1660238331618 Rhinehart

16 things about being an engineer that they don't teach at university

Feb. 25, 2020
Engineering is an activity that delivers solutions that work for all stakeholders

Engineering is not just about technical competence. State-of-the-art commercial software beats novice humans in speed and completeness in technical calculations. Engineering is a decision-making process about technology in human enterprises, human value systems and human aspirations. To put it another way, engineering is “the use of heuristics to cause the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources,” stated B. V. Koen in “Definition of the Engineering Method,” American Society for Engineering Education, Washington, DC, 1985.

When I was in academia, during an exercise with faculty and Industrial Advisory Committee members to understand the desires of our students’ employers, it became apparent engineering is a way to balance opposing ideals, and we developed this list to capture the values that guide the practice of engineering.

Engineering is an activity that delivers solutions that work for all stakeholders. Desirably, engineering:

  1. Seeks simplicity in analysis and solutions, while being comprehensive in scope.
  2. Is careful, correct, self-critical and defensible, yet it's performed with a sense of urgency.
  3. Analyzes individual mechanisms, and integrates stages to understand the whole.
  4. Employs state-of-the-art science and heuristics.
  5. Balances sufficiency with perfection.
  6. Develops sustainable solutions—profitable and acceptable today, without burdening future stakeholders.
  7. Tempers personal gain with benefit to others.
  8. Is creative; yet follows codes, regulations, and standard practices.
  9. Manages risk— balances probable loss with probable gain, but not at the expense of EHS&LP.
  10. Is a collaborative, partnership activity energized by individuals.
  11. Is an intellectual analysis that leads to implementation and fruition.
  12. Is scientifically valid, yet effectively communicated to all stakeholders.
  13. Generates concrete recommendations that honestly reveal uncertainty.
  14. Is grounded in technical fundamentals and the human context (societal, economic and political).
  15. Is grounded in allegiance to the bottom line of the company and to ethical standards of technical and personal conduct.
  16. Supports enterprise harmony while seeking to cause beneficent change. 

Students should graduate knowing these fundamentals about the way of engineering, as a complement to their fundamental knowledge and skill of the core science and technical topics.

But, since students aren't usually introduced to these concepts in school, I think these could be important discussion topics between mentors and new employees when seeking to develop workforce potential.

Where is the middle between, for instance, the opposing ideals of sufficiency and perfection? A straight line is very long. No matter where one stands, the line disappears into the horizons to the left and right. No matter where one stands, it feels like the middle, the point of right balance between the extremes. But, the person way to the left thinks they're in the middle, too.

The middle isn't the academic/science perspective about intellectual ability, which is the fitness criteria for student selection in school. Neither is the middle defined by political or religious dogma, or your personal set of inherited "shoulds." The middle is associated with functionality within the enterprise context.

About the author: R. Russell Rhinehart
About the Author

R. Russell Rhinehart | Columnist

Russ Rhinehart started his career in the process industry. After 13 years and rising to engineering supervision, he transitioned to a 31-year academic career. Now “retired," he returns to coaching professionals through books, articles, short courses, and postings to his website at www.r3eda.com.

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