Symposium highlights global impact of engineering

Held in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the College of Engineering, the Global Challenges Addressed by Engineering and Technology conference featured a keynote address from the president of the National Academy of Engineering and highlighted the research of top scientists.

A standard issue for NASA engineers on the Apollo missions, the slide rule had no fancy knobs, buttons, or switches. But pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson used this seemingly simple tool – it looked like a wooden ruler – with immeasurable power, using it to calculate the lunar module’s trajectory to the moon.

Today, the slide rule—a mechanical analog computer used to quickly multiply, divide, and calculate logarithms and other functions—is a technical relic.

John L. Anderson, the current president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), still displays one in his office as a reminder, you might say, of a bygone era when pocket calculators, digital computers and smartphones did not exist.

Although those days are long gone, engineering has changed for the better. And on Friday, as part of the University of Miami College of Engineering’s symposium on global challenges facing engineering and technology, Anderson and a group of other elite scholars traced the remarkable history of their discipline, from the days of slide rules to the current era of high technology in which scientists do everything from experimenting with advanced materials to cure disease to creating devices that can detect virus-carrying aerosols .

“This gathering of academics and engineering partners, and the bold and innovative learnings that result from today’s conversations, will have relevance and potential impact in communities around the world,” said President Julio Frank.

Held in recognition of the college’s 75th anniversarye anniversary, the one-day conference also marked Miami Engineering Day, proclaimed by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

During Anderson’s keynote address, he said the landmark Grinter Report of 1955, which urged universities and colleges to incorporate more science into engineering, contributed to a sea change in the way engineers are formed. “Then we saw big changes between 1970 and today. And two major shifts – computer science and biomedical engineering – changed the whole landscape [of engineering],” he stated.

Engineers today, Anderson told the students, have a chance to accomplish even deeper changes in the field. He encouraged them to create. “You are doing something new. You are creating a process, a product, a system, something that did not exist before. It’s not just about solving problems,” he said. “An important thing to remember is that [the word] engineer is actually a verb. It is an action verb. It’s goal-oriented.

Pratim Biswas, Dean of the University of Miami College of Engineering.

Academic and infrastructural changes currently underway at the College of Engineering will help students achieve these goals, said Dean and renowned aerosol scientist Pratim Biswas. “We have embarked on several strategic initiatives to address global challenges in a collaborative manner,” the NAE inductee said. “We not only work in collaboration with our engineering faculty in all departments, but also with our colleagues from various schools and colleges and with our outreach partner.”

The college celebrates its 75e year with monthly events such as a recent Clean Energy Symposium and Autonomous Mobility Workshop; and soon, joint projects in health engineering and aerosol science and technology will be announced, according to Biswas.

Frenk and Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, echoed Biswas’ remarks. Specifically, Frenk singled out the new Center for Aerosol Science and Technology in which faculty members from the college and the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science conduct research into understanding the formation, growth and transport of fine particles.

Duerk noted the new Bachelor of Science in Innovation, Technology, and Design created by the College of Engineering in partnership with Miami Herbert Business School; the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Sciences; and the School of Law.

“About 40 percent of this program is delivered through industry-organized design experiences and internships,” said Duerk, former dean of the School of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. “The challenge we gave to the faculty of these programs was to think about what the future of a university degree will look like and to come up with something new.

Provost Jeffrey Duerk speaks at the symposium.
Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president of academic affairs and provost, spoke at the symposium on Global Challenges Addressed by Engineering and Technology.

Duerk noted the college’s new one-year accelerated bachelor of science degree in software engineering, created in part to address the rapid migration of the tech industry to South Florida. He also congratulated the dedicated alumni of the college. One of them, longtime benefactor Edward Dauer, who holds two college degrees as well as an MD from the Miller School of Medicine, recently published a book commemorating the 75e anniversary.

In his keynote, Anderson warned students about the unintended consequences of some discoveries, citing examples of innovations initially seen as beneficial but later found to be harmful to the environment.

The late mechanical engineer and chemist Thomas Midgley Jr., for example, played an important role in the development of leaded gasoline, which was completely phased out for road vehicles when lead-related health issues became known.

In 1930, together with a team of other scientists, Midgley also invented some of the first chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants. “Before Freon, people used things like ammonia as a refrigerant. It was dangerous in the house because it leaked,” Anderson said. “Chemically, [Midgley] inhaled freon and exhaled it, then used it to put out a fire. So what’s better than that? Well, it eats a hole in the ozone layer. Now, that would have been hard for him to see back then. Sadly, he died before people found out about these negatives, so he died thinking he had done two big things.

So engineers, Anderson said, also need to be aware of social awareness.

In other highlights of the symposium:

  • Atmospheric chemist Kimberly Prather, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, whose work focuses on the influence of human emissions on the atmosphere, climate and human health, gave a conference on “advances in our understanding of bio-aerosol sources and transmission pathways.

    Prather helped lead efforts to recognize COVID-19 as an airborne virus and lobbied to find simple ways to mitigate its spread. “We cook our food in a way that we don’t eat pathogens, but we’re kind of okay with breathing pathogen-laden air. It just doesn’t make sense,” she said during her presentation. “I hope one day we’ll be able to say, ‘Wow, that was crazy.’ The simplest device is something we introduced as a short-term patch, which is still around, now California just approved them, these little filters called Corsi-Rosenthal boxes that you can build yourself for 70 $.

  • Via a Zoom link from India, Moza Bint Nasser University Computer Science and Robotics Professor Raj Reddy at Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science spoke about “Digital Babel Fish: A Universal Translator of Spoken Languages”.
  • Holden Thorp, editor of the Science family of journals, presented “Defending Science and Engineering: How Science Lost America and How to Get It Back.”
  • Deborah Nightingale, University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida, emphasized “A holistic approach to large-scale systems architecture and transformation.”
  • Two researchers from the University of Miami gave brief presentations on their work. Sakhrat Khizroev, professor of electrical and computer engineering with a secondary position in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Miller School, spoke about his work on smart materials that can unlock the mysteries of the brain. And Alice Tomei, associate professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Islet Immunoengineering Laboratory at the Diabetes Research Institute, discussed immunoengineering platforms for type 1 diabetes.

Robert M. Larson