So you’re studying engineering and you’re already living daily with the stigma that engineers are nerdy, boring and socially awkward. Engineering just isn’t sexy, right? Wrong. There’s nothing more interesting than doing a job that makes an exceptional contribution to the quality of people’s daily lives.
"Engineers put scientific knowledge to practical use, applying science and math to solve problems creatively. While math often plays a large role in engineering, engineers also need to be creative, imaginative and should possess excellent communications skills," says Chantal Guay, chief executive officer of Engineers Canada. "Engineers are always working to improve the public’s quality of life."
Take Deborah Fels for example: she recently developed the Emotichair – a chair that allows people who are hearing impaired to experience sound.
"When people with a hearing impairment watch a movie or TV, even with closed captioning, they sometimes don’t get the mood. It’s because they’re missing sound – so we wanted to find a way to translate that to them," Fels says, adding the chair is still undergoing testing. (It’s now on display at the Ideas Gallery at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto.)
An industrial engineer who studied human factors, Fels is an associate professor in the school of information technology management and the director of the Centre for Learning Technologies at Ryerson University in Toronto. She’s been working on making entertainment accessible for people who have disabilities for seven years.
Fels and her team wanted to explore how the various senses could be used to help people experience the information contained in music. They began by placing a series of audio speakers on the back of chair so when people sat in the chair they could feel the vibrations from those speakers. The speakers were arranged so that high frequencies stimulated the upper back and lower frequencies stimulated the lower back.
So far, Fels’ chair has been a hit, at least with the residents of a seniors’ home she took it to for testing.
"As soon as they sat in the chair these people were moving their fingertips and heads," Fels said. "Music is a life experience and the chair really brings back that experience they were craving."
"Almost anything that engineers get involved in is really fascinating," says Peter Cripton, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of British Columbia (UBC).
The mechanical engineer is testing the Pro-Neck-Tor, a helmet he helped invent, which reduces injuries to the neck and spinal cord if someone had a head on collision.
"I’ve looked at a lot of incidents where people wearing helmets were getting injured in their necks, even though their heads were protected," Cripton says. "If you break your neck it happens when you’re hitting the surface straight on."
Cripton’s helmet has an inner shell. During a collision, the inner shell slides forward or backwards, thus allowing the spine to escape the compression that would be caused by the following torso, explains Cripton. Spine damage is reduced while the head remains protected.
In developing the helmet, Cripton applied his mechanical engineering knowledge to biomechanics, which he says shows just how flexible an engineering degree can be.
"When you learn the basics, you can apply this stuff to biomedical engineering and can develop orthopedic implants or race cars, submarines, or even alternative clean burning engines," Cripton says. "The list of things you can do is never-ending."
So next time you’re telling a new acquaintance about your career plans, don’t downplay the significance of what you’ll be doing, for fear they’ll blow you off as a geek, or as someone who lacks social skills. That’s because social skills allow engineers to understand the needs of the people whose problems they solve.
"Engineers need to be creative and imaginative and possess skills for applying science and math to solve problems, Guay says.
"It’s about knowing how people will react to equipment that you design for people, whether it’s people putting together a plane wing you designed or working on a power plant," says Fels. "People are always involved and knowing the human factor is really important." jp