Engineer | Definition and History You Should Know Right Now

Last Updated on June 6, 2023 by Eng Katepa

An Engineer is an individual who combines knowledge of science, mathematics, and economics to solve the Engineering problems that confront society. Nearly all the manufactured objects that surround your result from the efforts of Engineers.

Just think of all that went into making the chair on which you sit. Its metal components came from ores extracted from mines designed by mining Engineers. Metallurgical Engineers refined the metal ores in mills that Civil and mechanical engineers helped build.

Mechanical engineers designed the chair components as well as the machines that fabricated them. The polymers and fabrics in the chair were probably derived from oil that was produced by petroleum engineers and refined by chemical engineers.

The assembled chair was delivered to you in a truck that was designed by mechanical, aerospace, and electrical engineers, in plants that industrial engineers optimized to make the best use of space, capital, and labor. The roads on which the truck traveled were designed and constructed by civil engineers.

Obviously, engineers play an important role in bringing ordinary objects to market. In addition, engineers are key players in some of the most exciting ventures of humankind.

For example, the Apollo program was a wonderful enterprise in which humankind was freed from the confinement of earth and landed on the moon. It was an engineering achievement that captivated the United States and the world. Some pundits say the astronauts never should have gone to the moon, simply because all other achievements pale in comparison; however, we say that even more exciting challenges await you and your generation.

What is an Engineer?

As explained above, Engineers are individuals who combine knowledge of science, mathematics, and economics to solve technical problems that confront society. It is our practical knowledge that distinguishes engineers from scientists, for they too are masters of science and mathematics.

Our emphasis on the practical was eloquently stated by the engineer A. M. Wellington (1847-1895), who described engineering as “the art of doing . . . well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two.”

Although engineers must be very cost-conscious when making ordinary objects for consumer use, some engineering projects are not governed strictly by cost considerations.

President Kennedy promised the world that the Apollo program would place a man on the moon prior to 1970. Our national reputation was at stake and we were trying to prove our technical prowess to the Soviet Union in space, rather than on the battlefield. The cost was a secondary consideration; landing on the moon was the primary consideration.

Thus, engineers can be viewed as problem solvers who assemble the necessary resources to achieve a clearly defined technical objective

Engineer: Origins of the word

The root of the word engineer derives from the engine and ingenious, both of which come from the Latin root in generare, meaning “to create.” In early English, the verb engine meant “to contrive” or “to create.”

The word engineer traces to around A.D. 200 when the Christian author Tertullian described a Roman attack on the Carthaginians using a battering ram described by him as an Ingenium, an ingenious invention. Later, around A.D. 1200, a person responsible for developing such ingenious engines of war (battering rams, floating bridges. assault towers, catapults, etc.) was dubbed an inventor. ln the 1500s, as the meaning of “engines” was broadened, an engineer was a person who made engines.

Today, we would classify a builder of engines as a mechanical engineer, because an engineer, in the more general sense, is “a person who applies science, mathematics, and economics to meet the needs, of humankind.”


Engineers are problem solvers. Given the historical roots of the word engineer (above), we can expand this to say that engineers are ingenious problem solvers.

In a sense, all humans are engineers. A child playing with building blocks who learns how to construct a taller structure is doing engineering. A secretary who stabilizes a wobbly desk by inserting a piece of cardboard under the short leg has engineered a solution to the problem.

Early in human history, there were no formal schools to teach engineering. Engineering was performed by those who had a gift for manipulating the physical world to achieve a practical goal. Often, it would be learned through an apprenticeship with experienced practitioners. This approach resulted in some remarkable accomplishments.

Current engineering education emphasizes mathematics, science, and economics, making engineering an “applied science.” Historically, this was not true; rather, engineers were largely guided by intuition and experience gained either personally or vicariously.

For example, many great buildings, aqueducts, tunnels, mines, and bridges were constructed prior to the early 1700s, when the first scientific foundations were laid for engineering. Engineers often must solve problems without even understanding the underlying theory. Certainly, engineers benefit from scientific theory, but sometimes the solution is required before the theory can catch up to the practice.

For example, theorists are still trying to fully explain high-temperature superconductors while engineers are busy forming flexible wires out of these new materials that may be used in future generations of electrical devices.

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Modern technical challenges are seldom met by the lone engineer. Technology development is a complex process involving the coordinated efforts of a technology team consisting of:

  1. Scientists, study nature in order to advance human knowledge. Although some scientists work in the industry on practical problems, others have successful careers publishing results that may not have immediate practical applications. Typical degree requirements: BS, MS, Ph.D.
  2. Engineers, apply their knowledge of science, mathematics, and economics to develop useful devices, structures, and processes. typical degree requirements: BS, MS, Ph.D.
  3. Technologists, apply science and mathematics to well-defined problems that generally do not require the depth of knowledge possessed by engineers and scientists. Typical degree requirement: BS.
  4. Technicians, work closely with engineers and scientists to accomplish specific tasks such as drafting, laboratory procedures, and model building. typical degree requirement: two-year associate’s degree.
  5. Artisans have the manual skills (welding, machining, carpentry) to construct devices specified by scientists, engineers, technologists, and technicians. Typical degree requirement: high school diploma plus experience.

