Critical time for engineers to dream big

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Engineers work hard to improve how people live. They design, maintain, repair, and build almost everything we need in our daily lives. This week we celebrate National Engineers Week, a time to highlight how engineers make a difference, increase awareness about the need for more engineers, and bring engineering to life for children, educators, and families.

This year’s theme is “Engineers Dream Big” and a fitting one at that. Engineers design our nation’s infrastructure, which is the most reliable in the world — delivering water, electricity and gas, transporting wastewater away from our homes and excess stormwater from roadways, and providing safe roads and bridges to get from one place to another. Infrastructure provides the foundation of our economic viability, is essential for living our day-to-day lives and is important for the safety and well-being our residents.

Locally, structural engineers helped design the CRST Center, a vibrant new addition to downtown Cedar Rapids that also added a major flood wall to help prevent any future flooding. City utility engineers work tirelessly to operate, maintain, and improve the drinking water system providing millions of gallons of safe, clean water every day. Engineers designed and developed the Resource Recovery Center, which manages trash and discarded materials in a cost-effective and environmentally sound way. The Paving For Progress program continues to improve the street system.

Even with these great projects, our aging infrastructure still is at a critical point. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluates the condition and performance of our nation’s infrastructure, assigning letter grades based on the physical condition and the dollars needed to invest in improvements. The 2015 Report Card for Iowa’s Infrastructure assigned a C- grade for the state. Solid waste received the highest grade (B+) and bridges received the lowest grade (D+). According to the report card, Iowa has $5.9 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years; $935 million a year in costs to motorists driving on roads in need of repair, which is $422 per year per motorist; $4.7 billion in estimated school infrastructure funding needs; and $3.4 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. Local, state, and federal governments will need to look closely at this need to maintain our existing infrastructure. In addition to prioritizing infrastructure, the state and country also will need more engineers who will be called upon to upgrade and replace the aging infrastructure.

The impact engineers have on infrastructure projects is vital — as seen in past and current projects. But what does our future hold? There is a shortage of engineers in the United States in all areas. There are many reasons for this, but at the heart we need to do a better job encouraging our young people who are naturally curious toward engineering. It makes sense to direct them toward engineering since curiosity and solving problems are at the heart of an engineer. We need to continue to encourage our young people to dream big and look at life as a constant thing to be explored and in which to be engaged, and find ways to leave the world better than when we found it.

ASCE has supported the production of a new IMAX movie highlighting the amazing feats of engineers around the world. The movie, called “DREAM BIG — Engineering Our World” opens this month in limited theatres throughout the country, including the Putnam Museum and Science Center in Davenport on February 24th. The current schedule can be viewed at asce.org/dream-big.

I encourage teachers to continue to find ways to explore science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum which inspire children to be the next generation of dreamers and doers. We need to continue to develop problem-solvers in our country as our population and infrastructure demands continue to grow. If we identify our curious children and push them to explore that curiosity through engineering, we will ensure our future needs here in the State of Iowa and beyond.

• Nathan Kass, a licenced professional engineer and professional land surveyor, is branch manager of Fehr Graham in Cedar Rapids

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