By Richard Comerford, Editor, Electronic Products
One of the most frustrating things that we experience in our day-to-day existence is not being understood. As engineers, we’ve all run into people who have no idea what it is we actually do, and seem totally ignorant of the basic scientific principles and techniques we use every day. And those of us who have been around awhile may be tempted to tell those who are experiencing this frustration for the first time that it won’t be the last time they run into the situation.
But recently I was given hope that the aforementioned situation may really be changing – that in the future, what we do as engineers will be less foreign to the world in general. The occasion was NIWeek, an annual meeting in Austin, TX, sponsored by National Instruments.
For those of you who haven’t attended this event – and if you really want to keep up with what’s happening in mechatronics you really should go to this show – the program includes opening keynotes each day that are a significant departure from the usual. Instead of someone just talking to you about technology developments, keynote speakers provide live demos of what the technology they’re working on can do. (You can see these keynotes at National Instruments’ Web site, http://www.ni.com/niweek/.) One of the keynote speakers, Ray Almgren, NI Vice President of Academic Marketing, made the following observations: “Through our work with LEGO, we’ve learned that kids are born with an innate sense of creativity. They are innovators; they are engineers – from the time they are born.”
Acting on that realization, NI is actively going about encouraging the development of engineering abilities, not only at the university level, but in high schools and elementary education institutions. They are a major contributor to FIRST (www.usfirst.org), a not-for-profit organization, founded by Dean Kamen, that aims to inspire young people to be leaders in science and technology; it does so by sponsoring robotics competitions that are like scientific Olympics, complete with team uniforms and a large stadium for competitions.
NI has also been working with LEGO to create toys that preschoolers and kindergarten kinds can use to build and program simple robotic systems. And they are backing a competition called Moonbots (www.moonbots.org) in which small teams composed of children and adults compete to design, program, and construct robots that perform simulated lunar missions similar to those required to win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a private race to the Moon to encourage commercial exploration of space.
The dedication of all those involved with these projects gave me hope that perhaps that feeling of being misunderstood just might disappear in future generations. “We are creating a new generation of engineers and scientists,” said Almgren, and that generation may not only make me feel more comfortable, they just may solve a lot of the world’s problems. As Almgern noted, “they are the real stimulus package.”
Robots created by high schoolers compete in a FIRST event.