• Engineer: Eric Berkenpas
    Eric Berkenpas is an engineer.

    Photograph by Graham Wilhelm, National Geographic

    By Stuart Thornton

    Thursday, June 30, 2011

    Eric is an engineer who facilitates the building of unique imaging tools and equipment for the National Geographic Society. Some of the equipment includes the dropcam, a camera that can film in some of the deepest regions of the world’s oceans, and the Crittercam, a camera attached to wild animals that can record video and audio as well as collect other data.

    EARLY WORK

    In sixth grade, Eric’s uncle sent him a box of electronic supplies that included diodes, resistors, and batteries. This spurred Eric to visit his local library in Orange City, Iowa, to learn more about electronics.

    In high school, Eric won first prize at a science fair for constructing a robot. “You could hook it up to a computer and tell it to go to a certain place on the floor and it would go over there,” he says.

    Eric pursued his interest in electronics by getting an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at South Dakota State University in Brookings, followed by a master's degree in the same subject at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “I geek out about engineering stuff, but it’s also cool to get out in the field and come face to face with a great white shark or sail a sailboat to the deepest hole in the Atlantic Ocean and send a camera down there and see what comes back.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Time management: “We get more projects than we could ever possibly do, and a lot of them are really good ideas.”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    “I define it as the study of physical places in the world and how they relate to each other and what they mean to you.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Eric says his work helps people understand what geographic regions of the world are really like.

    “So in geography, you have a specific location on Earth, and you want to figure out what’s there, right?” he says. “I’m building the tools to be able to find out what’s in that volcano or what’s in that cave so that people can associate that point on a map with something real.”

    The engineer outfits dropcams and Crittercams with beacons and radio transmitters so researchers can almost always find the equipment.

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENGINEER

    “Doing a science fair project is probably the thing that would be the most applicable.”

    GET INVOLVED

    “If you are interested in using technology to study the behaviors of animals, especially marine animals, just volunteer at centers that handle those animals all the time.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    Crittercam Noun

    camera designed to be worn on a wild animal, providing a "critter-eye view" of the animal's environment.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    Earth Noun

    our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Earth
    electrical engineer Noun

    person who analyzes, designs, and constructs systems to conduct electricity.

    electronics Noun

    devices or tools that use electricity to work.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    equipment Noun

    tools and materials to perform a task or function.

    facilitate Verb

    to help or make easier.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    great white shark Noun

    large shark native to temperate ocean waters.

    imaging tool Noun

    device used to obtain, analyze, and study visual data.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    master's degree Noun

    level of education between the bachelor's and the doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    radio transmitter Noun

    device that sends out sound signals.

    region Noun

    any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    robot Noun

    machine that can be programmed to perform automatic, mechanical tasks.

    sailboat Noun

    aquatic vessel that uses wind to maneuver and move.

    specific Adjective

    exact or precise.

    spur Verb

    to encourage or move forward.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    volcano Noun

    an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

    Encyclopedic Entry: volcano
    volunteer Noun

    person who performs work without being paid.

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