Mechanical Engineering Wonderland

By Turner, William | Children's Technology and Engineering, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Mechanical Engineering Wonderland


Turner, William, Children's Technology and Engineering


Did you hear what they're doing now? How did they do that? Where did they come up with that idea? They should really do something about that problem!

Who are they? "They" are the people who make our lives better, healthier, safer, and last longer. "They" are ENGINEERS. Engineers design the objects in the human-made world because we cannot do it for ourselves; although we know what it is that we want them to do. Everything around us has been engineered. And, because of our insatiable need for things, there will always be a place for engineered products designed by engineers. "The engineers modify the world to satisfy people's needs and wants" (Engineering in K-12 Education, 2009).

When I think of the word engineer, I mostly imagine the locomotive engineer yelling, "All aboard, next stop San Francisco, California." The locomotive engineer enables passengers to travel at speeds many times faster than their legs could carry them.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The locomotive engineer is only one type of engineer, however. There are as many types of engineers as there are aspects of the natural world to be observed. This engineer just happens to design and maintain a system of machines. Normally, engineers who design machines are collectively called mechanical engineers. Their roots run deep through history; for example, the Greek term "deus ex machina" (god out of the machine) refers to, "the unlikely or unnatural intervention, ... implies a mechanical manipulation to solve a seemingly inextricable problem, that suddenly and abruptly solves the dilemma," (en.wikipedia.org/wikilDeus_ ex_machina, 2010). The use of "god out of the machine" as a plot device in Greek theater was characterized by the use of a crane or a riser that came up from the stage.

In modern times, though, we just call them engineered machines. Machines like the car, the elevator, and the robot are just a few of the designs created and advanced by mechanical engineers throughout history. Mechanical engineering is the branch of engineering concerned with energy conservation, mechanics and mechanisms, and devices for diverse applications.

The majority of today's mechanical engineering positions fall into three main categories: the energy engineer, the manufacturing engineer, and the design engineer.

energy engineers

Energy engineers look high and low to devise ways of powering the human-made world. The engineering world has to overcome obstacles of size, materials, and locations to create power options for our lives. Engineers follow the rabbit down the hole to places that may be the tiny size of a femtometer or the absurdly large size of a gigameter; to them the physical size does not matter. They are concerned with the amount of energy available to them at any and all levels. They work to produce the energy that holds this mechanical marvel, the human-made world, together. The human-made world--with all its gears, levers, cars, planes, and spaceships--requires energy to satisfy its needs. Since the energy always lies in the special places that are too big or too small, too near or too far, the energy engineers design miraculous ways of getting to it, so they can get it to us, and we can all live in a wonderland that the Mad Hatter would be proud of.

In order to generate the power we use, engineers look in three specific places that are studied by three specific types of mechanical engineers: the nuclear power engineer, the petroleum engineer, and the renewable-energy engineer.

Nuclear Power--Mechanical engineers in the nuclear power industry design and dimension the systems that harness and contain uranium and plutonium. Nuclear fuel remains radioactive for a very long time, and this is the characteristic that makes uranium such a sought-after power source. However, it takes teams of engineers to guide nuclear fuel through its life cycle in a safe and responsible way.

Uranium fuel cannot be handled like coal or gasoline. …

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