‘Invisible’ engineer? Not if Bob can help it

Thirty years ago this fall, structural engineer Bob Johnson was leafing through the Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper that had just published a retrospective on the city’s iconic 1892 Masonic Temple, the earliest “skyscraper” produced by the famed duo of architect Daniel Burnham and engineer John Root.

What caught Johnson’s eye was a mistake. So now he had a bone to pick. Then the public relations chair with the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois (SEAOI), he noted that the article had referred to Root multiple times as an “architect.”  Ahem, Johnson corrected, Root was, in fact, a civil engineer. He put that in a subsequent letter to the editor, which the Reader published in full. Wrote Johnson, “Most journalists when discussing architecture ignore the significant contributions of the structural engineering professional to the design of major building structures.”

It was by no means the first — nor last — time the passionate practitioner would stand up publicly for his unsung profession. A 1971 graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he earned a masters degree in civil engineering with a concentration in structural engineering, Johnson has carried the torch for decades locally, regionally, even nationally. In 1993, as a senior associate with consulting engineer Alfred Benesch and Co., Johnson delivered a memorable lecture entitled, The Invisible Engineer.

In the ensuing years, that theme has stuck with Johnson, even as his own visibility increased, thanks to award-winning work on several prominent local structures, including 900 N. Michigan, a 66-story tower that transitions nimbly from a steel to concrete frame at level 30. Throughout, the gentle but persistent advocate has made it his life’s work to raise the profile of structural engineering with school-age children, parents and educators, whether on behalf of SEAOI, other industry groups, or just his own passion for the profession.

Today, at 69 years of age, Johnson by day still works as a senior structural engineer with Rubinos & Mesia Engineers. In his spare time, he is now in his 30th year of promoting SEAOI. One natural extension of that passion occurred in 1993 when he brought the year-old, national Future City Competition to Chicago. Now in its 25th year, that DiscoverE program introduces 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade students to STEM studies by engaging them in computer modeling, essay writing, model building, and oral presentations.

Over the years, Johnson estimates now that he has met more than 10,000 students and their parents. Although semi-retired, he shows no signs of slowing down. If there is a science fair, expo, conference, competition, lecture or networking opportunity in Chicago where he sees promotional possibilities, he’s there. His mission is to put the “E” back in STEM curricula. “At the moment, it’s missing – all but invisible,” he says. After bumping into him at the popular Canstruction International fundraiser, BuiltWorlds decided to delve a bit deeper…

BW: Bob, thank you for your time here. So, why do you think structural engineers aren’t more widely recognized and appreciated  for the essential work that they perform?

Johnson: One reason is that engineers are introverted. They enjoy their work, but have little interest in promoting their achievements in the manner actors or architects do. As a result, media unfortunately doesn’t recognize them unless a building or bridge fails. Every year, the National Academy of Engineering awards the Charles Stark Draper Prize – the Nobel Prize of engineering – but the program receives absolutely no coverage. It’s not picked up by any of the media at all.

BW: So, how did you become involved in educating youth about structural engineering?

Johnson: In 1989, My daughter’s first-grade teacher asked me, “Why don’t you come to class and talk about what you do?”

BW: And you never looked back?

Johnson: Word spread, and soon I found myself invited to speak at other grade schools and high schools. My belief is that all children are natural engineers. Look at thow they love to play with blocks and legos. But the issue, I discovered,  was presenting concepts in formats they could understand. So, in one instance, I created a cardboard John Hancock Building that employed moveable strings to represent its cross bracing and contributions to supporting the building. I’ve found that creating models out of simple items like paper or cardboard to be highly effective for children.

BW: What do you find most gratifying about educating children, parents – even educators?

Johnson: For me, it’s about making people aware of how technology affects our lives, and conveying that if you can perform engineering, you can perform anything. The problem is schools in grades K-12 offer no courses in engineering. The closest you come to it is Science or Physics. So, that’s why I say it is time to put – or put back — Engineering into STEM programs. One argument is that grade school is too young, to which I reply, “No, you’ve got to get them while their young, before they select another profession.”

BW: Any particularly notable or gratifying success stories you’d like to share?

Johnson: Years ago, a colleague and I delivered presentations at Science Chicago, an event held at the Museum of Science and Industry. Five or six years later, my colleague met a student at Miami University of Ohio who told him that our talks had inspired him to pursue a major in engineering.

BW: What inspired you to become a structural engineer?

Johnson: In the 1950s, my grandparents steered me toward it. I had all those toys then – Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, an Erector Set, a train set. I originally thought I’d study architecture, but during high school a close friend of my father’s, a mechanical engineer, persuaded me otherwise, telling me I was very strong in math and science. Back then, everyone assumed it was the architect who was in complete control of a project, when in fact it is structural engineers and others who bring their visions to life.

BW: How has the profession of structural engineering changed over the years?

Johnson: Well, obviously the technologies involved have evolved. Today, everything is performed electronically. When I was an intern in the late 1960s and transitioned to a full-fledged structural engineer in 1971, we had our drafting tables and performed our calculations with slide rules. Then came the first calculators, followed by computers with punch cards, PCs, software, programs dedicated to CAD and the like. The result is that the industry has been able to develop more complex structures and structural solutions. I think we’ll continue to see more of that. What’s been lost are drawings, like those of the original skyscraper, some of which were true works of art.

BW: Is there a shortage of structural engineers? Will today’s technology create more interest?

Johnson: I’m not aware of any real shortages but, yes, among youth, you may see a phenomenon similar to what occurred in the 1960s with all the interest in the development of the nation’s space program. Lots of my fellow baby boomers became attracted to science and engineering because of the space race.

BW: Where else do you see the profession going?

Johnson: I think we’re going to see more minorities. For instance, Chicago now has a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. I’ve attended a few of their functions and was quite impressed.

BW: You’re seemingly everywhere.

Johnson: Being semi-retired gives me opportunities I might not otherwise have. Full-time engineers often can’t justify taking a whole day or even a half day to attend or to speak at an event. In fact, there are several upcoming events in the area this fall that I’ll probably attend.

BW: Busy man. Thank you again for your time.

Johnson: Thank you for this opportunity.