The Importance of Knowing Your Impact

By Jack C.

I’m sitting in class during a lecture. We are talking about the end of the world. “Scientists say that we can only raise the earth’s temperature by 3 degrees before catastrophic change.” Says the lecturer, Professor Barton Foreman. “Burning all the fossil fuels will get us to 13 degrees.” The message is clear – our actions have consequences, and continuing to ignore those consequences can be catastrophic. This is Engineering for Social Change class, and its just an ordinary Tuesday lecture where we talk about how engineers can create social change in their communities. I learned from this class that our actions have consequences and we need to be mindful on what those effects are.

Engineering is all about solving problems, but most engineers don’t think about what problem that they’re trying to solve. Classes such as heat transfer, vibrations and electronics teach us how to solve math problems. In the real world, we’re going to need to solve real problems in the world. This class taught me a great deal about the negative impacts of of ignoring our impact on society.

Engineers will have an impact whether they are aware of it or not. For example, we have progressed with the technology of electronics to the point that we are approaching the very real problem of artificial intelligence getting out of hand. If we only concern ourselves with the problem of making artificial intelligence happen and not with the possible implication that it could have on our society, the results could be disastrous. Both Admiral Millard Firebrand and Professor Jungho Kim lectured on the dangers of artificial intelligence. Telsa Motors founder Elon Musk called Artificial Intelligence “our biggest existential threat”.

I soon realized after a few weeks of the class that there are many other problems that we could be unconsciously “engineering”. Professor Michael Pecht lectured on how technology can be used to increase the divide between human beings, how technology can be used to manipulate the truth. Professor Kim lectured on the wealth gap and how technology will only increase the gap unless we do something to change things.

Perhaps even more importantly, the class showed me problems that engineers can solve. Andrew Miller lectured on how digital currency such as Bitcoin can solve the problem of a central agency for currency for a more fair and transparent form of currency. Professor Mark Fuge talked about how technology can be used to crowd source ideas.

Even more empowering was the group virtual non-profit challenge and the $10,000 grant. Both processed were less focused with the math and engineering aspect of the problem but more with how to use engineering to solve real problems in the world. For the virtual non-profit I learned how to use engineered food solutions such as aquaponics and hydroponics systems to tackle food accessibility. Our $10,000 grant selection process opened my eyes to the ways in which engineering could be used to solve issues with clean water, storm water treatment and littering.

Perhaps the way I see the value of this class as a kind of general call to action and reexamination of our profession. Not everyone goes into mechanical engineering to change the world, but mechanical engineers change the world whether we like it or not. Just like the effects of climate change, our decision s as engineers can make either a positive or a negative effect on our world. This class taught me that.

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