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As a 17 year-old high school student who has committed an entire summer to a structural engineering internship, I’ve discovered how much the information schools teach to children about engineering differs from what engineers do on a daily basis. Students ultimately develop serious misconceptions about the fields that deter them from undertaking engineering careers. Based on experiences from my internship, I want to clear those misconceptions and hopefully guide fellow students onto an engineering path.
Misconception #1: Engineers are hermits
When I asked my peers how they view engineering, many believed engineers just sat in cubicles all day, interacting only with computers. However, I see engineering not simply as a technical profession, but rather as a business. Its main priority is to serve the customer.
During my structural engineering internship, every few hours a client would call, either asking for the boss to attend a meeting or requesting an engineer to either consult or conduct a job-site visit. The meetings allow clients to convey their expectations, and the visits allow engineers to talk to other professionals about projects. I’ve been to meetings where clients proposed new buildings and meetings where clients requested cost-reduction above all else. Typical visits required engineers to discuss modifications to building plans, sometimes to solve issues that construction teams faced. From what I’ve seen, communication with professionals and hands-on tasks are the most important aspects of engineering. Hermit? Absolutely not.
Misconception #2: Engineers are geniuses
This, in my opinion, is where the school system has failed. Instead of focusing on innovation and cooperation, the system bombards students with math and science. Instructors assign redundant problems and give dull lectures, rarely explaining why the concepts are important and how they are applicable. Consequently, students lose interest in these subjects, leading to struggle and even fear of math and science. Too many students think they won’t be good engineers because they’ll never handle the mathematics and sciences that engineering requires.
The structural engineers at the office laughed when I told them this view on engineering. The truth is that real-world engineering rarely uses high-level mathematics. Complex computations can be accomplished through computers. Simulation programs allow engineers to easily understand how physical sciences affect concrete beams and steel columns. Engineering codes, compilations of the actual mathematicians’ and scientists’ research results, act as guides to ensure that engineering practices meet regulations. An engineer’s job is not to calculate, but rather to use his technical background to solve problems, which usually consists of a set of given conditions and a final result. Using those conditions, engineers use their understandings of mathematical and scientific concepts along with the engineering code to reach a solution. Essentially, it is problem solving. Similar to how nobody hires a detective to solve a puzzle, no engineer uses Newton-level mathematics and Einstein-level sciences to complete a project.
Misconception #3: Engineers are inventors
Once upon a time, there was an electrical engineer named Edison. His bright invention was so useful that people wrote “Inventor” on a sticker and pinned it to his forehead. Moral of this story? Inventors are not engineers. Contrary to what many people, especially students, think, engineers aren’t constantly making new things. As seen by individuals who led to monumental creations such as the Eiffel Tower, the horseless carriage, and the iPhone, innovation is an honor that is achieved.
The last section focused on using math and science along with the engineering code to meet the client’s expectations. This gets the job done, but it’s barely creative to use precedent concepts and codes to design something. As my boss put it, “Innovation is asking yourself, ‘How can I stray from the conventional method to meet the client’s demand?’” My understanding is that to innovate is to be unconventional. It’s to step into unknown boundaries and come back with something incredibly beneficial to society. This, in my opinion, is the key to success as an engineer. Unfortunately, this key is also what schools don’t teach to students.
I can’t say that I know everything about how real-world engineering is, but I at least have an appreciation for it. From skyscrapers to airplanes to computers, I can only marvel at how much engineering benefits our lives. That said, I can’t even imagine how much engineering will benefit our future. However, until the school system allows more students to appreciate engineering as much as I do, we’re going to have to keep waiting on that brighter future.
Leo (Silin) Huang
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