by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
Intent on programming a machine to cut a section of sheet metal, six engineering students hunch around a worktable on an upper floor of a factory that designs and builds tooling and automation for the aerospace industry.
The space is bright and warm. A tinkerer’s dream of wires, tubes, tools, fittings, shelves, cords, and hardware surrounds them. The students scrutinize a screen, scribble in their notebooks, and scratch their heads. Determined to arrange a resistor ladder electrical circuit to tell the machine to move a single part before lunch, Josh Sackos frowns at a laptop. “You could just try to run it and see what happens,” offers Mohammad Faraj.
Rick Calawa, the engineer leading the spring break short course at Everett-based Electroimpact, agrees. “It’s not a nuclear launch,” he says. “Give it a try.” Sackos taps at the keyboard. His classmates lean in. He gives the run command and ... nothing. Then Faraj steps up to the main computer and after some discussion, types in a change. All of a sudden the giant metal contraption rattles noisily as a pin rapidly moves forward and back. But it’s not quite what they wanted.
Calawa, the expert, tries to offer a solution.
“Wait,” says one of them. “Don’t give us the whole thing.” A few more minutes of changing the commands, they finally sort it out and with a sigh of relief, Calawa takes off for lunch. Patrick Noll, Ben Hazari, and Kevin Kline stay at the table pulling sandwiches and energy bars from paper bags and talking about how they got into engineering at WSU. “In high school someone said, ‘Hey, you should go into engineering,’” says Noll, “and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
These are jobs for people who like math and science and who might prefer blue jeans to blazers. And, frankly, these guys like solving puzzles. “This stuff we’re doing here is really appealing,” says Hazari, gesturing around the factory.
“We’re learning new ways to automate things,” adds Kline. “We could be engineering some part over and over. But this level of stuff is cool. It’s more inventive.”
“Inventive.” “Cool.” “Appealing.” The words are music to Dean Candis Claiborn’s ears. At a time when our state is a net importer of engineers and so many of our industries are counting on a new generation of workers, that kind of language could tempt a new generation of students into engineering at Washington State University.
By the numbers
Washington is home to about 650 aerospace-related companies, and almost all of them regularly need new engineers. When you step back and look at the other fields of engineering, says Bob Olsen, WSU associate dean for undergraduate programs, the demand simply grows. He rattles off a few of these areas: computers and technology, public works projects that have popped up from federal economic stimulus money, a retiring baby boomer generation of power and utility engineers, and a universe of new inventions and applications.
Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, is one of the largest employers of engineers per capita, but at the same time ranks 38th in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees granted in science and engineering. Higher education has fallen short, says Olsen. The gap between supply and demand threatens our state’s economy and deprives Washington’s students the chance to be part of the advances that will grow our state.
“The employers out there are all over the map,” says Olsen. “We have the big ones like Boeing, Paccar, power companies, aerospace suppliers, and civil engineering firms.” And many newer areas like software medical technology.
To help fill the need, WSU is recruiting new engineering majors and working to retain them once they’ve declared, says Olsen. Over the years the school has had a problem with losing declared majors to other programs. In 1999, just 33 percent of the students who started out as engineering majors finished as such. Now, by taking steps like enhancing advising, developing mentoring programs, and offering freshmen and sophomores opportunities to work on real design projects, that number is around 50 percent, says Olsen.
“And freshman interest in engineering as a major has gone up 45 percent,” he says, adding that the school is recruiting more transfer students from the community colleges. The school is also working to lift enrollment limits, increasing the number of seats in the upper division programs available to qualified students. And the state has directed WSU and the University of Washington to each redirect $3.8 million of their budgets into their engineering programs with the goal of producing a total of 380 more engineering degrees a year. For WSU, this means not only bolstering the engineering training in Pullman, but enhancing the joint mechanical engineering program based at Olympic College in Bremerton and offering an engineering degree in Everett at the University Center of North Puget Sound.
But WSU’s instruction is just part of the effort. “We don’t train people for a particular industry,” says Olsen. “Our goal is a broadly educated engineer who can then work into these areas.” With the help of companies around the state, through mentorships and programs like the short course at Electroimpact, says Olsen, students are getting that extra training and guidance to close the gap between school and the workplace.
