Monday, June 22, 2009

Engineers -- Problem Solvers and Public Servants

There might be no better ambition than to live as long and as well as possible, and leave the world a better place than we found it. A lot of us aspire to do that. Not many of us get around to it. But I've discovered a set of people who spend a lot of time making life better for others. I'm talking about engineers.

Their most basic talent is problem-solving. Cleaner air? They'll figure it out. Better water? Safer cars? Helping the hearing-impaired to hear? Delivering chemotherapeutic drugs to individual cells? Easier ways to find information? More efficient, safer, cleaner energy production? Engineers are on top of things. They're all about solving problems.

The history of engineers in public service goes way back. They built mastabas and then pyramids to entomb the dead in ancient Egypt. During the first millennium Roman engineers crisscrossed the Italian peninsula with 53,000 miles of interconnecting roads. In 1861, the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics maintained the North's bridges, railroads and telegraph lines while the Civil War raged around them.

John Kennedy herded tens of thousands of young Americans into his Peace Corps. Many of them were and are engineers. Daniel Wright is a University of Michigan alum who put his civil engineering degree to work for the Peace Corps and Engineers without Borders. That's him in the photo, helping to drill a well at the Escuela Agrícola Muyurina (Mayurina agricultural school) outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He considers himself "extremely lucky" to have had the opportunity to choose his own path in life. "It's not an option that many people have," he said. "People like me have a responsibility to try to provide the situations necessary for others to have the same opportunities. My work in the Peace Corps was a way of providing people with basic sanitation and water needs so that they could devote more time and energy to things such as education."

America’s Promise Alliance, founded by General Colin Powell, is the nation’s largest cross-sector partnership dedicated to improving the lives of America's children. An engineer is its chief strategy officer.

Food Gatherers is a program that collects unwanted food and distributes it to agencies that feed the hungry. Paul Saginaw, an engineer and co-founder of Zingermann’s Deli (a hot Detroit-area eatery), created Food Gatherers; whenever possible he also makes a point of hiring people from Dawn Farm, an organization that helps addicts and alcoholics with their long-term recovery. Saginaw is an engineer.

Andrea Messmer, a University of Michigan engineering alum, currently in Poi Pet, Cambodia, threw herself into a program that retrieves victims of child-trafficking from Thailand. She also runs a children's library and coordinates small-scale development projects around Poi Pet.

Claudette Juska, a research specialist for Greenpeace is an engineer who tackles issues associated with fuel efficiency policies, air quality, seafood purity and corporate "greenwashing" (improperly portraying oneself as green).

Engineers charge into positions as environmentalists, senators, kinder-care volunteers, teachers of the impoverished, high school mentors, soldiers, museum docents -- the list is sweeping, highly varied, startlingly impressive. I'm not saying that engineers who perform selfless acts live longer or better than everyone else, but I'm betting that, as a group with better than average problem-solving abilities, they're more well equipped than most to leave the world a better place than they found it.