Last updated June 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm
STEM-based technologies already influence most aspects of our world. So it’s easy to envisage a future, writes Kate Arneman, where personal robots and the printing of human body parts are commonplace.
Living in Fiji for three years gave John McIntosh a new perspective on the value of engineering to society. As National President of Engineers Australia, he already had a pretty good idea, of course.
But witnessing the grassroots work of the organisation Engineers Without Borders in one of our less wealthy neighbours was both inspiring and humbling. “When a group like Engineers Without Borders go into a place like that – a developing country – you can see the impact: running water in the villages and things like that,” John explains. “In Australia it’s not so obvious and we just take it for granted but it’s still being done and it’s still part of what we need as a country to be a functioning society.”
He lists a few examples: clean water, sewage, drainage, houses that don’t leak, roads, footpaths and traffic lights. “I think we’re social workers,” he says. “We create communities that are happy, healthy and prosperous.”
But if your idea of an engineer is a guy in muddy boots and a hard hat, zoom out for a bigger picture. “Construction site engineering would be a small part of the engineering profession,” John says, explaining that the profession covers a wide range of diverse specialties, from robotics and biomechanical engineering to design engineering.
Image credit: Damien Pleming
27-year-old Marita Cheng decided she wanted to be part of the robotics revolution when she was a teenager and has worked hard to make that a reality, recruiting an army of girls along the way. Robogals, the organisation she founded in 2008, now runs robotics workshops in schools in nine countries, including Australia, to introduce teenage girls to engineering.
After being named the 2012 Young Australian of the Year, she set up her own robotics company, 2Mar, with the motto ‘Making lives easier, one robot at a time’. 2Mar has so far launched two products, both designed to assist people in their day-today lives. Jeva is a robotic arm that can be used by people with limited upper body mobility to move and grip objects in a sophisticated way. Mounted on a wheelchair, table or bench, the arm is controlled by touch via smartphone or tablet, or by head movements via a headset.
Jeva performs a range of everyday functions for users. It allows them, for example, to feed themselves, turn light switches on and off, pick up things, push buttons to cross at traffic lights and reach products on higher supermarket shelves. This all adds up to greater independence and self-sufficiency.
When she embarked on the project, Marita was equipped with technical and business skills. A critical stage early in the project was contacting the Spinal Cord Injuries Association and individuals with disabilities and their carers, to talk about her ideas and get input from the experts.
“Tell us what your life is like, tell us what [technology] you currently use. I want to make something that’s useful,” she said to them. “So I met with them, they gave me a lot of feedback about my product and I just kept building it to their specifications.”
2Mar’s second project, Teleroo, has the potential to be used by all kinds of people in all kinds of settings. Described as ‘Skype on wheels’, it consists of a tablet attached to a pole on a base with wheels. The user’s face appears on the screen and the pole can be adjusted to the height of the user. Imagine you were in a serious car accident and ended up in hospital for weeks. You could control Teleroo remotely from your hospital bed to take part in school – locating it in classrooms and playgrounds to not only see and hear what’s happening but also take part in conversations. You could hang out with friends on the weekend and even send Teleroo to your Year 12 formal!
Marita has many more ideas about how Teleroo could be used to interact with others and take part in situations when you can’t be physically present. It would allow people who live a long way from their workplace to work from home more effectively; for relatives who live a long way apart to ‘attend’ special occasions like weddings and birthdays; and for company executives to have face time with far-flung employees, without needing to travel to them.
The World Within
While STEM underpins the world around us, it’s also being put to work inside us with devices ranging from cochlear implants to pacemakers. Now, the field of regenerative medicine is rapidly harnessing technology to encourage the body to repair its own tissues and organs.
Associate Professor Mia Woodruff and her team from Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) are experts in biofabrication – creating body tissue using 3D printing.
Mia is confident that, in the future, every hospital will have a 3D printer in the operating theatre, just as every office today has regular paper printers. She and her team have developed a new way to repair bone damage in patients who have, for example, suffered a blow to the head in a sporting accident or who were born with a birth defect, such as a cleft palate – where the roof of the mouth doesn’t develop properly.
