Give engineers right skills

Give engineers right skills

Wherever I am and wherever I see, I marvel at the innumerable engineering wonders which have touched our lives in all aspects, be they the flyovers or...

Wherever I am and wherever I see, I marvel at the innumerable engineering wonders which have touched our lives in all aspects, be they the flyovers or metros, the iPods or the space odysseys, the hybrid wonders, the stents or the 'designed' countenances. From the Pyramid to the toothpick, everything has been engineered and delivered with a purpose and it is a continuing pursuit for perfection. Working in teams, many Kalams, Visweswariahs and Arthur Cottons have revolutionized our standards of living! Undeniably, in our continuous pursuit of happiness, war or peace, it is the priorities we give that shape our lives, cultures and nations. So, in any century, we are what we are because of what we are. What will we be in the 21st century? The renowned historian Will Durant sums up education as the gift of passing on the knowledge of the 'what we were, the why and the how' to the succeeding ages so that they can always improve upon it. For what have we used our engineering intelligence in the 20th century? For what can we use it in the 21st century if we wish to meet the 21st century challenges? I wonder if we are really giving the right direction and skills while mass producing engineers by the year. In his book, "A Century of Innovation", the legendary astronaut, Neil Armstrong credits the 20th century with outstanding, historic contributions through engineering. Three things that impress all of us in his observations are that: the benefits were largely universal, affecting people across the globe and at 'almost' all economic levels ; the technologies were diverse and depended on the timely parallel accomplishments of science, particularly quantum theory, nuclear physics and relativity, along with the outstanding achievements in mathematics and medicine; the devices that enabled all these innovations, telephones, airplanes, computers power plants, automobiles, generators, motors, etc., were made in such quantity and quality that they were affordable by large numbers of people, thus making them 'relatively universally' available. We from the third world, now know that the expressions 'almost' and 'relatively universal' need much to be done , though unsaid. Petroski, in his book, 'To Engineer is Human', observes, "Making things is an activity as old as civilization, and making ever new things is part of being human". We make ever new things because, we see scope for improvement, and we realize the defects or flaws in what we did earlier. The flip side of our 20th century achievements is its unintended rift with the environment. We literally focused on manufacturing and revolutionizing the industries. Power consumption for this was never questioned and we depended mostly on thermal power, depleting our non-renewable resources without batting an eyelid. If the greenhouse gases have increased and affected our climate, we did not seem to feel the heat either. We remained comfortable in our 'glass houses', increasingly out of touch with the rejuvenating and sustaining mother nature. All 'Chipko' movements were not for the engineering intelligentsia to reckon. Engineering in the 21st century requires to shoulder a higher responsibility of setting things right, undoing at least some of the damages we ourselves engineered, positively widen/broaden the meaning of the word 'engineer', develop a systems approach as against the current fragmented or cloistered approach where one does not see the complete picture of the world but only a fragment from a narrow window. The challenge of the future is to alleviate poverty and raise the standard of living for all on this planet while also sustaining our natural resources. According to the National Resource Council (NRC):"Sustainable development� the reconciliation of society's developmental goals with its environmental limits over the long term�is the most recent conceptual focus linking the collective aspirations of the world's peoples for peace, freedom, improved living conditions, and a healthy environment". Engineers have an obligation to meet the basic needs of all humans for water, nutrition, energy, sanitation, and health, as well as the protection of the planet's resources, including our cultural and natural diversity. It is one thing to bring comfort to a few millions at the cost of many more millions of mute and uncomplaining 'eco-partners' of many forms, but it calls for a completely different, highly sensitive, conscientious game plan if we were to bring comfort to the whole planet , excluding none.
The National Science Foundation announced 14 grand engineering challenges for the 21st century that, if met, would greatly improve how we live. They are: Make solar energy affordable; Provide energy from fusion; Develop carbon sequestration methods; Manage the nitrogen cycle; Provide access to clean water; Restore and improve urban infrastructure; Advance health informatics; Engineer better medicines ; Reverse-engineer the brain ; Prevent nuclear terror; Secure cyberspace ; Enhance virtual reality ; Advance personalized learning and Engineer the tools for scientific discovery .All these issues fall into four themes that are essential for humanity to flourish, - sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability and enhancing joy of living. We, as a third world country, can give our own ranking or priority to these issues and work accordingly. The 21st century engineers should have a human face. All scientists and engineers should step down from their academic pedestals and demystify their work. It is true, they work for the common good or for the nations' economic goals, but they are rarely understood by the common man. The fundamental nature of engineering or what engineers do is not everyday knowledge. For instance, many of us are unfamiliar with the basic principles used to build the systems that deliver water, gas, or electricity to our homes, or even how a deodorant can of spray works. Consequently, even the educated citizens do not know how each of them can contribute positively by choosing the right devices and modifying their life styles.Communicating the importance of environmental protection so other stake holders in the world can understand its value to themselves, their country, and the world needs to be improved. Working with non-technical citizens, aiming not at wealth generation alone, but at poverty reduction, technology reaching out to the nooks and corners like telemedicines and telelessons requires engineers to be not merely academically competent from their end but capable of visualizing the problems a common, non-technical user may encounter and minimize them. While the damages from natural resource depletion and all forms of pollution are to be checked, another point which needs to be seriously considered is the unintended damage to man and nature through genetic engineering, the latest and least tested branch. There are many objections to the release of genetically engineered organisms into the wild. Environmentalists express misgivings about the effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops and many concerns have been raised over the inadequate testing of the effects of genetic engineering on humans. Unless we are cautious, in an attempt to over reach, we may blunder irrevocably. Let us not conclude that environmental engineers are the only answer to our problems. Ofcourse, we do need strict government laws and checks to see that our progress is well engineered. Environmental engineers' duties include collecting soil or groundwater samples and testing them for contamination; designing municipal sewage and industrial wastewater systems; analyzing scientific data; researching controversial projects; and performing quality control checks etc. Among other things, they do study and attempt to minimize the effects of large-scale problems such as acid rain, global warming, and ozone depletion, help clients clean up the brownfields for reuse in place of premium land, minimizing the liabilities and the costs of infrastructure or building projects. But, it should not be one engineer's work to design and another engineer's task to check it. Every branch in engineering should be linked with the others so as to meet the 21st century challenges head-on. Let us deliver competent engineers to design a brighter future for our planet. OPINION
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