The importance of economics led to this informal definition of engineering: engineering is doing for one dollar what any darn fool can do for two. Although money and economics may seem a boring focus in one's work, they are truly the exciting aspects of engineering. The next time you buy a can of soup, realize that it costs less today than it did 150 years ago when canned food was invented. And if you use a personal computer, realize that it has the same computing power, in a box costing a couple of thousand dollars that a room-sized monster machine costing millions of dollars had in the 1960s. Smart engineering made the difference.
What Engineers Do
What do engineers do? They build bridges, design aircraft, run power plants and factories, and get ore from the ground. All these things are well known, but they are not the only tasks performed by engineers. Engineering work is as varied as the individuals who practice it.
Engineers not only design aircraft, for example, they also build them, test them, and fly them. That includes everything from satellites to blimps, gliders, or rockets. The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was an engineer.
Engineers build bridges; they also build tunnels, highways, dams, airports, and docks. For living or working space, they design and build homes, offices, and factories. And to those who say that engineers only destroy nature by building things, one can reply that engineers are also involved in preserving wetlands and shorelines, restoring forests, and cleaning up dumps.
Bridges or highways are one way of connecting people; another is the Internet and other communication networks that we depend on today. These networks feature undersea wires, satellites revolving overhead and wireless communications with microwaves or radio. Electrical, electronics, and communications engineers built every node of these networks.
Engineers not only run factories, they are also developing robots that eliminate boring, repetitive work. They help establish innovative work practices such as self-managed production lines or quality circles-two ways to increase the productivity of workers and the quality of the products. They help develop production techniques that reduce pollution and raise efficiency.
And finally, to those who say that engineers work only in smoky factories or on noisy construction work sites, one could reply that engineers also help artists create new visual forms and musical sounds. They help design new entertainments at amusement parks or video arcades and new sports equipment for the use and enjoyment of the Olympic athlete or the weekend hacker. Engineers are in government, education, charities, and community work. Yes, many engineers work on the factory floor; but many also work in laboratories, offices, on ocean platforms, in the mountains, at the shore, or on city streets.
If there is one dominant message, it is that an engineering education doesn't lead to only one or two types of careers or work environments. Engineering is a gateway to a huge, diverse array of opportunities.
Engineers and Scientists
Many young people who excel in the sciences aren't sure whether a career as an engineer or as a scientist is the best future for them. In many ways, the two careers are similar. Many engineers, especially those who get an advanced degree, do exactly the same type of work as scientists with advanced degrees. They can both work in laboratories, running experiments and analyzing data to develop fundamental rules or principles about how nature works. Conversely, many scientists start their careers in a corporate laboratory or as a quality manager in a production line and then develop into factory managers or administrators.
Some sharp students, having noticed the commonality between the two fields, have decided to study in one field as an undergraduate and in the other as a graduate student. The switch from engineering undergraduate to scientific graduate is somewhat easier than the reverse because engineers take more math than do most science majors. However, it can be done either way.
There are, of course, differences between the two. Most college-level science programs are designed to prepare the student for work in a laboratory or for graduate school. Engineering programs are designed to prepare students for work in business and industry, with opportunities ranging from design to production to sales. This diversity is one of the reasons why there are so many more employment opportunities for engineering students immediately after graduation.