Engineers get a bad rap on central campus. Some of us liberal arts majors claim they’re overly arrogant, while others might mention a lack of sociability or even a disregard for contemporary style. I’m just as guilty of saying this as everyone else. Some of the accusations may be deserved — an “L, S and Play” degree really isn’t that easy compared to your engineering degree despite what you may think — but I think engineers are incredibly important and catch more flak than they deserve. I’m nearly convinced that if someone saves the world during our lifetime, it will be an engineer.

Global issues like climate change, the spreading of disease, malnourishment, healthcare and information management are greatly impacted by engineering and the sciences. Engineers are making cars more efficient, figuring out how to build bridges and how to develop the next revolutionary materials. Engineers make things like space exploration, prosthetic limbs and personal computing possible.

Engineering students — to say nothing of the incredible research that engineering faculty perform — are doing ridiculously awesome things on campus. They are building innovative solar and hybrid cars, human-powered helicopters and concrete canoes. With the help of the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the student group MPowered Entrepreneurship, engineering students are forming teams with people from other disciplines like Information or Business to start new ventures that may ultimately impact the state of Michigan, the United States and the world.

Social, political and management problems like racism and terrorism matter, too. But there’s something fundamental about problems that engineers tackle because without adequate food, water, shelter and energy, it’s game over for humanity. Without the physical world around us functioning properly, it seems unlikely that social problems would be our most pressing need. It’s not a stretch to use the expression “lights out” if engineers fail to solve these gripping problems.

The ability to profit from innovation is obvious. But it’s too narrow-minded to think that profitability is the only reason to develop new technologies. Engineers have a civic duty to advance the public good because some societal problems certainly cannot be solved without their attention.

But while they have the potential to encourage great social change, engineers may not be aware of their responsibility to do so. And, if they are, can they be expected to live up to such an obligation? I’ve spoken to more than a few engineers in the past few weeks about the possibility that they might save the world, and I always get one of two responses. The first is a wave of humility. Engineers always point out that engineering doesn’t matter on its own. They seem to be quite aware of the symbiotic relationship that engineers need with the rest of the professional world to solve problems.

They mention that it takes political support from the political types and the inspiration to do good from the social justice and environmental types. Engineering students, as much as they publicly snub their noses at the students of liberal arts disciplines, appreciate the contribution that an English literature, anthropology or economics major can make when solving problems.

The second response is a feeling of uncertainty. Do engineers believe they can save the world? I’m not so sure. Some that I’ve gotten to know might even be reluctant to accept this responsibility. Speaking to a few engineers at a luncheon last week, an engineer sitting near me mentioned that it’s difficult to maintain a worldly perspective as an engineer because the disciplines in engineering are distinct and well-defined. But engineers, you have to believe. So do the rest of us.

Whether or not engineers save the world, I think the work that they do is vital to our advancement as a society. We need everything from cleaner power to rehabilitative medicines and super-nifty computers, and engineers create those technologies. So even though a diversity of knowledge and training really helps in problem-solving, engineers have a special place in my heart. If you see an engineer today, I dare you to give them a high-five. Rally the B.S.E’s.

Neil Tambe can be reached at

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