Always an engineer

At the start of the fall semester, I was asked to speak to a large freshman class of undeclared students along with my colleagues—the deans of the other colleges on campus. Our charge was to outline our personal career paths, and to convey a bit of what we were thinking as 18-year-old new arrivals on a university campus. Did we aspire at that time to become deans at a university of science and technology? Answer: Not at all.

The instructor’s lesson that day was that everyone, and particularly so when starting out on the adventure of a university education, should take time to reflect and identify their deepest, most sincere, intellectual interests. Trite but true: If you study and work in an area that you truly enjoy, you’ll have a productive career and a most satisfying life.

That class session prompted my own reflection, and made me wonder about an alternative question. Did I know as an 18-year-old that I would be an engineer? Absolutely. In fact, I’ve always known that.

One of my mother’s favorite photographs of me shows a toddler standing on the back lawn after having gone through his father’s toolbox, triumphantly holding a pair of channel-lock pliers in one hand and a crescent wrench in the other. While in elementary school, I built a pitching machine so that even if we could round up only a few boys on a summer’s day, a reasonable baseball game could be played in our cul-de-sac. And it worked! I built several generations of devices to launch newspapers off the back of my bicycle and partially automate my afternoon newspaper route. Invented from the standpoint of efficiency. Well-intentioned to bring value to the customer by precisely placing papers in the middle of driveways. It was great fun, but ultimately unreliable and difficult to load. Today, with GPS being what it is, I bet our engineering students at Iowa State could build a launcher that places papers within inches every time.