Layer-by-layer, custom-built 3D printers create a type of implant, a scaffold from a special – biologically compatible – type of plastic. This is tailored to each patient in two ways: the shape of the structure is based on 3D modelling of the damaged area from medical imaging and laser scanning; and the scaffold is layered with bio-ink, which contains the patient’s own cells. Once the scaffold is implanted, the cells start to regenerate the natural bone tissue and, over time, the plastic scaffold gradually biodegrades.
Researchers around the world are experimenting with similar techniques to regenerate muscle, nerves and skin.
The IHBI is a bit like the United Nations of STEM. Materials chemists, biologists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, mechatronics experts and medical doctors have all contributed to the project: from designing the 3D printer, to formulating the plastic scaffold material and bio-inks and monitoring the bone tissue regeneration, to ensuring that the models can be translated into real life. “Passionate collaborative research,” is how Mia describes it as she points out that having team members skilled in more than one area is invaluable.
One of her students has an IT background and is now, under her supervision, doing research in biology; another is studying medicine while also researching teeth and jawbone reconstruction.
Image credit: Erika Fish/QUT marketing & communication
Our reliance on STEM in our daily lives is only going to increase in the years ahead. And that, says Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Professor Brian Schmidt, is why it’s so important for today’s teenagers to equip themselves with skills in these areas. “STEM is going to be at the core of a huge number of jobs that are not replaced by robots,” explains Brian, who earlier this year took on the role of Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.
Some of those jobs may not be what you expect. “If you’re going to be an artist in the future, you’re going to probably be a digital artist, so you’re going to have to understand how computers and things work, the mathematics of it, at a fundamental level, to be competitive,” Brian says. “If you’re an electrician, the whole subject area is going to be sufficiently complicated that you’re going to really need to be across the mathematics and the science of what it means to be an electrician.”
At the IHBI, visiting high school students are given a tour of the labs and get to see 3D printing of bone tissue scaffolds in action. “[It’s] one of the most fun parts of the job,” Mia says, hoping that what they see will give them options beyond traditional STEM career paths such as medicine.
Her advice? “It’s okay not to do medicine. It’s okay to decide you want to become a coder, and to be working in medical physics or to be working in any other area,” she says. “Do what you love, not what’s expected of you.”
- WATCH: Find out what else 3D printers are making
- WATCH: Blending art and science in game design
- WATCH: Bending natural laws to create digital special effects
Ideas You Can Bank On
Wearing hoodies, baseball caps and sneakers and sporting facial hair to a degree that’s usually frowned upon in boardrooms, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes look more like gamers than billionaire CEOs. But these two are poster boys for thinking big and backing yourself. Whichever way you measure it, there’s no mistaking the spectacular success of Atlassian, the tech company they co-founded in Sydney in 2002.
The pair met as students at the University of NSW and, after graduating – Scott with a Bachelor of Science in Business Information Technology and Mike with a Bachelor of Commerce in Information Systems – wasted no time getting their enterprise software company off the ground. Their first product, JIRA began as a bug-tracking tool for programmers and has since developed into a tool for tracking work projects – pretty much any kind of project. Confluence is a tool for creating, organising and discussing work within a team and HipChat provides group chat rooms, messaging and file-sharing for businesses.
Today, these and other Atlassian products are used in 160-plus countries, on two planets. Space agency NASA is one of more than 50,000 companies and organisations who rely on Atlassian software for their day-to-day business operations, which, in their case, involves exploring the surface of Mars. Other noteworthy customers include Spotify, Twitter, electric-car manufacturer Tesla and Australia’s own Cochlear, which designs and manufactures bionic ears.
Atlassian now has 1300 employees and was voted ‘Australia’s Best Place to Work’ in 2014 and 2015. And, just quietly, you might be interested to know they hired 75 Australian and New Zealand graduates last year.
Being a journalist lets Kate Arneman behave like a three year old; bailing up interviewees and demanding explanations about everything from creative climate activism to bilingualism and fluid dynamics. She’s written for a range of science mags from Cosmos to Green Lifestyle magazine and is a granddaughter of Aussie country music legend Slim Dusty.
Originally published in Ultimate Science Guide 2016. Read the new Ultimate Careers magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.