Jan 31, 2010

How a Toilet Saved My Life

I have a confession to make. I almost dropped out of Mechanical Engineering in college. Those who know me will probably be surprised, but it's true. It happened after sophomore year.

By that time, I had made it through the first year fundamentals (physics, math, computers) as well as the notoriously intense sophomore year (my roommates even named the term after my classes: Fluids/solids/thermo/math term). I actually did well those years, but I entered summer depressed: Was mechanical engineering just about planes and cars? That's what the examples were in class. The others in my class -- Motorheads, Airheads, Copter-guys -- were kids in a candy store. I liked these devices, but they really didn't turn my crank. I didn't see myself working in these industries for the rest of my life.

That summer, my mother told me to go to the library and find out what else mechanical engineers did. So, I traveled on bus (3 hours round trip!) to the University of Pittsburgh engineering library. There, I discovered Mechanical Engineering magazine. While there were stories of cars, planes, weapons, there was also a short brief on a new toilet. It used fluid dynamics to have a maximum flush with only a little water. I was ecstatic. I was finally reassured that engineers solved problems that were interesting to me. It is the ordinary that enraptures me rather than the superlative (faster, stronger, bigger, cooler). I love engineering because as I learn more about it, I see my everyday world in a different way.

Later, I found that I was not alone. Anita Borg spoke of how computer science is often sold by the superlatives, not how computers can help literacy, for example, or even save lives. She indicated that emphasizing technology for technology's sake turns away many, especially women. Engineering suffers from the same kind of PR. We need multiple images of what engineering is about. It's time for the ordinary to have a chance to inspire.

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