At the Center of it All: Dispatches from the Idaho Annual Meeting
The license plate ahead of me read, “Famous Potatoes.”
But on this trip to give a keynote talk on behalf of the NSPE Board of Directors at the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers Annual Meeting, the true scene-stealer wasn’t America’s favorite starch but rather, one of the country’s most scarce yet precious assets: engineering.
I had arrived in the city of Coeur d’Alene thanks to the gracious invitation of the Idaho Society President Greg Brands, P.E., Julie Wall, and the Northern Idaho Chapter Leaders Sandra Raskell, P.E., Angela Lemmerman, P.E., and Eric Olson, P.E.
I was sitting in one of two vans traveling caravan-style through the North Idaho countryside, framed in tall pines and lake valleys. Through the landscape of fluorescent orange high-visibility vests riding along in front of me, I was traveling to a place where no chemical engineer had gone before: the interior caverns of a bridge.
As a chemical engineer in industry, I have filled alkaline batteries with anode and electrolyte at high speeds; I have watched glycol surge through the veins of countercurrent heat exchangers; I have watched 40-ton mix tanks compound bulk perfumes and fragrances. When it came to bridges however, my interactions had only consisted of traversing across, underneath and beside them. Today would be my first opportunity to actually climb into the center of one.
The Veterans Memorial Centennial Bridge, completed in 1990, spans 1,730 feet of Interstate 90 across the scenic waters of Bennett Bay. Composed of 22,000 cubic yards of concrete with 5.3 millions pounds of reinforcing steel, it is a true wonder how civil and structural engineers, contractors and technicians really do what they do.
On the tour inside the bridge, we were led on a structure-by-structure tour of how the bridge came to be and the engineering struggles that had to be overcome in order to get there. Every formation, support, and pour of concrete had its own story; and with the otherworldly sounds of tractor trailers echoing as they drove overhead in some other world, it was a surreal tale.
The story of the bridge reflected in many ways the theme of the entire Idaho meeting: one of discovery and of innovation. The stories shared weren’t only of engineering feats and accomplishments by local engineering firms, but also of a profession that was integrated seamlessly, if not invisibly, into the infrastructure of Idaho and the surrounding regions. To see so much sharing of best practices and multifunctional benchmarking gave me further insight about the close-knit nature of professional engineers and engineering in the state. As I went from presentation to presentation, including one by David Irish, P.E., that linked design quality, the American Society for Quality, and design standards to engineering projects, I felt more and more grateful to be a bystander in such a collaborative environment.
In downtown Coeur d’Alene, there’s a local grill called Scrud’s, whose specialty is made-to-order gourmet burgers with cheese-stuffed centers. Rushing to the airport to catch my flight, I had just a few moments to stop in to grab a quick bite there: a daily specials burger called The North Idaho that consisted of a molten hot blue cheese core topped with a pacific northwestern favorite, huckleberry jam. I realized while waiting for my order that this had been my first chance since arriving in Idaho to actually sit and reflect holistically on everything that I had experienced here. By the time the burger was placed in front of me, I was still lost in thought. Even the first degree burns I got on my thumbs from the delicious burger’s volcanic cheese weren’t enough to snap me out of my trance.
I had just recently climbed into the hollow center of a concrete bridge in hopes of finding its heart. And I found it not in the stress-strain diagrams that described its interior nor in the fabulous structural terms like “tensioning rod” and “cantilever” that constituted its construction, but in the talented family of licensed professionals around me that could look at this bridge—this seemingly plain, everyday bridge in the beautiful North Idaho landscape—and see what no normal person could see.
And for the first time, I saw it too.