Putting A Dent In The Universe

What connection do tombstones have with engineering education?

If you are mechanical engineering professor Andy Mech, you will draw a grave marker on the whiteboard in your classroom to make a very important point: When your life comes to a close, a gravestone may be all that's left of you, unless you think of your role in the world differently.

Because of their unique set of skills, engineers have enormous potential to change lives--whether by designing bridges to withstand earthquakes, developing a device to extract brain tumors, or writing software that can foil a cyber attack. Helping students appreciate the importance of leaving a legacy, whether large or small, is an important lesson in an engineering education.

As Steve Jobs once said: "We're here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?"

Dr. Mech is helping to ensure that institutions like Rose-Hulman, which I lead, produce professionals with a greater sense of purpose - people who want to put dents in our universe. Alumni such as Judge Robert L. Wilkins of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, GE Healthcare executive Agnes Berzsenyi, retired Biomet Chairman Niles Noblitt, Caterpillar Group President Jim Umpleby, and Penske Racing President Tim Cindric. And the many others just like them.

As these leaders understand, if we as an institution can get our students to appreciate that life is so much more than a job, we have made our own dent.

Engineering schools can do this, in part, by providing both the "hard" and "soft" skills that will not only improve our students' likelihood of success, but also help them appreciate their responsibility in a vast universe. History, the arts and social sciences, communication, and synthesis of ideas are a vital part of the engineering, math, and science curriculum at Rose-Hulman, and it prepares students to step back from a problem to understand its broader context so they can devise a solution of lasting value.

Some have used their biomedical engineering skills to create a device to make bowling more enjoyable for people with disabilities. Incredibowl was among 10 hands-on projects completed during the 2015-16 academic year by teams of senior biomedical engineering students to demonstrate the skills they learned throughout their collegiate careers. Several of the projects were completed for external clients; Incredibowl was commissioned by a local non-profit serving adults and children with disabilities.

Making a difference isn't always about fame and recognition. In fact, my colleague Dr. Mech would argue the opposite. You do these things because people need something, and your engineering degree provides you with an ability to help them. A legacy is not like a trophy, he says. "It doesn't really matter if people know our name or not, as long as we leave something positive behind."

That's a guiding principle at Rose-Hulman. If we can make even the smallest dent for good, the impact will be our legacy.