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2.3: What Makes an Engineer?

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    Engineers solve problems using math, science, and technology. They also design products that are useful for humans. To become an engineer you need a degree in engineering that will provide you with a broad background in math, science, and technology, as engineers use these skills to solve problems on a daily basis. Besides the broad background, engineering students also choose a specialization in some branch of engineering. Engineers in each branch have knowledge and skills that can be applied to many fields and can contribute to solving many different types of problems. Since many engineering projects encompass multiple problems to solve, engineers in one field often work closely with specialists in other fields, including scientists, other engineers, and business leaders.

    Engineering Specialization

    Most engineering specializations have emerged over the past 200 years as scientific knowledge in various fields has grown. Prior to that, engineering focused primarily on the construction of roads, bridges, canals, or military structures and devices.


    To better understand the breadth of engineering specializations it is time to make another list. This time you do not need to do any research. Simply make a list of all of the engineering specializations or types of engineers you can think of, and write a brief description of one of those specializations. Refer to the list of engineering societies that represent different engineering specializations at the end of this chapter. How many were you able to name? Are there others that you did not write down? Was your description of the engineering specialization similar to the description listed? You may want to spend some time reading all of the descriptions to better understand the various engineering specializations.


    Now that you are familiar with some of the different engineering specializations and the major societies that represent engineering, let us see if you can match an engineering design project with an engineering specialization.

    An aircraft manufacturer wants to design and manufacture the world’s largest airplane. What type of engineer(s) should they hire?

    From reading the description of engineering specializations at the end of the chapter, your first response might be an aerospace engineer. However, did you know that there are miles of electrical wiring and thousands of electronic devices inside of an airplane such as the Airbus A380 shown in the Figure below? Therefore, it might be a good idea to hire an engineer with some knowledge of electrical systems (perhaps an electrical engineer). We probably do not want the aircraft to break into pieces under the weight of the hundreds of people or thousands of pounds of cargo inside the aircraft, so it might be a good idea to hire structural engineers or civil engineers. Today there are thousands of different materials that can be used to manufacture products so we might want to hire engineers with specialized knowledge of materials (materials engineer). Pilots need to be able to operate the very specialized equipment that controls an airplane, so you might want to hire engineers who specialize in human-computer interaction (industrial engineer). It might also be a good idea to hire systems engineers who have specialized knowledge of how the different parts of the aircraft (mechanical, electrical, structural, materials, human-computer interaction) fit and work together.


    The Airbus A380 is the largest commercial jetliner in the world. It can carry up to 850 passengers in two passenger decks in the fuselage.

    Enrichment Activity (Quick)

    Select one of the engineer profiles in the beginning of the chapter. Write a brief report that explains what type of engineering specialization, if any, you think the engineer has.

    Enrichment Activity (Medium)

    To better understand the engineering specializations, go to the websites of one or more or the professional societies and read about the specialization. Write a report that describes the engineering specialization you selected.

    Engineering Skills

    Many employers hire engineers because of particular skills, and not because of a particular discipline, degree, or specialization. Let us explore the range of engineering skills and educational degrees that employers look for in their employees. Job advertisements usually describe a position and list the skills, experience, and education required or desired for the position. Engineering skills can be highly technical, and may include the ability to use certain types of math and science, the ability to use certain types of instruments, the ability to operate certain types of computer programs, or the ability to apply certain areas of specialized engineering knowledge.


    At the end of the chapter you will find several engineering job advertisements that were posted on the Internet in 2007. As you read them, you may notice terms that are new or unfamiliar to you, particularly if the ad is describing a specialized technical skill. You may also see terms that you do understand. Read each of the job descriptions and requirements carefully. Make a list of the degree requirements for each position, the experience required for each position, and the skill requirements that you understand. Did you notice that an engineering degree was listed as a requirement in all three ads? You might have also noticed that none of the positions required a specific engineering specialization.

    About half of all engineering job advertisements today do not require a discipline-specific engineering degree. Rather they require an engineering degree coupled with a set of specific skills or experience.

    Two of the ads list a desired number of years of experience, and all of the ads list specific types of experience. Below you will find one example from each of the ads.

    • Ad 1: Experience in managing complex, high-profile projects.
    • Ad 2: Familiarity or experience in one or more of the following areas: product development, program management, imaging and printing.
    • Ad 3: Experience in injection molding plastics

    Experience is a very important qualification for most engineering jobs. Many engineering students gain experience while they are in school through internships and/or through part-time employment. Others gain employment experience after school and progress to new positions as they gain more experience.

    Let us now look at some of the engineering skills with which you are probably more familiar. Did you notice that all three ads require good communication skills?

    • Ad 1: Demonstrates strong communication skills by clearly documenting activities and presenting information, technical content and ideas through spoken and written words; listens well.
    • Ad 2: Good communication skills
    • Ad 3: Strong communication skills with the ability to initiate establish and maintain positive relationships with internal and external customers. Clean, accurate, precise work and documentation.

    Engineers must be able to communicate their ideas to others. Engineers often make presentations, write technical reports, and interact with customers and other technical experts.

