College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Time to listen

For all the incredible work that engineers perform each day to make our lives better, it seems that we often don’t hear much about them unless we’re faced head-on with a crisis. We hear of “scientific discoveries” and “engineering disasters.”  The general public’s knowledge of what engineers do is limited. We just know that our cars run, our cell phones work, our food is abundant and fresh, and our lights come on when we need them.

Sometimes that comfort changes. Dramatically. And when that happens, we get a glimpse of the role of engineering in fundamental societal issues because there’s a sudden, and often short-lived, interest in what engineers have to say.

When the Gulf oil spill occurred, intense public interest in the ongoing drama inevitably led to scrutiny of deep-water drilling as a means of oil production. Engineers—including those from Iowa State—provided expertise, answers, and opinions.

Now, after disastrous earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, we’re hearing from Iowa State engineers again.

Sri Sritharan, Wilson Engineering Professor in civil engineering, accompanied a National Science Foundation reconnaissance team to study the damage in Christchurch, New Zealand, and is bringing a message of “lessons learned”. His knowledge in the field of earthquake engineering is extensive, and received some attention when an earthquake took place in Oklahoma during a test there in which he was participating.

And after the tragic earthquake in Japan, his message takes on even more weight. Once again, engineers have come to the forefront – this time, in explaining the technology at Fukushima. Margaret Harding is an Iowa State engineering alum and a member of the College of Engineering’s industrial advisory council. She’ll be speaking on campus and has already been heard from via NBC, Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times. She’s adept at bringing a factual, practical, and common-sense perspective to the renewed discussion about nuclear power.

And that is indeed the larger point—that engineers, who are skilled at putting science into practice, are people with an audience not just in the aftermath of disasters, but at all stages of providing for the present and planning for the future. Engineers often work behind the scenes, but their voices offer the world valuable lessons.