Jul 22, 2016

Teaching #STEM With Yvonne: #Engineers' Birthdays

When I was young, some of my teachers had "special calendars" - birthdays of writers, scientists, events that related to what they were teaching.

I loved this. For the people I knew about, I felt more enlightened by learning the time period they lived because it helped me tie their contributions to other subjects like literature, history, social studies, art. For the people I didn't know about, the tidbit about them often piqued my interest and curiosity about their work.

Engineers have birthdays, too

During the holidays, Half Price Books bookstore gives out calendars each year with artists and authors' birthdays. As an adult, I found the calendar triggered the same interest again.

So I thought, could I do this with engineers? I took a random sample and found engineers who contributed their names to techniques, formulae, tools, and materials used by engineers: NyquistGore (of Gore-Tex), Gantt. I also found engineers who developed things that we take for granted either as engineers or just people in this modern world: SPICE (Donald Pederson), standard time (Sanford Fleming), email (Ray Tomlinson), Post-It Note (Arthur Fry), disposable diapers (Victor Mills), Super Soaker (Lonnie Johnson).

Engineering is more than just a degree in engineering

Then my liberal arts education kicked in. Why were they all men? My women's studies professors shouted in my head to dig deeper. Don't be like that American writers anthology that had the most obscure male writer but neglected to include Emily Dickinson.

So, I expanded my list of engineering birthdays to include people with the *Engineering Spirit. I found people who did engineering before there were formal engineering programs (e.g. Daniel Bernoulli, Charles Babbage, Leonardo daVinci). Others were those who could not attend formal engineering programs (or sometimes any educational program) because of their gender, social status, cultural background, or economic group: e.g. Robert Fulton (steamboat), Kate Gleason (machine tools), Martha Coston (flares), Annie Easly (Centaur rocket calculations). 

I also found that "non-engineers" made engineering contributions early in a technology's development, possibly because no formal education was available and passion and opportunity was what was needed. For example, computer scientists came from a variety of backgrounds like math (e.g. Grace Hopper) or music (e.g. Janice Lourie). Others had started engineering school but found they could engineer faster in the field by running a startup (e.g. Steve Wozniak).

Engineers can do other things

Today, people need to earn an engineering degree in order to get an engineering job. The degree keeps the engineering career option open. But engineering training may help in any number of other jobs, hobbies, or fields.

While researching birthdays, I found a number of ~Secret Engineers. These are people who earned an engineering degree and may even have worked as an engineer, but who the general public knows for other accomplishments. I found that knowing they are engineers gave me an interesting take on their success. Consider Edwin Moses (track and field Olympian), James Dean (Pete the Cat creator), Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock (directors), Michael Gambon (aka the later Dumbledore), Sally Jewell (former REI CEO and current Secretary of the Interior), Ursula Burns (CEO of Xerox), Lisa P Jackson (EPA director), and E. R. Braithwaite ("Sir" in To Sir, With Love).

Interesting trends

I can't help but share some weird trends I saw. It would be great fodder for the 10,000 hours concept described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

  • February: Three key women engineering spirits were born this month. I heard of Margaret Knight and Mary Anderson in my 6th grade reader so I feel they reached some level of notoriety: Margaret Knight (flat bottomed paper bag), Mary Anderson (windshield wiper), Beulah Louise Henry ("Lady Edison") -- who coincidentally shared a birthday with the actual Thomas Edison.
  • April: To date, this month has the most number of engineers in the car racing game: Paddy Lowe (Mercedes Formula One), Mike Gascoyne (Caterham Group), Milka Duno (world-class Indy and stock car female racer)
  • December: Some key early computer engineering spirits were born this month: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Grace Hopper

Not all engineers listed

I tried to keep the engineers ones who were relevant to our daily lives. There have been a lot of engineers who contributed to society, but I wanted to avoid what Sandra Gilbert noticed in trying to "fill" the anthology. I didn't just add any engineer listed in Wikipedia or Famous Birthdays. I picked engineers that teachers and parents could use to make engineering seem interesting and relevant to children's lives. Also, I avoided some engineers who worked on well known projects but who had backgrounds that would be difficult to explain to children (e.g. Jack Ryan, engineer of Barbie). I know it's censoring but with the best intentions.

Want more birthdays?

Check out or subscribe to the Engineer's Playground calendar (below or on the Engineering Should Be Fun site which has tips and fun things for engineering and computer science students/young professonals). Or if you want a daily dose, I have the calendar populate my Linked In page posts since it has the nicest presentation for the automated posting.

I promised my engineering friend in project management that one day I will make a printed version for project managers because they seem to be the only ones who still use printed calendars. So, I'm working diligently to find worthy engineering birthdays to fill it.