What Does An Engineer Do?
    By Aimee Stern | July 31st 2010 02:28 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I have been working with scientists and engineers on explaining their research and other work to the general public for almost a decade. I've explained the science of many things and how they connect to the real lives of real people. But it occurred to me this morning that if you asked me to come up with a sentence or two on what an engineer's job is, I would struggle with it.

    What exactly does an engineer do? How is he or she different from a scientist? What is their role in our world?

    Did I mention that I am dating an engineer who works for a big local utility company, and I don't understand what he does either.

    So I did what most people would do and Googled it - Asking what an engineer does of the world's most incredible search engine. Here's some of what came up on the first page or two.

    From Georgia Tech - Engineering is the practical application of science and math to solve
    problems, and it is everywhere in the world around you. From the start to the end of each day, engineering technologies improve the ways that we communicate, work, travel, stay healthy, and entertain ourselves.

    From IEEE - They came up second and there was no definition so I typed my question onto their web site search tool.  A bunch of listings with the word engineer in it came up. Maybe there is something else up there, but I didn't see it quickly so on to the next site.

    From Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering - The field of engineering has become so diverse in recent years that a definition is not easy to come by. Yes, engineers still
    build skyscrapers, design machinery, and oversee public works. But that's
    only the beginning. They also address society's needs and problems on a number
    of other scales with a unique blend of technology and science. At the atomic level,
    materials engineers are developing data storage techniques focusing on
    the spin of electrons in atoms. At the molecular level, chemical and bioengineers
    are working on drug delivery systems that work inside cells. At the macro level,
    environmental engineers are quantifying the particle flow of
    pollutants through soil to better understand how to clean up abandoned industrial sites, oil
    spills, and other biohazards. And at the galactic level, astronautical
    engineers are designing spacecraft for other-world exploration.

    From Wikipedia - Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring
    and applying technical, scientific, and mathematical knowledge to design
    and implement materials, structures, machines, devices, systems, and processes that safely realize a desired objective or invention.

    From the University of Pittsburgh - The origins of engineering go back to the very beginning of human civilization where tools were first created and developed. Today, the
    field of engineering offers more career options than any other
    discipline. Engineering students can have their pick of many fields.
    From mechanical to civil to bioengineering to industrial, each
    discipline will lead to an exciting and rewarding life and career. To
    put it simply, engineering is the application of science to the needs of

    From Dartmouth - The Dartmouth/Thayer approach to engineering problem solving is a
    framework for bringing problems of the "real world" into the classroom. Students
    solve these problems by proceeding through a problem-solving cycle, step by
    carefully documented step. If they discover that the solution they are working on is, in fact,
    unviable, they examine their paper trail and move back only so far as they need, perhaps
    only a single step.

    When students have gone the full round of the problem-solving
    cycle, they look at the original problem and decide whether their solution is specific
    enough or whether they need to iterate the cycle.

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder -

    Fundamentally, engineering is about creating things for the benefit
    of society. Airplanes, buildings, bridges, telephones …
    where would the world be without these things?

    Engineers have developed the world’s communication,transportation and building infrastructures, while also making it possible

    for people to live longer, healthier lives. Clean drinking water, safe
    food storage, and the protection of our environment are all in
    the domain of the engineer.

    Some engineers create really big things, like skyscrapers and dams, while others focus on really small things. Through the advancement of technology, engineers are now developing complex miniaturized devices, so small they can be implanted in the human body to monitor and treat disease.

    So what's an engineering career information seeker or just a curious person supposed to do?

    Well no one has the same definition and some of the ones I found just don't make much sense.

    Clearly the last explanation from the University of Colorado is the most accessible to the general public.

    But my point is this - If the engineers don't have a standard definition that everyone can understand - how are we supposed to know what they do? How is the next generation supposed to get interested in becoming an engineer?

    So I ask all of you out there on ScientificBlogging what does an engineer do? Can you help me explain it to a fifth grader?


    Richard King
    I ended up in the engineering profession by accident, in many way, and will endeavour to explain in a Blog, sometime. I did not understand what engineering was, did not entirely while practising as an engineer for many decades, though am now coming to a greater understanding.

    While trying to finish, finalise, my book manuscript and being in something of a hiatus for other reasons, as well as wondering about the application of the engineering approach in other areas, I have researched and read a great deal about the philosophy of engineering.

    Although there was some thinking, particularly in the philosophical sense, about engineering prior to recent decades, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most seems to have taken place in the last fifty years or so, via people like Professors Billy Vaughn Koen and Carl Mitcham, as well as even more recently, the last decade, or so, by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

    Engineering, as you seem to have discovered, is not easy to define, though that goes for many other things to some degree; if you are determined enough it is not often too difficult to find a definition of whatever, somewhere or other, that, more or less, fits with ones first thoughts. The perception of engineering seems to vary somewhat from country to country, partly for historical reasons; hence, from what I have read, engineering is perceived to be closer to being applied science, than it is in Europe, even though, in a Carl Mitcham authored paper there was a comment about the American Board of Engineering and Technology requirements for science in engineering courses being less than 18%.

    As well as the physical sciences, engineering includes, mathematics, economics, sociology, psychology, deign, creativity, etc.

    Engineering uses heuristics, which is anything that acts as a plausible aid, or direction, in the solution of a problem but is in the final analysis unjustified, incapable of justification and potentially fallible. (Billy Vaughn Koen, “Discussion of the Method”.) In Koen’s view, science is as much a heuristic as all the others used by engineers. Whatever methods, aids, an engineer uses, the final call is always based on engineering judgment, usually based on the experience of the engineer, his colleagues and the documented experience of other engineers.

