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Engineering from the Inside Out

Whether it's a high-traffic bridge, a wind-powered generator, or a thrilling amusement park ride, engineers bring safe, practical, and aesthetically pleasing new products into our lives. And, from Boston to Los Angeles, today's engineers reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, as shown in the documentary Engineering from the Inside Out..

photo One of the scientists featured in Engineering from the Inside Out is Hector Medina, a Puerto Rican engineer who is part of a team designing a new bridge in downtown Boston. The challenge is to create a bridge that can safely handle some 60,000 cars per day, yet also "lend a touch of class to the urban skyline," says Medina.

He proposes a daring, asymmetric design that employs a technique known as post tension. The concept entails stringing together pre-cut spans of concrete with thick steel rods which are then pulled tight. Steel cables, fanning out like outstretched fingers, will support the bridge from above. But before the design is approved, he and his partners must convince the Federal Highway Authority that the bridge will be absolutely safe.

Safety is also a concern for the engineers who design rides for America's ultimate destination for magic, fun, and fantasy: Disneyland. Victoria Aguilera, a Mexican American and mechanical engineer at Walt Disney Imagineering, helped design the vehicle used in one of Disney's most ambitious new rides, called Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

Last-minute worries that one of the brackets attached to the vehicle's running board might not be sturdy enough sends Aguilera back to the drawing board (actually, a computer), where she modifies her original design. She then confers with an artist for a new idea of how to hide the bracket with a prop, "something Indy might use," says Aguilera. Finally she, generates a three-dimensional model of the new version, so it's ready for production at a moment's notice.

photo Out in the New Mexico desert, the engineering challenges are quite different. Steve Grey, a Navajo Indian and engineer, seeks to improve the lives of Native Americans on the Navajo reservations. Many live without electricity because the cost of running power lines to their homes is too high. But Grey has a possible solution - one that will jibe well with the Native-American philosophy of protecting Mother Earth.

He wants to take advantage of a free, abundant, and environmentally sound resource - the wind. Residential windmills could provide electricity to remote homes across the reservation, says Grey. To assess the project's feasibility, he enlists Native-American researchers to set up and monitor equipment that measures wind speed and direction. If the results are promising, Navajo children may soon be able to read and study at night.

photo Across the country in Washington, DC, in a basement laboratory, Michael Spencer and his students are racing to capture the elusive blue laser - a new technology that promises to revolutionize the compact disc market. Instead of the long wavelength, infrared lasers beams in CD players that "read" the data, a short, thinner, blue laser beam would allow producers to put much more information - up to 40 songs - on a single disc.

Spencer, an African Amercian and director of the Materials Science Research Center of Excellence and professor of electrical engineering at Howard University, has come tantalizingly close to completing a crucial step in making the new laser - the creation of a new semi-conductor material. "It's those small, short moments of discovery, interspersed with the long periods of frustration and struggle, that give you the pleasure and the joy, and keep you going," says Spencer.

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