He Has an Inventive Mind

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nate Ball liked to build things when he was kid. He made mud dams, launched bottle rockets and once nearly burned down the house trying to make rocket fuel. Now he is 25 and an engineer. If he looks familiar, it's probably because you've seen him on the PBS TV show "Design Squad." It's National Engineering Week, so KidsPost talked with Nate to find out why he loves being an engineer.

Did you always want to be an engineer?

"I didn't know I wanted to be an engineer at all. I did grow up building stuff and had a lot of fun creating things and solving problems. When I figured out that was connected with what engineers do for a living, I thought, 'Engineering is exactly what I want to do.' "

What kinds of problems are engineers interested in solving?

"Improving people's lives is one of the most rewarding things engineers can work on. Engineering spans this huge breadth of activities and problems. You might be solving manufacturing problems on an assembly line or helping to design some new kind of food or fashion."

What were some of the things you built as a kid?

"In about fourth grade I made a pop-bottle rocket launcher that would shoot two-liter bottles really high in the air using air and water pressure. I took it into school, and it was a big hit with all my friends. I also built traps to drop laundry on my sister's head when she walked into my room when I didn't want her to. I did all kinds of fun projects when I was a kid that required me to solve real engineering problems. I just didn't know it at the time."

Did your projects ever fail?

"During a chemistry experiment in high school, I tried making my own rocket fuel. During the process, I ended up substantially burning the kitchen when some of it managed to catch on fire. There was quite a bit of damage. Fortunately, my dad had been really adamant about getting the fire extinguisher ready just in case something happened. I had to go back and look at what I could have done better for the next time."

Is it true you invented a hovercraft in the sixth grade?

"Yeah, it was powered by a vacuum cleaner running backwards to create air pressure. I admit it was a bit of disappointment for me as a sixth-grader. I imagined myself floating all over the neighborhood on my new hovercraft. It was mostly good for sliding smoothly across the kitchen floor. But it was still a lot of fun!"

What should kids be doing if they are interested in engineering?

"The cool thing is that engineering can connect with everything. Start wondering about how things work. How are they made? Where do they come from? Imagine ways to invent new solutions to your own problems around the house. If you don't want to make a peanut butter sandwich for yourself in the morning, wouldn't it be cool if you figure out how to design a machine that could help you make it at a touch of the button? That's a good introduction to the type of stuff we do."

-- Stephen Lowman

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