by Sean Traynor, Editor In Chief
Traveling into big cities we’ve all been in awe of some of the fabulous structures that paint the skyline. What goes into the planning and building of these structures? What factors must the engineers consider before starting construction? Whether building with Lego’s TM, Erector SetsTM or cardboard, kids all over the world ponder these questions, but on a smaller scale. Think about this: Most children start by playing with building blocks… Johnson has never grown out of it, excepting his building blocks are now masonry, steel and concrete! Bob Johnson wants to encourage this interest into the teen years so that more kids go into math and engineering fields in college. Let’s see how he does it.
Robert B. Johnson is a Senior Engineer for Bowman, Barrett & Associates Consulting Engineers in Chicago. He is a licensed Structural Engineer in Illinois and a Registered Professional Engineer. For almost 25 years Mr. Johnson has brought visibility to structural engineers. He has spoken to thousands of school children on structural engineering in a host of engineering outreach programs. He has written many articles and letters on engineering topics which have been published in a host of publications and websites. He serves as a volunteer to Future City Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology EWEEK program and Past Chair to the Chicago and Engineers Week program. Soon he will be a presenter at the inaugural “Engineering Day” program being offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (www.architecture.org)
He has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognition for his outreach efforts to engineering associations and the public, most recently the Robert Cornforth Award to an individual for exceptional dedication and exemplary service to a structural engineering organization. (See: http://www.ncsea.com/Special Awards.aspx.) He is unstoppable in his quest to have all students (the future designers of the city of the future) develop an interest in Math and Engineering. See a sample here: http://www.vimeo.com/15937683 He was recently featured on ABC7 News as he talked about engineering for the City of Tomorrow. You can view his presentation here: http://abclocal.go.com/wls/video?id=7718096&pid=7717824
AK: What do you think can be improved in our schools to help kids become more excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?
BJ: S.T.E.M. is the new buzz-word in education, but some are saying there is no “E” in STEM. I would agree. What are students learning about engineering?
Teachers know little of engineering and do not teach students anything about engineering.
A simple history lesson of engineering achievements and the famed engineers that created these achievements would go a long, long way to garner interest in engineering. Hey… has anyone ever heard of THE DRAPER PRIZE? http://www.draperprize.org/ Or see my website on this engineering prize for more information: http://www.eiass.com/BobNobel.asp.
AK: Which of your demonstrations do kids get most excited about?
BJ: The simple display of Chicago Skyscrapers and how they stand tall garners their interest (even the parents).
But the children having computer skills love to play with the West Point Bridge Program on my lap-top computer! To try the bridge design program, see: http://bridgecontest.usma.edu/
AK: What is something you’ve learned that has surprised you in your talks?
BJ: How the children (even parents) know about the world around them and the influence engineering has made on it!
Years ago I had a classroom almost in chaos when I mentioned that they would be drinking the water in the toilet bowl at some time in the future. “Think about it class. The water goes to a water treatment facility where it is made clean again (by engineers) and put back into our eco-system.” Environmental engineers make this possible.
Students are not being taught how engineers impact their daily lives; therefore there is little interest in pursuing engineering careers. Required reading (even by adults) ought to be the new book The Essential Engineer, by Henry Petroski. You can find it in your local bookstore or at Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Engineer-ebook/dp/B0036S4A68
AK: While the outer design is what attracts people to the beauty of buildings, what are some other important things kids should know about the construction of them?
BJ: Architects make them functional and pretty. Many years ago famed Chicago architectural critic once stated that a skyscraper is 90% engineering. This is something lost on the public and children.
Structural engineers are responsible for designing support systems so the building stands tall.
Mechanical engineers are responsible for the heating and cooling systems.
Fire protection engineers make sure the building can survive a fire event.
Plumbing engineers design the water/waste systems. Does anyone consider how you get water pumped 1000 feet up into a tall building?
Then we have electrical engineers designing the power systems, including the lighting for buildings.
Soil engineers investigate the earth so the building can be supported into the ground.
AK: What have we learned from the mistakes of engineers of the past that we should keep in mind for the designs of the future?
BJ: Sadly engineers learn from their mistakes or lack of understanding of the complex world.
The classic failure of the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mclp9QmCGs) is something for all engineers to remember when designs are pushed to the limit and there is a lack of understanding of the behavior of structures.
More recently we have the tragic failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger. (See more information about the failure here: http://ethics.tamu.edu/ethics/shuttle/shuttle1.htm.) This is a case where engineers were overruled in the launch. The engineers, having no test data for a cold weather launch of the shuttle, recommended against the launch. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger_disaster and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Boisjoly
AK: What new materials do you think will come into play for structures in the future?
RJ: Cable-tension structures are becoming popular. See the following for pictures of this type of structure:
http://www.modernsteel.com/Uploads/Issues/April_2007/30764_cable-net.pdf. This is especially true for long-span cable roofs and “Net –Walls” supporting glass walls. Also, hybrid and composite materials are being introduced.
Another interesting development is the extensive use of computer analysis and designs by engineers making the design of complex structures possible, creating some quite bizarre, even wild, architecture! See some examples of this in Frank Gehry’s architecture HERE.
AK: How do you think kids playing games such as Sim City will affect their approach to engineering in the future?
In talking with students, the use of these games help them learn the complexities of building and making a city function. They learn the essential role of engineers – making things happen.
AK: What key concepts make winners in the Future City competitions you’ve been involved with?
RJ: Hard work by the students, but sadly, the need for an engineer mentor to guide them. Some of the children approach competitions without the guidance of an engineer and it shows in the quality of the work. We all need someone to provide creative feedback, checks and balances.
AK: If kids wanted to become the engineers for the “City of the Future”, what should they do to have the skills to do this?
RJ: Strong math and science skills are required. But, often forgotten, is the need for communications and people skills. At some time you’re going to have to communicate with the client, contractor or owner.
AK: Who has been a mentor to you in your career?
RJ: When I was in high school, I always wanted to become an architect. I always liked to build things. I thought it was architects who designed buildings! My parents had a very close friend who was a mechanical engineer at one of Chicago’s leading architectural firms. He knew of my math and science skills (A- student) and my interest in architecture. He said I really ought to consider civil engineering. He even suggested I try to apply to the college where he received his engineering degree, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. I followed his direction, even getting my Bachelors/ Master Degree from IIT in civil engineering.
My first summer engineering internship was at the firm where this family friend worked. He apparently put in a good word for me.
From there I went on to work for other Chicago engineering firms, being fortunate to have worked on buildings such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center, McCormick Place Expansion –South, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building, the 67 story – 900 North Michigan Building, and now on the new O’Hare Airport Expansion Project.