An aerospace engineer from the USA is hoping to inspire the next generation with a series of free stories about the everyday challenges faced by those in the profession.
Drawing on 26 years of experience working at US aerospace giant Boeing, Utah engineer Ken Hardman writes what he calls “realistic engineering adventure stories” covering topics as broad as dealing with a solar flare knocking a space probe off course to more everyday problems like developing critical automation for the manufacture of smartphones.
The 55-year-old already serves as an adjunct faculty member at Brigham Young University in Utah, where he helps mentor groups of young engineers, but he hopes his stories will give a broader range of students from their teens right up to university age a flavour of what it’s like to be an engineer and help combat some of the stereotypes about the profession.
“One of the things I try to do is add the adventure of engineering. Engineers don’t just sit around writing software and solving mathematical equations. They go on business trips, they have deadlines, they conceive new ideas, they solve problems,” he said.
“These stories serve to help the reader understand the environment; the culture; what it’s like to work in a team; what it’s like to solve problems; have new ideas; discuss them.”
Hardman was destined to be an engineer from an early age. His father was a cabinet maker so he grew up around blue prints and machinery, but as he says, “I found myself more interested in the machinery than the product.”
But his long career as an engineer taught him that it was not just technical skills that were needed to go far in the profession – he initially started producing his stories four years ago to improve his own writing skills – and that the ‘soft skills’ needed to do well in a business environment receive too little focus on many university courses.
In his role at Brigham Young University Hardman is assigned a group of about six engineering students every semester who he guides through an industrial design program that helps the students test these soft skills and he tries to include the lessons contained in these kinds of interactions in his stories.
“I’m trying to include the flavour of conversations, my stories are heavy on dialogue,” he said. “I’m trying to get the reader inside the mind of engineers; what they are thinking; how they respond; what’s going on around them. The soft skills, the speaking skills, the non-academic skills are exactly what I’m trying to teach here.”
But while showing students the more socially interactive side of the profession is important, it’s a careful balancing act, according to Hardman, as he does not want to diminish the importance of the more technical sides of the job – in particular the need for a solid understanding of maths.
“You’ve got to make sure they understand the story but come away feeling, ‘I think I could do that. Maybe math is important, I’m going to try harder at it in school’,” he said.
“What I want to do is make sure I have enough of it at least mentioned in the stories so a person knows how it is applied, how useful and how powerful it is, and how we need math to model our solutions.”
When writing his stories Hardman follows the Next Generation Science Standards for teaching set out by the US National Research Council and each story includes a mentor discussion and exercises section at the end with helpful tips.
His stories are available for free download in pdf and e-book format from his Engineering Stories website, and hard copies are available from self-publishing platform Create Space.
Extract from The Orbital Mechanic by Ken Hardman:
“Dr. Dixon!” A man in his early twenties with a red face, out of breath, stood in the doorway of Tom’s office.
“Hi Ben, how is your internship going?”
“I’ll tell you about that later. We have a serious problem and I came to get you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s been a solar flare, larger than expected. As programmed, Vector1 computer systems automatically shut down for radiation protection.”
Tom stood and moved quickly toward the window and parted the blinds.
Ben continued. “They’re not sure if the solar panels retracted in time, the radio signal has gone quiet. Anyway, the solar wind gave us a nudge, and they say she’s approaching Earth high and wide.”
“No!” Tom turned from the window, distinct wrinkles across his forehead. “This can’t be. Everything was going well. We’ve worked so hard for this.”
Ben opened the door wide. “The director wants the best orbital mechanic, in the control room, right now” Ben pointed at Tom and raised both eyebrows. “That means you.”
Tom grabbed his laptop and headed for the door. “Kayla, come with me. It looks like ‘Bring Your Child to Work Day’ is not going to be routine.” Tom pointed at the spacecraft Kayla was flying around the office. “Bring that model.”
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