William Clos ’84, a Boeing engineer, is well aware of that gap. He has responsibilities for design, testing, and FAA certification of cargo handling systems and other mechanical equipment. Twenty-eight years ago when he started at Boeing, aerospace provided half of the private sector technology jobs in the state. Today, though the industry provides closer to a fourth, Clos has never seen a time when Boeing hasn’t needed new engineers and he has a role in preparing them. He leads a program to mentor 20 to 25 WSU students each year, pairing them with senior engineers and managers who are WSU engineering alumni in the same areas of study. Through one-on-one relationships, the professionals help the students figure out how to make the best move into the industry.
But first, these women and men have to choose to study engineering. For many, it seems the engineer lurks in some gray zone between science and technology. It’s just not an obvious career choice. The leaders and faculty at WSU are puzzling through this problem—how to show engineering as a more dynamic, exciting, interesting, and—dare we say—glamorous vocation.
The public image of an engineer doesn’t offer much, says Dean Claiborn. While you have all kinds of examples of lawyers, doctors, mechanics, even forensic scientists on television, you don’t really see engineers, she says, “unless you count MacGyver.” And most of today’s students have never even heard of the TV character who engineered his way out of all kinds of jams with everyday items like duct tape and shoelaces.
High schoolers are sometimes told, “You’re good in math, go into engineering,” she says. “But that is not a very compelling conversation.” And women who have a talent for math and science are often advised to go into heath care. A whole gender is missing out on this career because of a stereotype, says Claiborn, who has her doctorate in chemical engineering.
So she’s wanting to change the conversation. There are plenty of reasons to be an engineer, she says. To help humanity, for example. “A lot of students are attracted to the medical fields,” she says. “But if you want to save lives, be an engineer.” There are all kinds of engineering solutions to human health issues like access to fresh water, clean air, and safe food. And there are life-saving medical inventions like defibrillators and pacemakers, and even substitutes for bone and tissue.
If you want to save the environment, be an engineer, says Claiborn. It’s the engineers who are figuring out how to make use of alternative energy sources and how to be more efficient with the technology already in place.
Even if you want to make money, be an engineer, she says. They are among the top earners of new graduates. Last year a Georgetown University survey of the economic value of college majors showed that the highest median earnings of any major are in engineering ($75,000).
“It’s a question of getting the message out to students,” says Claiborn.
Angel Hall ’09 discovered engineering offered her both creative satisfaction as well as an opportunity to do good.
Working for Western Integrated Technologies she gets to design machines with hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, and mechanical applications. She uses a range of tools to build the contraptions her clients need. For an exercise equipment company, she is building a hydraulic unit to test a treadmill. “We have to simulate a runner,” she explains, “so the company can test the treadmill under heavy use over a period of time. I can’t wait to see it up and running.” She cracks a smile, suddenly aware of her pun. This job is perfect for her, she says, because she can build an idea and then work with other engineers to make it work. “You need engineers who can sit there and design all day,” she says. “But you need other ones who have a big picture and can kind of farm out the different steps that need to be done.”
In her spare time, Hall is president of Developing World Technologies, a nonprofit group that funds the creation of new technologies to help unindustrialized communities. The humanitarian effort started when she was at WSU. “I saw this as a senior project on a human power irrigation pump and was hooked,” she says. “I wanted to go to Malawi. I wanted to make a project like that.”
Her team made a self-priming pumping system and took it to Africa to see it work. They toured the countryside, visited an orphanage, and saw small farms planted with lettuce, beans, and tomatoes. And they tried out their pump.
“We found out it didn’t work,” says Hall. The team had designed the pump to fit the rear sprocket of a standard U.S. bicycle. But the bicycles in Malawi come from all over the world and have many different dimensions. Also, Hall and her partners didn’t realize that almost every bike had a rack over the back tire for transporting things like food and firewood. It got in the way of carrying and using the pump. They quickly refined their prototype, adapted it to fit around the rack, and are now working with a manufacturer to produce the pumps at a price the farmers can afford. The idea is to help farmers irrigate to raise enough food to supply their families and then have some extra to sell at the market. Now the group is funding other similar engineering projects and ideas.
Our state is the leading hydroelectric producer in the country, with the Grand Coulee dam being the highest capacity plant. Not only does the industry need engineers to maintain and operate the dams, it needs them to update and upgrade them to make them more efficient. Now is an interesting time, say energy industry leaders. A whole generation of power engineers is retiring and a new workforce is needed to take over.
Still, opportunities to increase hydroenergy outputs are limited by geography. Our state, more than most, has turned to other forms of renewable energy.
