August 2016 Convocations- Civil and Environmental Engineering Department

Speaker: Dr. Richard J. Balling


I am and ever will be a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.  Born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.  Those are the words of the late Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, and like him, I am and ever will be an engineer.  As you graduate today in the College of Engineering and Technology, let me be the first to welcome you to our profession. 

What do people think of engineers and technologists?  Some make think we are quirky and strange.  I have heard people tell jokes about us. 

I heard one about the wife who sent her software engineer husband to the store with these instructions:  Get a gallon of milk, and if they have eggs, get a dozen.  He bought 12 gallons of milk and when he got home his wife asked, “why did you buy 12 gallons of milk?”  He replied, “they had eggs.” 

If Hollywood reflects public opinion, I was disturbed in the movie Jurassic Park when the mathematician Ian Malcolm lamented, “God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers.”  I am annoyed when on the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, the physicist Sheldon Cooper continually insults the engineer Howard Wolowitz.

Like most people, Hollywood writers do not understand the fundamental difference between science and engineering.  Again, let me quote astronaut Neil Armstrong: “Science is about what is, engineering is about what can be.”  Let me say that again:  “Science is about what is, engineering is about what can be.”  The hallmark of engineering is DESIGN.  Some non-engineers think that the phrase “creative engineer” is an oxymoron.  But design is a creative process.  Engineers use science to design solutions to the problems faced by mankind.  Engineers are inherent problem solvers.  Anyone who is married to an engineer knows this. 

Engineers are eternal optimists in the sense that we are always optimizing variables to satisfy constraints and maximize objectives.  Indeed, we are driven to optimize, to design, to solve problems, to create, and to innovate.  In many regards, the 20th century was the century of engineering.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the quality of life was relatively poor.  Engineers designed solutions for man’s basic needs for shelter, water, energy, transportation, and information.  Most people have no idea how their smart phones work, how to use aerodynamics, controls, propulsion, and structures to build an aircraft, how to produce gasoline from oil, or where the water comes from when they turn on the tap.  For example, most of my neighbors in Utah do not realize that 60% of the water for the Salt Lake Valley up north comes from the Provo River here in Utah County.  Of course, taking that much water from the Provo River and sending it to Salt Lake would eventually dry up Utah Lake.  To solve this problem, engineers creatively designed a system for capturing water from the streams on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains that would normally flow into the Green and Colorado River system.  This water is transferred to Strawberry Reservoir by aqueduct and then tunneled through the mountain to the Spanish Fork River tributaries and into Utah Lake.  All this allows us to take more water out of the Provo River.

What about the 21st Century?  That’s where you come in.  You have the skills to solve the grand challenges before us.  The National Academy of Engineering identified 14 grand challenges for the 21st century.  One of the challenges is make solar energy affordable.  We must think beyond just putting up more solar panels everywhere.  About 48% of the solar energy that comes to the earth is absorbed at the surface of the earth.  We can think of the earth as a giant solar battery.  This is why the temperature just below the surface in caves remains constant throughout the year.  With ground source heat pumps we can tap into this constant temperature source to heat our buildings in winter and cool them in summer. This is significant when one realizes that the amount of energy we consume in our buildings is nearly twice as much as the amount we consume in all forms of transportation.  Two more of the grand challenges are to engineer better medicines and advance health informatics.  Indeed, medicine is relying more and more on engineering innovation including the development of artificial body parts and microsurgical instruments.  I have a friend who is the CFO of a successful company that 3D prints a series of orthodontic retainers for an individual patient designed using 3D computer imaging and sophisticated morphing algorithms, thus eliminating the need to wear braces.

Other grand challenges include enhance virtual reality, reverse engineer the human brain, secure cyberspace, and advance personalized learning.  These exciting challenges extend the notion of artificial intelligence and our current forms of interacting with information.  I encourage each of you to think outside the box in facing these challenges. 

The grand challenge that is most near and dear to my heart is to restore and improve urban infrastructure.  I find it unacceptable that one out of 79 Americans dies in a car crash, and that vehicle air pollution causes the premature death in one out of 49 Americans. 

