You can find anything on YouTube: how to fix your sink faucet, funny cat videos, 10-hour loops of your favorite song—you name it. This is where Bill Hammack has made his stand to make engineering a more understandable and accessible topic for everyone.
Hammack, William H. and Janet L. Lycan Professor in the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, has devoted his career to outreach. His most well-known effort, which has garnered millions of views, is his YouTube channel, engineerguy, which can be accessed through engineerguy.com.
In his videos, Hammack takes familiar objects and demonstrates their relation to engineering concepts, making them easier to understand. The videos are created for anyone who wants to know more about the world of engineering concepts in play around them; Hammack has made videos explaining everything from soda cans to pens, cameras, and even disposable diapers.
Hammack’s prolific and engaging outreach efforts have been noticed. This past spring, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for “innovations in multidisciplinary engineering education, outreach, and service to the profession through development and communication of internet-delivered content,” according to NAE. He’s also a recipient of the Hoover Medal and has authored six books and several teaching guides, with a new book set to be published in March of 2023 titled “The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention.” Prior to his YouTube channel, Hammack created over 200 pieces for public radio explaining engineering and engineering careers.
Hammack makes his videos for two reasons. First, it fascinates him to figure out how to explain something complex to someone. “There’s a challenge there. A puzzle if you will,” Hammack described.
He also hopes to inspire the next generation of engineers. “We don’t want to rob society of that next generation of innovators that are going to mitigate climate change, control pandemics, avoid famine, and anything else that’s going to happen,” Hammack said.
Hammack considers outreach to be vitally important. In 1998, Hammack decided to finish his research mission and direct all his energy toward engineering outreach. In the early 2000s, intrigued by the rising popularity of YouTube, and despite not being familiar with how to make effective videos, he began filming segments about engineering from within his department, using an unused lab as a studio.
“We just failed completely,” Hammack said, of those early efforts. “Then we figured out the recipe. It is kind of like the advice they give you for dating: Just be yourself.”
In the early days, Hammack’s videos would snare about 2,000-3,000 views. As his skill with video and delivery improved, however, so did the size of his audience. Now, some videos have received more than 1 million views. Hammack has learned that YouTube is more than an entertainment site.
“I think my colleagues wondered what the heck I was up to and what was I doing with this toy thing, because YouTube was kind of a novelty then. We realized that, as everybody else did, people were turning to this for serious information," Hammack said.
Now, with more than 1 million subscribers and nearly 75 million views, Hammack has been able to reach a worldwide audience and educate them on engineering. He is constantly replying to comments on his videos, and he throws the doors open to more discussion by providing a separate email and phone number for anyone who wants to chat. People look forward to his next show eagerly—and even expectantly.
“I often get messages if I haven’t posted recently saying ‘Are you dead?’” Hammack said. “As we are updating the website, the maintenance page actually says, ‘and Bill is not dead.’”
Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of The Quadrangle.