A Definition of Engineering

In two days, I will finally have the right to place “B.S Mechanical Engineering” after my name. (I won’t be holding a diploma with that title for several more weeks, however – the cardboard tubes they’ll give us during Commencement will have a noticeable lack of diploma.) Over the past four years, my concept of engineering has definitely changed.

I think my original idea of what an engineer did and was developed from my parents (engineers who built cool stuff), from popular media like Star Trek, Stargate, and Jules Vernes’ works (engineers who saved the ship/team/world from imminent destruction), and from my fascination with 18th and 19th century inventors (engineers who were engineers before there were engineers). I thought it was awesome, and so I wanted – you might say was conditioned – to become an engineer. After all, who wouldn’t want to invent (current technical term: “design”) really cool, innovative stuff that would save the world, and possibly end up on a space shuttle in the process? And best of all, engineering and science were quantifiable; they could be described in numbers and figures, and everything could be predicted or simulated.

Wrong.

I discovered in my first design class, Mechanical Engineering Design, that most of those neat little equations were now friends with safety factors and multitudes of coefficients designed to compensate (approximately) for roughness, roundness, load, notching, fatigue, and oodles of other properties. Partial DiffE was all about learning how to approximate different types of curves and responses. My precious precise engineering, with one right answer, became a horrendous clump of optimization problems; much less of a science and much more of an art. Engineering is taking all of the data you know, making “assumptions” about the rest of the data you need, simplifying everything as much as you dare, applying the formulae you think you need, adding safety factors everywhere and then crossing your fingers and hoping that nobody dies. And that’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years.

And it’s darned fun.

A few weeks ago I helped my roommate smash virtual arches in a finite element program so she could determine how overengineered old cathedral-building rules of thumb were. This senior week’s project has been to put solar-powered lights on the college’s Acaglider (I’ll post pictures when it’s complete). Oh, and I’ll be playing with airfoils for a wind turbine manufacturer this summer. See? Fun.

So … I’ve given you blood, sweat, and tears for four years, Rice – I think it’s time to be able to say – “I is an engineer”.

Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems. – Scott Adams

I’m going to go watch Star Trek now.

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3 thoughts on “A Definition of Engineering

  1. I’m glad you like your degree. And I think you will like Star Trek. I didn’t dislike Mechanical Engineering, but in retrospect, I was never too wild about it.

  2. Star Trek was awesome!! (and the sound was phenomenal) Not entirely canon and not hard sci-fi, but you can get away with almost anything in an alternate reality.

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