What is engineering? The science of solving problems

by Sam Lightstone

in Careers

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Sam Lightstone

Sam Lightstone

Distinguished Engineer at IBM
BIO: Sam Lightstone is Distinguished Engineer for relational Cloud Data repositories as well as co-founder of IBM's technology incubation initiative.He is author or several books, papers, and patents on computer science, careers, and data engineering.
Sam Lightstone

Last year I taught an introductory course in robotics to middle school boys. It was a great experience, a real blast. The boys were great fun, and the course worked out ok too.  One thing was clear from the outset though: most kids, and even adults, don’t have a clue what engineering is all about. In fact, if you ask people you’ll find that most of the wondrous creations of engineers are misattributed to scientists, architects, entrepreneurs, and even doctors.

So what do engineers do, and what is the profession of engineering? In short, engineers apply science to solve problems and invent new things.  Most technology – computers, cell phones, cars, planes, chemical plants, large bridges, cameras and scanners, robots, trains, and even spaceships, are created invented and designed primarily by engineers. Isn’t that what scientists do?  Nope – but it’s a popular misconception. Scientists study science with specific training in how to do research and experimentation. In short scientists are in the discovery business. Aren’t there a lot of “scientists” who apply their knowledge to solve problems and invent new things? Absolutely, because the fields are closely related. Put another way, there are a lot of scientists who do engineering work. The training is similar, but there are important differences.  For example:

Engineering degrees nearly always focus on practical science. There is very little study of theoretical topics.  For example, engineers will study physics in depth, but are less likely to have mandatory courses on topics that don’t apply to real-world problem solving (e.g. special relativity, astrophysics, string theory, etc).  In addition to their scientific training engineers will learn a bit about about operational processes, economics, and sometimes how to do technical drawings.  Engineers love to innovate, and create new technology.

Science degree cover a broader range of science and will usually have more emphasis on experimentation. There will be courses on the theoretical topics.  Scientists love to discover and stretch the envelope of human understanding of the universe.

Is there an easy way to know if something comes from engineers versus scientists? There’s no perfect rule, but generally the following applies:

  • What will they think of next?  – This usually applies to engineering
  • You won’t believe what they just discovered! – This usually applies to scientists

Engineering is huge fun – who doesn’t want to be an inventor?  But aside from the fun, it’s also true that a disproportionate number of the wealthiest people in the world made their fortune through engineering (and often by creating companies from their engineering work).

While I was teaching robotics I found the following two videos that do a great job at introducing engineering. If you’re interested in engineering but not 100% certain what it’s really all about, I strongly recommend you take a few minutes to watch these.

 

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