    One of the ads uses the following words: “clean, accurate, precise work and documentation.” Many engineers keep detailed notebooks of their work. This helps them remember how they solved a problem, or why they chose to design a product a certain way. Do you think the Wright Brothers kept good notes while they were trying to design the world’s first airplane? They recorded every experiment, every failure, and every success. Sometimes engineering notes are used to apply for patents that can be quite valuable. Sometimes engineers must defend their designs when problems occur. Why do you think it would be important to have engineering notes and documentation in the case of an engineering failure, such as the collapse of a bridge or a building? One answer is that notes and documentation help engineers find the causes of failure, which ultimately leads to improved designs. Another answer is that good documentation can protect engineers against lawsuits.

    All three ads also required good organizational skills.

    • Ad 1: Defines and prioritizes realistic, specific goals; able to complete scheduled tasks in the face of changing priorities.
    • Ad 2: Good organizational skills, multitask ability, teamwork ability a must, self-directed
    • Ad 3: Detail-oriented, strong organization skills, time management (time lines), and deadline driven. Self-starter, motivated, and proactive.

    Engineers frequently work on multiple projects simultaneously (multitasking), and most of those projects have different tasks and corresponding deadlines. Engineers also usually work with one or more teams simultaneously, where each team member has different skills and responsibilities. Task deadlines are critical to the success of most projects. Sometimes missing a deadline can cause an entire project to be cancelled, or may result in the loss of significant revenue. For example, imagine that you are on a team designing a new video game controller. If you do not finish the design, testing and manufacture of the product, your company may miss the holiday season in which the majority of product sales will occur. Or perhaps your company knows that another firm is also designing a new video game controller and that the first company to get their product to market is likely to acquire the most customers.

    Enrichment Activity (Medium)

    Look at five engineering job openings on a job posting website or in the newspaper and list the specific qualifications of those five positions. Are there qualifications that they all have in common?

    Enrichment Activity (Medium)

    Identify one or two engineering skills from the advertisements below that interest you, and do some research to explain the nature and details of that skill.

    One ad listed the following requirement:

    • Ad 1: Uses a logical, systematic approach to solving problems through analysis and evaluation of alternate solutions.

    Engineers learn to solve problems using a careful systematic problem-solving approach. Note that the requirement also states, “…and evaluation of alternative solutions.” Usually, there is more than one solution to a problem.


    A fire has been burning in a coal mine for several years in the northeastern United States. As shown in the two images (Figure below and below), the fire is completely underground; smoke rises through cracks in the ground in some areas and the ground has collapsed in several locations. There are many potential solutions to this problem: we could fill the mine with water; we could try to smother the fire by cutting off oxygen; or we could just let it burn.

    There are many possible solutions to most problems, and in order to ensure the best solution is selected it is important that engineers evaluate each and every alternative. In the situation above, which of the solution to the mine fire do you think would cost the most? Which solution would cause the most harm to the environment or to the people that live in the area? Which solution is most likely to actually put out the fire? These are the sorts of questions engineers must answer to arrive at an optimal solution. The solution that was actually chosen for the mine fire was to let the fire continue to burn.


    A fire in an underground coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been burning since 1962.


    Smoke rising up through cracks in the pavement caused by the intense heat of the fire burning below.

    Engineering Education

    In 2006 there were approximately 350 engineering colleges or schools in the United States and Canada. There are hundreds more in other countries. Most engineering colleges or schools have multiple engineering programs that offer degrees in different engineering specializations. For example, Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe and Mesa, Arizona, offers the following 12 engineering and engineering technology degrees. In addition, within many of these degrees are specialized concentrations or focus areas.

    • Aerospace Engineering
    • Bioengineering
    • Chemical Engineering
    • Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Computer Engineering
    • Electrical Engineering
    • Electronics Engineering Technology
    • Engineering (multidisciplinary)
    • Industrial Engineering
    • Manufacturing Engineering Technology
    • Mechanical Engineering
    • Mechanical Engineering Technology

    Engineering programs are usually accredited by an organization outside of the university. Accreditation is like a stamp of approval, indicating that the engineering program has been evaluated, and that it meets standards for a quality process, adequate resources, and an appropriate engineering curriculum. The largest accreditation organization for engineering programs is ABET. In 2007, ABET accredited more than 2,700 different programs in engineering, technology, applied science, and computing.

    ABET requires that all engineering programs demonstrate that their students attain the outcomes shown in Table 1. These outcomes are quite general, and are needed by almost any engineer. In addition to these outcomes, there are specific outcomes required by each engineering discipline. Thus, electrical engineering students must demonstrate the ability to design complex electrical and electronic systems; mechanical engineering students must demonstrate the ability to design and realize thermal and mechanical systems. Finally, each engineering program may have outcomes that are specific to the program; for example, these outcomes may address the needs of companies or industries that hire the program’s graduates. If you study engineering in an ABET-accredited program, you will spend part of your time pursuing each of these different outcomes.

    Student outcomes required by ABET of every engineering program.


