I recently had the opportunity to help out at a STEM fair for 8th graders in our area. We brought in a signal head, traffic controller, and other things that we thought would pique interest. By far the most asked question of the day was “Is that really how big the lights are?” The next was “How does the light know that there’s a vehicle there?” As transportation professionals, it might be old hat to us that LED bulbs need to be 12” or that it’s just an inductive loop sensor. But once a kid sees that signal head up close, it can be a pretty eye-opening moment for them (and even the grownups too!). Or the fact that a car breaks through an electric-force field just like the wire-wrapped nail experiment we did in class and that tells a computer to turn on a switch to turn the light green? I work with these everyday and it still blows my mind that they operate like that. And it must have for them too, since they wanted to dig deeper into how some of these things work.
The more the day went on, the more it made me realize why I like what I do. Transportation is something everybody deals with in some form every day, to the point that sometimes people forget certain systems are even there. I get to work behind the scenes with those systems to make sure that they work right. It’s like there’s a shadowy underground organization keeping the whole thing together, except instead of an evil corporation, it’s a nice engineer with a name trying to get you to work on time. And it seems like people want to know more about stuff like that. There’s an innate curiosity into the details of how the world works. It feels like you’re getting let in on a secret hiding in plain sight. It’s the same reason people love catching easter eggs in movies. Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
So, kudos to the people that help us get around effectively. We’re the Sound Mixing Nominees of the Oscars, you probably don’t know much about them or even notice them, but you definitely would if they weren’t there. It might not be the most glamorous, but it needs to get done, and most of us really love doing it. We rely on those who help keep moving the industry onward in innovative ways with the resources available. The future looks bright, with data, micro-mobilty, equity, and more shaping the way we think about the world of transportation. There’s more to come, and I’m excited for the future. The world, and a bunch of 8th graders from Minneapolis, thank you.
Happy Engineers Week!