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Pioneers of Progress: Engineers Shaping the Future

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Engineers are generally perceived as problem solvers, but we don’t have a corner on that market. When talking about STEM careers with students and non-engineers, I try to explain how “E”s are different than “ST” and “M”s.  Often my best explanation is that engineers are responsible for taking scientific research, theory and imagination (abstract concepts) and transforming them into new products, better infrastructure, new software programs and improved processes in industry. Scientists and mathematicians discover new realms; engineers figure out how to tame them.  As the American pioneers cleared fields, built new homes and harnessed natural resources for their own livelihood, today’s engineers are working on safer transportation, expanding communications choices, creating sustainable energy and using 3D printing to build houses in days instead of months. Engineers are agents of progress.

To be fair, engineers sometimes design innovations that are not embraced as warmly as others. Ever heard of Betamax video? How about laser discs? They each pioneered new features that were superior to VHS tapes (better picture quality, no need to rewind, etc.), but neither technology became the dominant format for home video viewing. Of course, engineers also designed the DVR and the server infrastructure that streams Netflix content to millions of homes across the U.S. As digital consumers we now enjoy a level of access, variety, affordability and mobility in viewing content unparalleled in human history. My parents never told me stories of “binging” a season’s worth of episodes back on the farm. What stories will our kids tell their own children to illustrate progress within their lifetimes?

Over the next decade engineers will be pioneering the next order of magnitude of progress in connectivity, safety and convenience. Engineers are perfecting a new system of satellites that will be able to provide broadband-level Internet access to rural areas over much of the world. Expect to be able to sign up for initial service in the next 2-3 years. Connected and autonomous vehicles are being built along with traffic signals that talk to each other and let drivers know how soon lights will change to improve safety. This is already happening in Kansas City and will pave the way for a future in which our transportation network can figure out your shortest route and optimum speed to avoid stopping and improve fuel economy. At this moment engineers are working out the details of the new infrastructure needed to deploy 5G Internet across Kansas City and enabling a whole new level of data access, responsiveness, and Netflix binging!

This week is our chance to honor the ongoing role that engineers play in expanding the boundaries of human reach, safety and interaction. Engineers, pioneering our future right before our eyes.

This article was originally featured in the Engineer’s Week Special Edition of the Kansas City Business Journal on February 21, 2020.

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