once an engineer knows what needs to be accomplished — in Dr. Howard's case, it was to design small, robotic "rovers" capable of linking together to perform more complex tasks — he or she can research and brainstorm possible solutions. This is where conceptual thinking, in other words, imagination and creativity, is required. During this stage, there are few limitations, only possibilities. Once a potential solution has been selected, the process becomes technical: detailed drawings and engineering models are made, tested, and modified. If — and only if — the design is proven to solve the challenge, a prototype is built. When the prototype meets the design goals, which is generally after many, many modifications, the engineer will have made his or her dream a reality.
Other fascinating engineering jobs that require imagination and creativity include designing theme park rides, building undersea robots, developing spray-on skin for trauma care, and planning "green" cities that preserve environmental quality through recycling, energy conservation, reduced pollution, and more.
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