Engineers solve all sorts of problems, and one of their most important tools is their own creativity.
- A damaged heart stretches its walls dangerously thin when the muscle expands, in an effort to increase pumping capacity. Engineers envision a gel-like “sleeve” that can surround it to prevent this expansion. After the heart is healed, the sleeve safely dissolves into the body.
- Cholera is a major health problem in African villages. Engineers devise a water filtration system that not only stops the spread of the disease but is cheap and easy to use, and can be implemented in a culturally sensitive manner. (Learn more about providing access to clean water, one of NAE's 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering.)
- A large-capacity “green” office building is needed in a coastal town. Engineers design a 30-story building with one highly unusual feature: there are no internal support columns, affording the structure maximal office space. The structure is built with eco-friendly materials but can withstand hurricane-force winds. Even better, it stands out in the town's skyline and becomes a local landmark.
Engineering has been called “design under constraint.” Engineers are required to create elegant solutions while working within various limitations, such as the laws of Nature, the desires of consumers, or local statutes. Every potential answer an engineer devises for a problem must be weighed against the realities of the physical world and other concerns such as public safety, a client’s requirements, regulations, available materials, and a finite budget. It takes creativity to get successfully from problem to solution, all while navigating a tangle of constraints.
There is never just one way to solve an engineering design challenge; there is no single, “right” answer to a problem. Engineers must accept a degree of uncertainty regarding a solution's endpoint, and creativity helps here, too. Engineering requires a sense of vision that goes beyond constraints to “see” a solution that others might miss or dismiss as farfetched.
Engineers today work in diverse and diffuse teams, often across time zones and national borders. At the same time, the problems engineers are being called upon to solve have become larger and more complex: reconstructing habitats in the Florida Everglades; protecting the integrity and security of the nation’s electrical grid; moving the United States toward greater energy independence. The modern engineer must be able to synthesize a broad range of disciplinary knowledge while keeping the systemic nature of the problem within her view. As we take on the challenges facing us, it will be engineers and their creativity that design the world we want and turn ideas into reality.