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When Colin Parris, Ph.D., first heard that he was a nominee for the 2023 Black Engineer of the Year award, he was in a GE auditorium with 200+ employees. The executives included H. Lawrence (Larry) Culp, GE’s chairman and chief executive officer, and GE Aviation’s CEO, who he later found out had nominated him for the prestigious award.

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Listening to Tyrone Taborn, BEYA chairman and CEO of Career Communications Group, break the news “was a moment of pleasant disbelief and shock,” Parris said in his acceptance speech at the 2023 BEYA Gala on Saturday, February 11.

After the reveal in November 2022, Dr. Parris spent the next couple of weeks mulling over the theme for the 2023 Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) STEM Conference.

For the 37th Black Engineer of the Year, the theme Becoming Everything You Are encompasses the importance of nurturing environments. They include family, schools, universities, and work environments at GE, IBM, and Bell Labs. A friend and mentor also encouraged him to reflect on the legacy of Black engineers who became everything they are.

“Granville Woods was known as the ‘Black Edison,'” Dr. Parris told the audience as he began his recap of historical figures. “His patents improved the function of railroads. He introduced something called an induction telegraph system. It locates a train that stalled on the tens of thousands of tracks we have. This was in 1910 when railroads were used to move goods across this country. He figured out a way to detect where trains were stalling and how he could talk to the engineer. He connected trade and people.”

Woods’ inventions and innovation impacted the development of the U.S. into a powerful nation, as those of Frederick Jones, who has patents for refrigeration equipment on trucks, trains, and planes, for preserving blood, medicine, and food.

“He did this at the start of World War II, which was vital for the war effort,” Parris said. “This allowed America to provide healthcare and food everywhere. He was the first African American to receive the U.S. National Medal of Technology.”

Moving on to the 1980s, Parris reflected on the impact of the work of Mark Dean, who won the Black Engineer of the Year award at the BEYA Conference in 2000. Dean holds three of nine PC patents for being the co-creator of the IBM personal computer released in 1981.

“The computer industry in the eighties gave us personal computers and made computing power accessible to individuals,” Parris said. As a result, it was easier to process data and access knowledge around the planet. “This was the basis of the Internet because the Internet allows people to connect to data and other individuals. This was all about becoming a connected planet.”

Turning to global challenges in the current decade, he said he saw an opportunity for groups that have been marginalized in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to step up and help find solutions for healthcare, climate change, energy, the supply chain, defense, equity, and learning.

On a wall in his home office hangs one of his favorite sayings, Parris added: “The engineer has been, and is, a maker of history.” – James Kip Finch.

He advised young professionals to make an impact in this pivotal time and become everything they are using what he called the three C framework: Context: Where can you make an impact in this time in history? Content: What do you do to make an impact? Call: How do you make that impact?

“Remember, engineering is a service profession,” Parris said. “In many cases, we build things to provide value for people, countries, regions of the world, and humanity. You can find many ways to do service to people based on your motivation, skills, and environment.”

Parris advised engineers to focus on an industry or group of industries. Energy, he stressed, is the foundation of human civilization, which includes our living conditions, food, health, education, defense, and technologies.

The lives of modern humans are tied up with electricity, utilities, rooftop panels for homes, offices, and buildings; gas for cars and trucks, jet fuel for planes, diesel fuel for farming equipment that grows and harvests our food, all energy sources on which we base our lives. All of which has come at a cost to the climate.

As many more people around the world opt for green energy solar, thermal, hydro, wind, and electric cars that are resilient, low carbon, and affordable, the global human population continues to grow.

According to the United Nations, the world’s population reached 8.0 billion in mid-November 2022 from an estimated 2.5 billion people in 1950, adding 1 billion people since 2010 and 2 billion since 1998. The world’s population is expected to increase by nearly 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from the current 8 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050, and could peak at nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s.

Parris acknowledged this was a complex problem, but one that was fitting for the engineers at the BEYA Conference. Whether they worked in design, manufacturing, installation or service, marketing, investing, education, or government policy.

With the intelligence change, there is now access to millions of books, articles, and videos.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) help us search, summarize, learn, and get insights from that knowledge. The generative form of AI called ChatGPT provides text and human-like interaction. We also have the metaverse capability, with Tyrone using his leadership there with STEM City USA. These are opportunities to use augmented and virtual reality to solve complex problems and create.”

Parris urged collaborative effort by engineers at BEYA to achieve progress in grand challenges, such as advancing personalized learning, making energy more economical, enhancing virtual reality, engineering better medicines, advancing health informatics, restoring systems that support a community, providing access to clean water, and understanding many unanswered questions of nature. Take a listen.

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