During the 20th century we were lulled into accepting the danger, cost, noise, stress, and inactivity of car-oriented urban sprawl.  It is now possible for us to engineer car-free cities consisting of diverse buildings interconnected with multi-level skybridges and inter-building atria that are safe, comfortable, affordable, healthy, quiet, private, walkable, and talkable year-round.  By interconnecting these cities with high-speed trains, and using cars and trucks only for recreation and agriculture, car accidents would drop by 80%, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption would be cut in half, water consumption would be reduced by 70%, and land consumption would be reduced by 90%. 

This is in line with the grand challenges that focus on the environment, such as provide access to clean water, manage the nitrogen cycle, develop carbon sequestration methods, and provide energy from fusion.  Many people give lip service to the environment, but engineers are uniquely qualified to design solutions.  That’s why you should be willing to step up and take leadership roles in both business and politics.  We need more engineers in the leadership positions of this country.  Only 8 of the 535-member US Congress are engineers.  The Secretary of Transportation is a lawyer as is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the administrator of the EPA has a degree in social anthropology.

It is not that way in other countries.  The current leader of China, Xi Jinping, studied chemical engineering, the previous leader, Hu Jintao, is a water engineer, and the leader before that, Jiang Zemin, is an electrical engineer.  These three leaders have led China for the last quarter century during which China has experienced the most dramatic economic expansion in human history that has lifted nearly a billion people from poverty to the middle class.  One study revealed that 80% of mayors, governors, and party secretaries throughout China had four-year degrees or more in engineering and natural science.  Perhaps you are not happy with the political candidates we have before us this year. 

As engineers you must be willing to step up and lead.  The economic success in this country depends heavily on engineering innovation, and the protection of this country from man-made terror and natural disasters depends on engineering solutions.  Are you ready and willing?

My father who sits on the front row here today was the city engineer for Bountiful, Utah for three decades.  In May of 1983, Bountiful received national attention on the news.  Three small creeks, Stone Creek, Barton Creek, and Mill Creek, flow across the city from the mountains to the Great Salt Lake. 

Normally, these creeks are small enough that one can step across them.  But in May, 1983, several factors coincided to produce an extremely rare event.  The snowpack was heavy that year, particularly in the late spring.  In fact temperatures remained relatively cold well into May.  Then suddenly the mountains were assaulted with a heat wave.  These small streams became rivers of water, mud, and debris.  Roads, culverts, and even houses were swept away.  The city turned to my father to lead them through this crisis.  The citizens turned out to lay sandbags as streets were converted to aqueducts. 

My father organized the contractors he had worked with for years who volunteered their heavy equipment to help.  He posted watchmen at critical points upstream on the rivers and rapidly re-engineered temporary flow control structures.  After a week, the flows subsided and cleanup and reconstruction operations began.  My father was determined to design and build an infrastructure that would protect this from ever happening again.  He designed concrete trapezoidal channels and detention basins for these creeks that were readily approved by the city council and constructed.  Bountiful City is now ready.  In your careers, you may face situations where it is necessary for you to be a leader.

You are just beginning your career, and I will be retiring in less than a year.  I suppose that I should try to impart some secrets of success that I have learned.  Well, I don’t have any secrets, but I do know that Our Heavenly Father has carefully engineered this planet we live on to provide us with a personalized learning experience.  We are here to learn Godly love – to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as our self.  Such love can only be learned by experience, and experience requires Agency and Adversity.  You are young and unaware of the adversities that will come to you and your loved ones.  Indeed, you are so young.

But let me tell you from experience, that you have the agency to decide whether you will learn love, or learn bitterness from the adversities that Heavenly Father has specially designed to teach you and those around you.  I encourage you to always remember what we are here for – to learn love.  Please prioritize your precious time accordingly.  We learn love by caring for our families and helping them through adversity.  Families take time and sometimes we have to change our plans for our family’s sake.  Keep your priorities balanced.  We learn love as we help others solve problems.  Our profession is a people-serving problem-solving profession, and you will find satisfaction as you help people without fanfare. 

We learn love for our Heavenly Father as we overcome the natural man and submit to His will.  The scriptures tell us that even our Savior had to experience extreme affliction to learn how to succor us, and how to completely submit to the will of the Father.  Remember, the love of God is the most desirable above all things and the most joyous to the soul.  If you will remember that this is why you are here, you will be the best engineers and technologists you can be.  Thank You.