Engineering philosophy

What is engineering? This is a question that has plagued me for many years of my life, and my definition is still evolving as I learn more about my own field. As a child playing with model trains, an engineer was easily defined as the guy driving the train. This definition got muddled as I got older and began thinking about college, and I heard that engineering was a major for people who like math and science. Since I was always comfortable with math and science in high school, I thought that I should learn more. Well, learning more led me to many different definitions of engineering, none of which resonated clearly with me, though I was able to get a sense that it was the application of math and science. Fortunately, the looseness of the definition of engineering didn't deter me from pursuing my higher education in the field.

Something that always struck me as odd is that the highest academic degree that an engineer can earn is called a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Before that, engineers typically earn Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees, so why does it then become a subject of philosophy? The more I started to think about this, the more I started to question why the earlier degrees are considered sciences. Yes, engineers apply science to their work, but sometimes they do it in a way that is clearly an art. Consider the engineers that design a car, and think about all of the constraints they are bound to: The car has to fit the geometric constraints of roads and parking spaces, it has to meet the government's fuel economy and safety standards, customers have to like the way it looks and feels, not to mention the fact that the engine and powertrain have to work seamlessly and reliably. Creating something that can satisfy all of these requirements requires knowledge of the science as well as some creative thinking and spatial reasoning, especially when they want to differentiate their vehicles from those of the competitors. So, to start my definition of engineering, I would say that engineers apply science in an artful way.

Okay, that's fine, but what are they artfully applying science for? It's all about solving problems. Engineers solve all types of problems, which is why there are now so many different fields beneath the umbrella of engineering. Communications problems, energy problems, logistical problems, transportation problems, health problems, environmental problems, construction problems—all of these are complex problems facing society, and they require a combination of art, science, and engineering thinking to solve. I should acknowledge that people often complain when our actions come with some level of risk and unforeseen consequences, but when these arise there are always new engineers to set out on solving those problems! I suppose in that sense engineering is a very sustainable profession—many of our engineering solutions present new problems, which themselves need engineering solutions.

The final aspect that I believe is essential to engineering is design. Engineers use different tools for different applications—some use mathematics, some use physics, biology, and chemistry, and others use heuristic tools—but the main objective of an engineer is to design something that will improve the well-being of society. And design doesn't have to be a physical object; design can be of a system, a service, a policy, or even a thought process. The main idea is that something new is being developed to solve an existing problem.

Engineering is solving societal problems by artfully applying math and science through design. Engineering is a noble and intellectual profession, and I'm proud to be a part of it.