Monday, October 05, 2015

Engineering Exemplar: Smarter Every Day's Destin Sandlin

An exemplar is an excellent model of something.  Engineering has its exemplars—people who excel at their work so well that it's worthwhile to point them out as good examples.  The aerospace engineer Destin Sandlin is an exemplar in a corner of engineering we don't think much about:  explaining engineering and science concepts to the general public.  Believe it or not, some of the ethics codes of engineering societies call for their members to do this.  Members of the IEEE (which used to stand for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers before they changed it to just the initials) are committed "to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences." One engineer who is doing a lot in that direction right now is Destin Sandlin.

Mr. Sandlin has a graduate degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and works as a missile flight test engineer at the Redstone Arsenal.  Some time in the late 2000s, he posted a video on YouTube showing his friends how to light a bonfire with rockets.  They liked it so much that he started making more videos.  It's now a collection of videos he calls Smarter Every Day.  He's now up to No. 142, at least, and now has over two million subscribers and 24 videos that have received more than a million views each. 

What does he talk about?  All kinds of cool stuff involving technology, explained in a visually appealing way with well-produced graphics and a narration by Mr. Sandlin himself.  He is the opposite of the stereotypical inarticulate nerdy engineer, as you might expect from someone who won the University of Alabama's Outstanding Senior Award.  (Notice that's not Outstanding Engineering Major, but Outstanding Senior—period.)  I discovered his videos while searching for high-speed photography videos, and came upon one that dealt with a thing called a Prince Rupert's drop.  Go look at it to find out what it is—it has to do with dropping very hot glass into cold water.  I was impressed by his combination of clarity, technical correctness, and enthusiasm.  Plus which, he shows some really neat high-speed videos of how the thing works.

His videos aren't just all about technology—he gets into engineering ethics in a way too.  For example, one of his recent videos covers the three-in-a-row explosions of cargo-rocket launches that were intended to resupply the International Space Station.  Ever the optimist, his take on them is that if we were going to have some rockets blow up, this was the perfect time for it to happen, when the Space Station happens to have rather a surplus of food and before we start putting people on those rockets. 

Cameras that can take 100,000 frames per second aren't cheap, and I wondered how Mr. Sandlin pays for all the production expenses of his videos—green screens, high-quality graphics, and so on.  Well, several ways, it appears.  One is contributions—you can donate to his effort through a website called Patreon.  Another is advertising—some of the later videos have little ads at the end for various products (the one I saw boosted a book sold by Amazon).  And there's the revenue from the YouTube viewings.  He is up front about his hopes that Smarter Every Day will provide funds for his children's college education, and there's nothing wrong with that.  So he's an entrepreneur of a sort as well as an engineer, which is a good combination.

One thing that's fairly certain is that Mr. Sandlin hasn't gotten any money from the National Science Foundation.  If he had, they would have insisted that he have some kind of acknowledgment of the fact.  Over the years, I have been peripherally involved with NSF-sponsored efforts in the area of engineering education.  It turns out the kind of skills that enable one to raise or spend NSF education money are not always the kind of skills needed to appeal to a wide popular audience.  NSF would like both, of course, and every now and then, an NSF-sponsored project designed to explain or promote engineering to the general public actually gets a fair number of the general public to pay attention to it.  But successes like that are generally few and far between.

I would point out that Mr. Sandlin has no degree in education—or mass communication, for that matter.  All he had to start with is enthusiasm and a motivation to pay for his kids' college expenses.  And he's come up with something that presents engineering in a positive light to millions of people.  I'm not saying that government support for engineering education efforts directed at the general public is wasted, but Mr. Sandlin's work proves that it's not necessary, and the number of failed projects in that area proves that it's not sufficient, either.

One personal example of how not to do it will suffice here.  Years ago I made a misguided attempt to develop a kind of computer-based learning module for non-engineers.  I took a lot of NSF money and spent a whole summer at Cornell University with a grad student, learning how to use a very early version of development software for that kind of thing.  The project was used in an experimental course once, and that was that.  Clearly, it was not my forte.

Mr. Sandlin makes it look easy, but he says on his website that each video takes upwards of 100 hours to produce, and I believe him.  What he's doing deserves the support and encouragement of the engineering community, and so I encourage my readers to take a look at  If you like what you see, let Mr. Sandlin know.  He's doing a good thing for engineering and the world.

Sources:  I encountered Mr. Sandlin's work in the form of his video on Prince Rupert's drops at  His video on the cargo-rocket explosions is at  His main website is, and I also referred to the Wikipedia article "Destin Sandlin."

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