    • an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering;
    • an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data;
    • an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability;
    • an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams;
    • an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems;
    • an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility;
    • an ability to communicate effectively;
    • the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context;
    • a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning;
    • a knowledge of contemporary issues;
    • an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

    To prepare to study engineering in college, you should get a good foundation in high school in math and science. Look at Outcome (a) in Table 1 (an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering). In most college engineering programs, students study chemistry, physics, higher math (either calculus or discrete mathematics), and possibly biology; so you need to be prepared to enter into college-level study in these areas. You will be best prepared if you take high school courses in all of these areas. In addition, it is helpful if you are ready to start calculus while in your first year in college.

    Completing an engineering curriculum can be challenging and will probably require many hours of study outside of the classroom. Most undergraduate engineering programs are designed so that you can complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Because they were not well prepared in high school or do not stay on track as a full-time student, many students, however, take five or more years to complete their degrees.

    Completing an engineering degree with good grades opens up many possible gratifying career paths. An engineering degree provides the foundation for the types of careers discussed in the profiles in the section “Some Practicing Engineers.” Many graduates of engineering programs also move into technical sales or engineering management positions within the first ten years of their careers. In addition, an engineering degree provides an excellent starting point for graduate education. Many people with a bachelor’s degree in engineering choose to pursue a master’s degree in an engineering specialization to gain advanced and deep knowledge. A bachelors degree in engineering also provides a good foundation for an advanced degree in law, business, or even medicine.

    Enrichment Activity (Long)

    Identify two different university engineering programs, preferably at different schools. Research the admission requirements and the classes you would be expected to take in the first two years of the program. How many of these courses are math, science, and engineering courses? See if you can identify the courses in each of these areas.

    Engineering Licensure

    Many engineers choose to become licensed as a professional engineer (PE). While licensure is not required for the majority of engineering careers, only licensed professionals are allowed to offer their services to the public and sign and seal plans for the public. Some engineers who are not required to hold a professional license choose to do so for other reasons; for example, some do it to demonstrate that they have accomplished a recognized standard. It may also be advantageous when seeking or changing employment opportunities, as the PE certification sets a candidate apart from other nonlicensed engineers.

    The requirements for engineering licensure are determined by each state, and therefore vary somewhat from state to state. Despite the variations, there is a standard process. The first step is to graduate from an ABET-accredited engineering program. The second step is to take the engineering fundamentals exam (FE) that covers the fundamental engineering sciences that are studied in engineering school. The third step is to acquire experience through employment, the criteria for which varies from state to state. The final step is to take the engineering professional examination.

    Review Questions

    The following questions will help you assess your understanding of the Discovering Engineering section. There may be one, two, three, or even four correct answers to each question. To demonstrate your understanding, you should find all of the correct answers.

    1. Engineers often work closely with
      1. other engineers
      2. business people
      3. teachers
      4. the public
    2. In the past 200 years, engineers have specialized because
      1. there were too many people in one field of engineering
      2. the space program needed more inventions
      3. knowledge of science and technology has increased
      4. they could make more money as a specialist
    3. If you were an aircraft manufacturer which engineers would you need to hire?
      1. Structural
      2. Electrical
      3. Aerospace
      4. Material
    4. An engineering skill is
      1. the same as an engineering specialty or discipline
      2. the ability to use certain kinds of instruments
      3. the degrees you have earned such as a master’s degree
      4. the number of years you have worked at an engineering firm
    5. Engineering experience can be gained by
      1. taking extra courses
      2. reading outside of class
      3. taking things apart at home
      4. internships
    6. Engineers use their communication skills to
      1. apply for jobs
      2. make presentations
      3. interact with customers
      4. ask for a raise
    7. Engineers keep a notebook to document their work so that they have
      1. data to gain a patent
      2. data for lawsuit
      3. information to review their designs when problems occur
      4. data to prove hours worked
    8. Engineers work
      1. only in very large companies
      2. only with other engineers
      3. almost always alone
      4. in one or more teams
    9. Engineering teams consist of engineers with different
      1. responsibilities
      2. skills
      3. designs
      4. deadlines
    10. Engineering problems have
      1. one best solution
      2. partial solutions
      3. more than one solution
      4. complex solutions
    11. Engineering programs are accredited by an organization called
      1. ENGG
      2. ASU
      3. NSF
      4. ABET
    12. Students in engineering programs must have
      1. an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility
      2. knowledge of contemporary issues
      3. a broad education
      4. ability to engage in lifelong learning
    13. Most engineering societies
      1. help engineers find employment
      2. have a strong educational component
      3. require advanced degrees for membership
      4. are sponsored by businesses
    14. A well-prepared student who studies engineering full time will take
      1. as little as two years to complete a degree
      2. five plus years to complete a degree
      3. six years to complete a degree
      4. four to five years to complete a degree
    15. Calculus is important to engineering. Students who do not take calculus in high school
      1. can never become an engineer
      2. should take calculus in their first year of college
      3. can skip calculus if they have taken algebra
      4. can substitute physics for calculus
    16. Courses in an engineering major may include
      1. calculus
      2. physics
      3. chemistry
      4. biology

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