    Also due to Koen, the engineering method is the strategy of causing the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources, so, an engineer is a person who does just that. It is the application of the engineering method, or at least a more universalized method, along the lines proposed by Koen, to poorly understoodsituations, subject areas, that has become of particular interest to me.

    Engineering is heavily dependent on knowledge and experience, including that outside science. Structural models are one thing; applying them to the real world quite another. The science of materials only goes so far; engineers went further than science would strictly allow by their knowledge of real materials, as opposed to models based on the science of the material structure. There is a science of fatigue and crack propagation but it runs into limitations when applied to real machines and structures, hence it is often described as a black art, at lest in engineering application. That is entirely appropriate as engineering really is an art; an art that uses whatever it finds useful, based on experience, directed science, etc., to achieves its ends.

    As with many subject areas on Wikipedia, the descriptions of an engineering and engineering are inadequate to poor. However, as a U.K. Chartered Engineer, I have found the “Chartered Engineer, U.K.” Wikipedia page ( unusually, for Wikipedia, accurate. I gained my chartered Engineer status, in the mid-1970s, via a four year First Degree plus relevant experience, though added a Master’s a few years later.

    As far as I am aware, someone with a Science Degree can call themselves a scientist, maybe even a professional one; I have not delved into the requirements and regulations of the Science Institutions. Unfortunately, in the U.K. anyone can call themselves an engineer, even without a Degree; the title Chartered Engineer is a quite different matter as it is protected by Law.

    I am not sure how much that helps in your quest for understanding the profession. I hope to become more involved in the philosophy of engineering and other applications of it in due course. In the meantime I recommend the writings of Billy Vaughn Koen (particularly “Discussion of the Method – Conducting the Engineer’s Approach to Problem Solving”, Oxford university Press;, Carl Mitcham ( and the proceedings of the Royal Academy of Engineering Conferences on the Philosophy of Engineering (e.g.

    As far as I am aware, someone with a Science Degree can call themselves a scientist, maybe even a professional one; I have not delved into the requirements and regulations of the Science Institutions. Unfortunately, in the U.K. anyone can call themselves an engineer, even without a Degree; the title Chartered Engineer is a quite different matter as it is protected by Law.
    'Professional' is an overused term today because of the prestige of the 5 professions historically - those are medicine, law, engineering, teaching and the military (other jobs are occupations, trades, etc.) but PE (professional engineer) in the US was created as an ironic special designation due to the overuse of both engineer and profession, because an engineering degree does not make an engineer any more than a degree in military science makes one an Army officer.
    Richard King
    I would agree with you over the matter of the word professional, though, versus “trade” there still seem to be some who do not know the difference, going by something I came across recently.

    I agree with an engineering degree not being sufficient, though my Degree was of the sandwich type; April to September of each of the first three year, of the four year course, was spent in industry and was assessed by a tutor from the University in discussion with the student and a supervisor at the placement company; the fourth year being three terms to the final exams. Even so, it took another few years in industry before CEng status was awarded. I do not know what happened to a contemporary at Brunel ( who, according to colleagues of his, also sponsored by Government departments, he was useless during industrial periods, though always was going to achieve the First Class Honours Degree that he was, in due course, awarded.

    It would have made us more visible if the CEng had been a prefix, like Ing in mainstream Europe, or Euro Ing, which can be obtained in this Country, under certain circumstances. In Canada it looks quite mixed, depending on whether you speak English, or French (

    In any event, virtually whichever country you look at, professional engineering status requires far more than just a degree, as with other professions of comparable level.

    There is quite a lot happening in the engineering, science and education fields, the health service and many others, due to changes, including cuts, by the new Coalition Government, plus the odd funding spat, as between the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering It looks as if our Universities are going to be hit hard by funding cuts.

    Intriguingly, the new Minister of State for the Universities and Science is David Willetts, M.P. for Havant, Hampshire (;, though his website does not seem to have been updated since the election. I live in Havant, so David Willetts is my local Member of Parliament; though I have not met him since an inaugural event for Havant Literary Festival a couple of years ago.

    I am beginning to surface after being chased by both my wife, Jo, and our Financial Advisor, to finalise my book manuscript; it should lead to circumstances where I can do research in a particular field that I have already discussed with university representatives, apart from numerous other possibilities and,
    intriguingly, I received an E-mail from a prominent Russian researcher in the field last week, who wishes to correspond, and a normal mail this week from an involved organisation. Hence, I have not blogged much anywhere for some time. I gathered from a discussion on Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins’ Cork Board that there had been membership changes due to spam problems, etc. somewhere along the line I lost my “Write Blog” connection. I would be grateful if it could be reconnected so that I can write about topics, such as the ones mentioned above, as well as engineering, on SB.

    I would agree with you over the matter of the word professional, though, versus “trade” there still seem to be some who do not know the difference, going by something I came across recently.
    In the modern world language has become subjective so that's fine.   A salesperson can be called a sales engineer, for example, because language has become diluted.   Likewise, if every occupation is now a profession, we have one too many terms.
    hum... interesting.

    3 simple words: 'engineers build things'.  Or if you're wordy, "engineers design and build things".

    You can go into things like 'problem solving' and 'bettering society',  but that is also part of being a good manager, or doctor, or janitor, and lots of others.

    Oh, and "scientists discover things".  Ideally, for engineers to build :)

    Alex, at The Daytime Astronomer
    The word "engineer" derives from the Latin word "ingenium", which means "machine". And machines are all things made by people in order to serve a practical purpose. Engineers design and build machines, all kinds of machines, e.g. a driveway, a faucet, or a spacecraft. (Try this on the fifth grader and let me know if it works)