Curtis Robillard ’89 wasn’t planning on a clean energy career. He chose engineering as a means to more certain employment after college. “I grew up in Yakima Valley. I watched kids come back with different degrees, and there were no jobs for them.” Robillard majored in chemical engineering and found he could apply his training to a variety of needs at the job he took in Moses Lake. At the time, Renewable Energy Corporation was converting an old Union Carbide plant into a facility to make solar-grade silicon, a highly purified version of the metalloid. The silicon is sold to other businesses that turn it into crystal wafers for use in solar cells converting light into electricity.
In the decades Robillard has worked there, the company has continued to expand and bring in new technologies to more efficiently make a purer silicon. Robillard has put his engineering training to use in a multitude of ways, from updating the original plant to helping build new reactors. During that time, he has also seen an influx of more WSU-trained engineers.
Sometimes becoming an engineer is a means to another role. Attorney Lewis Lee in Spokane, for example, graduated in electrical engineering but then turned his energies to intellectual property law. His firm, Lee&Hayes, has clients working in electronics, e-commerce, life sciences, and nanotechnology.
Then there’s Donald Bradley, whose chemical engineering degree got him in the door at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and led to his becoming the director of the lab’s Coastal Security Institute in Sequim. He is now a senior technical advisor at the station where part of the work involves detecting pathogens and chemical agents in the ocean and along beaches and estuaries.
“They become business people, manage companies, and become CEOs, vice presidents, or presidents,” says Claiborn. They are also at the forefront of new business. A recent Forbes study shows that more engineers are running start-ups than business majors.
A neighborhood of new ideas
That brings us to Cameron Wheeler ’09. He is just 24 and spends his days in one of the hottest innovation and technology spots in the country—South Lake Union in Seattle. Wheeler’s current venture is ZappBug, a device that uses heat to kill bed bugs.
After hearing the horror stories of people who unwittingly brought bed bugs home in their luggage, he crafted plans for a small heater and a large, collapsible container, then enlisted the help of a tailor to mock up a prototype. Using his engineering training, he calculated the largest possible box he could fill with luggage and other infested items and still reach the necessary heat to kill the bugs. Then he factored in how much insulation he needed to help heat retention. He also designed the “box” with seams and zippers that the blood-feeding bugs couldn’t penetrate.
Wheeler wants this venture to stay small and lean—with low overhead, just two other business partners, and a flexible setup for ordering, assembling, and delivering the ZappBug.
“We live in such a unique time,” he says. “All you need is an idea and the willpower to make it happen.” Because of online marketing and sales, it’s much easier to advertise, sell, and deliver a product. Because of hand-held devices and Google Translate, it’s much easier to connect with suppliers—even in China.
And, says Wheeler, bed bugs are the perfect online focus. “It’s one of those taboo subjects,” he says. People who think they have bed bugs don’t want to tell anyone in person. They’ll first go to their computers for information and solutions. Amazon.com will offer his ZappBug for sale. “It’s like being on the shelf of the biggest store in the world,” he says.
It also helps to be around other start-ups. He rents desk space with the Founder’s Co-op, a community of early-stage entrepreneurs.
“The only people who are here are here because they want to be,” says Wheeler, gesturing to the room. Several dozen men and women sit at desks that nearly fill the entire second floor of the building.
That guy over there, says Wheeler pointing, he’s an angel investor who helps small start-ups. Then he points to a team doing search engine optimization to connect people with local solar contractors, and a man who runs a website where people post about their mediocre day.
He rents a desk and an address here, he says, but he’s getting more. They’re all willing to share their experience and advice, he says. “Usually, if you want to get something done, somebody here has done it already.”
The neighborhood is full of these people. And when we step outside to say goodbye, we find bustling sidewalks at lunchtime. Every other person is wearing a blue ID tag from Amazon.com. The rest are computer engineers or work in start-ups like Wheeler’s, or medicine, or the biotech businesses that have poured into the neighborhood over the past decade.
There are other spots like this around the state, including the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute and the Bothell Technology Corridor. These are incubators for the businesses that will drive our state’s economy in the future, says Olsen.
Wireless—biotechnology—medical devices—alternative energy sources—none of these fields existed several decades ago. There are new worlds of ideas yet to come, says Olsen. “We are training students now who may be doing jobs we haven’t even thought of yet.”
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