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Taft Broome takes hero journeys in engineering

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AAAS Fellow Taft Broome holds a gyroscope that he uses in his engineering classes at Howard University. | Drew Costley

Taft Broome remembers his first day as a field engineer. It was the summer of 1966 and he'd just graduated from Howard University. A half-hour after his fellow engineers left him alone in the job site trailer, a fleet of concrete trucks arrived and a driver demanded Broome instruct him where to pour the cement. With barely an hour of experience in the "field," he was flustered.

"We didn't have cell phones, so I couldn't call anyone for assistance," Broome, an AAAS fellow, explains. After excusing himself for a few deep breaths, he thought of a relative who would have advised him to handle this professionally, so he relaxed and returned, thinking, "Whatever the answer to this question is, it's in this trailer."

"Along the length of the trailer there were these big sheets of paper and they had on them these circles and arrows and on the top they had dates," Broome said. "I recognized that to be a critical path schedule....I went over to the schedule, went down to the date and saw it said 'pour elevator pit,' so I asked the carpenter foreman where the elevator pit was and told them to pour the concrete down there.

"At the end of the day [the supervisors] ran down to see if the elevator pit had been poured. So they came to the trailer and asked 'How did it go today?'," Broome said. "I lied. I said 'no problem'."

Broome wrote about his experience in an essay called, "The Concrete Sumo," which was presented at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science's International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science in March 1999. He says engineering students still come up to him to talk about it.

The Howard University civil engineering professor sees his students' journeys begin with wishes, which turn into wants. Then they discover the impact they can make, which inspires their quests. He knows that a quest for knowledge will guide them no matter how far off the path they may find themselves.

Meeting his field engineering fate meant he would eventually realize his true destiny as an academic. But his academic path was practically as rocky as that job site. He wrote an editorial that put him at odds with the American Association of Engineering Societies.

He said risk is inevitable when engineers design new technology and that the public must "learn enough to influence the technological decisions that affect their own lives." Broome, who has served in the Army Corps of Engineers, argued that the military should be given greater responsibility for advancing "complex, immature [and] potentially hazardous technologies."

He was invited to defend his arguments in a meeting with the heads of the American Association of Engineering Societies. Broome recalls that when the meeting started, President Ken Roe pointed at him and said: "Taft, what you have just done has done more damage to the engineering profession than any other single act in history."

Afterward, he got a phone call from Howard University President James E. Cheek, who told him that the heads of industry wanted his head, but he continued, saying, "I told them that you had tenure and there was nothing I could do about it," Broome recalls.

Since then, he has led the Large Space Structure Institute at Howard University; taught generations of engineers, and recently completed more than 20 years of research for a book he's calling The College of the Common Learning.

"My goal is to equip students with a purpose to find and fulfill their destiny," Broome said. "Destiny does not mean fate."

Broome is still an active faculty member at Howard and stands by his duty to the engineering profession, but, he said, he owes a higher duty to the academic profession.

"That's what's in me. If I had done those jobs out in the field—the basic stuff that it takes to be out there....I'd have had to lie to somebody," Broome said. "The basic stuff of what it takes to be a professor, I've got. And I'd die for some of that stuff."

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AAAS Fellow Taft Broome holds a gyroscope that he uses in his engineering classes at Howard University. | Drew Costley
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