Top Video/Essay

Duke Grad Student Wins National Video/Essay Contest

Mark Andy Ewing,  a second year doctoral student at Duke University in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was the winner of the Duke sponsored video/essay contest. He won $15,000 for his video and essay entitled "The Difference Engine."

As part of an educational outreach effort in conjunction with the Summit on the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges event, Duke University asked college students from across the country to create videos between two and three minutes in length and a 1,000 word essay with bibliography. The video and essay were to answer the following question:Which of the 14 grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering would YOU choose to address, and how would you do it?

Duke received 28 outstanding entries from 14 different universities across the nation. The top three winners were shown Monday, March 2 during the Summit.

Originally from Atlanta, Ewing was prompted to enter the video/essay contest in part by conversations over the past year with his wife about making our respective fields "relevant."

"In my case, it seems easy, that electrical engineering is driving most of the technology that we use, but even technology can take a while to reach daily use, and it's a shame that we lose so much time when good solutions are available,"  Ewing wrote. Long term, he hopes to be self-employed, either with the Difference Engine or another project. In the short-term, he is looking for an industry position in the area.

Second place winner of $10,000 was Brian Chan, and team member Joyce Kwan, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the third place winner of $5,000 was Farzana Ansari, University of Southern California.

Judging the contest were:

* Jason Piche, intellectual property attorney, IBM Corporation
* Janis J. Rehlaender, Retired, Director of Corporate Planning, Baxter International; Chairman, Darien, CT Board of Education
* Martha M. McDade, President, Environmental Excellence Engineering P.C.
* Rebecca Lula, Founder and President, K1 Concepts

Ewing's essay follows:

This idea matured over the last 6 months of observing the political and economic changes in the United States.  It finally gelled when a colleague of mine who had been very critical of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the past told me that she had changed her opinion of them.  When I asked what it was that influenced this change of mind, she told me that she had seen the DHS reality television show, and it humanized the employees of the DHS to such a degree that she couldn't think of them as "stupid" or "evil" anymore.

I realized that part of the power to do good in the world is simply the power to build consensus, and it is not enough to have consensus on just what SHOULD be done, but the consensus must include the HOW as well.  I believe that this nonprofit, the Difference Engine, could be the most important solution to the "Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery" Challenge, because discovery needs funding, and success often begets success.  I also believe that it is a viable organization in a budgetary and operational sense.

Bill Gates, Bono, and others have shown that those with money and influence have a great desire to do good in the world, but not only to do good, but to make sure their donations have the biggest impact possible.  By focusing our organization on a few technologies that have already passed the bar of proof-of-concept, prototype and commercial/political viability, we are ensuring that our efforts to "get the word out" will be fruitful.

In terms of actually getting the word out, more and more media, such as the television shows "House" and "CSI" and the websites Slashdot and Lifehacker derive their value from being at the forefront of technology, and by picking the next "big" thing before everyone else does.  In that sense, we won't be so much soliciting their charity in showcasing these technologies, we'll be providing them with a service that goes directly to their value as products.

Measuring "success" is a matter of tracking product sales and/or political polls, and since the marketing team will be targeting specific demographics, perhaps in specific areas, there's room to measure an increase in awareness or interest in reference to "control" groups.

There are two other teams in the engine not mentioned in the video.  First, a small but strong administrative team is necessary to actually track success and chart our course.  Second, a fundraising team will be generating financial support at all levels of private donation.  It is important that the nonprofit not be a publicly funded entity, in order to maintain its credibility.  In the same vein, after, the initial start-up period, funding should come from a variety of private sources, with no one source contributing more than, say, half of the total.

So many challenges that we face, from clean water to global warming to improved health care are immediate in their nature.  Every day that a new solution is delayed in reaching those who need it is a day we cannot afford.  I believe this organization, the Difference Engine, is a necessary part of our work in improving the human condition around the world.