No matter why you got into mechanical engineering (it’s because you wanted to perfect your battlebot, wasn’t it?), your training can be turned to incredible things.
Engineers – especially mechanical engineers – extend the human potential to move, work, and interact with the world. This can happen in extraordinary ways, as these extraordinary individuals have shown.
Taking Mechanical Engineering to Space
Scott D. Tingle is a US Navy Commander and NASA astronaut. In 2009, he was one of nine out of about 3,500 applicants to be selected as a candidate for NASA Astronaut Group 20. He qualified in 2011.
His training included instruction in the operational systems of the International Space Station, water and wilderness survival, robotics, T-38 jet flight, as well as scientific and technical briefings and physiological training. He used his mechanical engineering background to help develop new space vehicle programs.
US Navy Commander, NASA Astronaut
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (formerly Southeastern Massachusetts University), BS in Mechanical Engineering (1987)
Purdue University, MS in Mechanical Engineering w/ specialization in Fluid Mechanics and Propulsion (1988)
Winning an Academy Award
In entertainment, the beloved products of Pixar Animation Studios are the pinnacle of computer-aided design (CAD), animation, and storytelling. Bob Peterson has spent nearly 20 years at Pixar where he has successfully married his natural talent for stories with his background in engineering. His credits include:
- Toy Story—animator and storyboard artist
- Toy Story 2—screenplay and storyboard artist
- Finding Nemo—screenplay and voice of Mr. Ray
- Monsters, Inc.—story supervisor and voice of Roz
- Up – screenplay, director (co-directed with Pete Docter), and voice of Dug the dog
Mr. Peterson has received Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay for Finding Nemo (shared with Andrew Stanton and David Reynolds) and Up (shared with Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy). Up won the 2009 Oscar for Best Animated Feature (shared with Docter and McCarthy).
Filmmaker at Pixar
Purdue University, MS in Mechanical Engineering (1986)
Building Driverless Racecars
Driverless cars aren’t on the horizon. They’re on our roads. Google’s self-driving cars have logged hundreds of thousands of miles in major cities. They’ve gone accident-free thus far, partly because they’re consistently following the rules and going the speed limit.
Forget that, let’s go 150 miles per hour.
…is presumably what Chris Gerdes is thinking every time he and his team test their autonomous racecars. At Stanford, Dr. Gerdes is a professor and the director of the Center for Automotive Research (CARS, ha). The vehicles in development at CARS can reach racecar speeds, drift around corners, and navigate rally race roads accident-free. The research contributes to advances in engine combustion processes and allows us to race toward development of driver assistance systems.
According to Gerdes’ TED talk, they are looking for ways to model these systems on the sharply instinctual brain processes of professional racecar drivers.
J. Christian Gerdes
Associate professor of mechanical engineering, director of the Center for Automotive Research, Stanford
University of California—Berkeley, PhD in Mechanical Engineering (1996)
Founding an Engineering Academy for Kids
Amir Abo-Shaeer, winner of a 2010 MacArthur “genius grant”, used to be a mechanical engineer in aerospace and telecommunications before becoming a physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in 2001. By 2002, he had created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) within the school.
DPEA focused on rigorous, project-based learning that culminates in a robot for entry in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC – They go by Team 1717). Mr. Abo-Shaeer would recruit students form junior high to attend the academy. When he realized he only had two girls enrolled, he enlisted their help to start reaching out to more girls to join.
These days, half of DPEA students are girls. Participation in the robotics competitions is part of the curriculum, and Team 1717 has performed well regionally, nationally, and internationally. Other kids at Dos Pueblo look up to the DPEA students, and there’s a line out the door for others waiting to get in. In 2007, Abo-Shaeer secured $3 million matching grant from California, then established the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Foundation. It set the stage to triple enrollment and significantly expand STEM education offerings, as well as introduce a business element—to nurture kids’ entrepreneurial spirit.
Abo-Shaeer won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. In 2011, he was the subject of The New Cool, a book by New York Times bestselling author Neal Bascomb, which chronicles Abo-Shaeer’s visionary teaching career and Team 1717’s 2009 FIRST robotics competition season.
Physics and engineering teacher, director of Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy
University of California—Santa Barbara, BS in Physics (1996), MS in Mechanical Engineering (1998), M.Ed in Secondary Education (2001)
Designing a Steerable Bullet
This next one is a little murky when considering the impact of products such as these … but as far as mechanical engineering goes, it’s pretty cool.
Alexander Englesbe, Justin Lee, and Logan Shannahan designed a means to steer in flight a .50 caliber bullet with half-inch diameter, the way we are able to do with missiles and other large projectiles. This was part of their senior design project in mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The team’s answer was to create a disturbance in the flow around the bullet to change its trajectory, by causing a shock wave with localized plasma.
The project was sponsored by the US Army Research Library under the name Project Snipe.
Justin Lee, Alexander Englesbe, Logan Shannahan
Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, BS in Engineering Mechanics (2011)
Saving the World
Amy Smith is a senior lecturer and the founder of D-Lab at MIT. Her focus is on using engineering to make a meaningful impact on the poverty-stricken in the developing world. Her early-life exposure to the poor in India and her experience in the Peace Corp helped develop her sharp focus on international development through design.
Ms. Smith’s projects aim to create simple and cheap tools that can be used and reproduced by those living in poverty. She spreads the idea of simple design that can be recreated using local resources so that poor communities can ultimately help themselves.
She is one of the lead organizers of the International Development Design Summit (IDDS), an intense hands-on conference for social entrepreneurs from all walks of life—engineers, economists, doctors, welders, farmers, businesspeople—that aims to develop prototypes for poor communities in developing nations. Projects include work in the areas of water testing and treatment, agricultural processing, and alternative energy.
She pioneered the idea of teaching humanitarian design in major institutions, as she does through D-Lab. She also co-founded the MIT IDEAS Competition and helped develop the Rethink Relief Design Workshop. Smith is the first female winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize (2000) and is a 2004 MacArthur Fellow. In 2010, she was chosen as part of the TIME 100, an annual list in which the magazine names the people who most affect our world.
Amy B. Smith
MIT educator, founder of D-Lab at MIT
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BS in Mechanical Engineering (1984), MS in Mechanical Engineering
Featured Image Credit: Valdosta State University