Successful teamwork results in accomplishments larger than can be produced by individual team members. There is magic when a team coalesces and each member builds off teammates’ ideas and enthusiasm. For this magic to occur and to produce output that surpasses individual efforts, several characteristics must be present:

  1. Mutual respect for the ideas of fellow team members.
  2. The ability of team members to transmit and receive the ideas of the team.
  3. The ability to lay aside criticism of an idea during the early formulation of solutions to a problem.
  4. The ability to build on initial or weakly formed ideas.
  5. The skill to accurately criticize a proposed solution and analyze for both strengths and weaknesses.
  6. The patience to try again when an idea fails or a solution is incomplete.


At this point in your engineering career, you may not have selected a major. Does your future lie in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, or other fields? Once you have made your selection, you will have decided upon your engineering discipline. To help in this decision, we briefly describe the major engineering disciplines and some related fields.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is generally considered the oldest engineering discipline-its works traced back to the Egyptian pyramids and before. Many of the skills possessed by civil engineers (e.g., building walls, bridges, and roads) are extremely useful in warfare, so these engineers worked on both military and civilian projects. To distinguish those engineers who work on civilian projects from those who work on military projects, the British engineer John Smeaton coined the term civil engineer in about 1750.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering was practiced concurrently with civil engineering because many of the devices needed to construct great civil engineering projects were mechanical in nature. During the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850), wonderful machines were developed: steam engines, internal combustion engines, mechanical looms, sewing machines, and more. Here we saw the birth of mechanical engineering as a discipline distinct from civil engineering.

Engineer in engineering responsibilities

Mechanical engineers make engines, vehicles (automobiles, trains, planes), machine tools (lathes, mills), heat exchangers, industrial process equipment, power plants, consumer items (typewriters, pens), and systems for heating, refrigeration, air conditioning, and ventilation. Mechanical engineers must know structures, heat transfer, fluid mechanics, materials, and thermodynamics, among many other things.

Electrical Engineering

Soon after physicists began to understand electricity, the electrical engineering profession was born. Electricity has served two main functions in society: the transmission of power and of information. Those electrical engineers who specialize in power transmission design and build electric generators, transformers, electric motors, and other high-power equipment. Those who specialize in information transmission design and build radios, televisions, computers, antennae, instrumentation, controllers, and communications equipment.

Electronic equipment can be analog (meaning the voltages and currents in the device are continuous values) or digital (meaning only discrete voltages and currents can be attained by the device). As analog equipment is more susceptible to noise and interference than digital equipment, many electrical engineers specialize in digital circuits.

Modern life is largely characterized by electronic equipment. Daily, we rely on many electronic devices-televisions, telephones, computers, calculators, and so on. In the future, the number and variety of these devices can only increase. The fact that electrical
engineering is the largest engineering discipline-comprising over 25% of all engineers underscoring the importance of electrical engineering in modem society.

Chemical Engineering

By 1880, the chemical industry was becoming important in the U.S. economy. At that time, the chemical industry hired two types of technical persons: mechanical engineers and industrial chemists. The chemical engineer combined these two persons into one. The first chemical engineering degree was offered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1888.

Chemical engineering is characterized by a concept called unit operations. A unit operation is an individual piece of process equipment (chemical reactor, heat exchanger, pump, compressor, distillation column). Just as electrical engineers assemble complex circuits from component parts (resistors, capacitors, inductors, batteries), chemical engineers assemble chemical plants by combining unit operations together.

Chemical engineers process raw materials (petroleum, coal, ores, com, trees) into refined products (gasoline, heating oil, plastics, pharmaceuticals, paper). Biochemical engineering is a growing subdiscipline of chemical engineering. Biochemical engineers combine biological processes with traditional chemical engineering to produce food and pharmaceuticals and treat wastes.

Industrial Engineering

In the late 1800s, industries began to use “scientific management” techniques to improve efficiency. Early pioneers in this field did time motion studies on workers to reduce the amount of labor required to produce a product. Today, industrial engineers develop, design, install, and operate integrated systems of people, machinery, and information to produce either goods or services. Industrial engineers bridge engineering and management.

Industrial engineers are famous for designing and operating assembly lines that optimally combine machinery and people. However, they can also optimize train or plane schedules, hospital operations, banks, or overnight package delivery services. Industrial engineers who specialize in human factors design products (e.g., hand tools, airplane cockpits) with the human user in mind.

Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineers design vehicles that operate in the atmosphere and in space. It is a diverse and rapidly changing field that includes four major technology areas: aerodynamics, structures and materials, flight and orbital mechanics and control, and propulsion.

Aerospace engineers help design and build high-performance flight vehicles (e.g., aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft) as well as automobiles. Also, aerospace engineers confront problems associated with wind effects on buildings, all pollution, and other atmospheric phenomena.

Materials Engineering

Materials engineers are concerned with obtaining the materials required by modem society. Materials engineers may be further classified as:
Geological engineers, study rocks, soils, and geological formations to find valuable ores and petroleum reserves.
Mining engineers, who extract ores such as coal, iron, and tin.
Petroleum engineers, who find, produce, and transport oil and natural gas.
Ceramics engineers, who produce ceramic (i.e., nonmetallic mineral) products.
Plastics engineers, who produce plastic products.
Metallurgical engineers, who produce metal products from ores or create metal alloys with superior properties.
Materials science engineers, who study the fundamental science behind the properties (e.g., strength, corrosion resistance, conductivity) of materials.

Agricultural Engineering

Agricultural engineers help farmers efficiently produce food and fiber. This discipline was born with the McCormick reaper. Since then, agricultural engineers have developed many other farm implements (tractors, plows, choppers, etc.) to reduce farm labor requirements.

Modern agricultural engineers apply knowledge of mechanics, hydrology, computers, electronics, chemistry, and biology to solve agricultural problems. Agricultural engineers may specialize in food and biochemical engineering; water and environmental quality; machine and energy systems; and food, feed, and fiber processing.

Nuclear Engineering

Nuclear engineers design systems that employ nuclear energy, such as nuclear power plants, nuclear ships (e.g., submarines and aircraft carriers), and nuclear spacecraft.

Some nuclear engineers are involved with nuclear medicine; others are working on the design of fusion reactors that potentially will generate limitless energy with minimal environmental damage.

Architectural Engineering

Architectural engineers combine the engineer’s knowledge of structures, materials, and acoustics with the architect’s knowledge of building esthetics and functionality.

Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineers combine traditional engineering fields (mechanical, electrical, chemical, industrial) with medicine and human physiology. They develop prosthetic devices (e.g., artificial limbs), artificial kidneys, pacemakers, and artificial hearts. Recent developments will enable some deaf people to hear and some blind people to see.

Biomedical engineers can work in hospitals as clinical engineers, in medical centers as medical researchers, in medical industries designing clinical devices, in the FDA evaluating medical devices, or as physicians providing health care.

Computer Science and Engineering

Computer science and engineering evolved from electrical engineering. Computer scientists understand both computer software and hardware, but they emphasize software. In contrast, computer engineers understand both software and hardware but emphasize hardware.

Computer scientists and engineers design and build computers ranging from supercomputers to personal computers, network computers together, write operating system software that regulates computer functions, or write application software such as word processors and spreadsheets.

Given the increasingly important role of computers in modem society, computer science, and engineering are rapidly growing professions.

Engineering Technology

Engineering technologists bridge the gap between engineers and technicians. Engineering technologists typically receive a 4-year BS degree and share many courses with their engineering cousins. Their coursework evenly emphasizes both theory and hands-on applications, whereas the engineering disciplines described above primarily emphasize theory with less emphasis on hands-on applications.

Engineering technologists can acquire specialties such as general electronics, computers, and mechanics. With their skills, engineering technologists perform such functions as designing and building electronic circuits, repairing faulty circuits, maintaining computers, and programming numerically controlled machine shop equipment.

Engineering Technicians

Engineering technicians typically receive a 2-year associate’s degree. Their education primarily emphasizes hands-on applications with less emphasis on theory. They are involved in product design, testing, troubleshooting, and manufacturing. Their specialties include the following: electronics, drafting, automated manufacturing, robotics, and semiconductor manufacturing.


Artisans often receive no formal schooling beyond high school. Typically, they learn their skills by apprenticing with experienced artisans who show them the “tricks of the trade.” Artisans have a variety of manual skills such as machining, welding, and carpentry. and equipment operation. Artisans are generally responsible for transforming engineering ideas into reality; therefore, engineers often must work closely with them.

Wise engineers highly value the opinions of artisans, because artisans frequently have many years of practical experience.


Regardless of their discipline, engineers can be classified by the functions they perform:
Research engineers, search for new knowledge to solve difficult problems that do not have readily apparent solutions. They require the greatest training, generally an MS or Ph.D. degree.
Development engineers apply existing and new knowledge to develop prototypes of new devices, structures, and processes.
Design engineers, apply the results of research and development engineers to produce detailed designs of devices, structures, and processes that will be used by the public.
Production engineers, are concerned with specifying production schedules, determining raw materials availability, and optimizing assembly lines to mass produce the devices conceived by design engineers.
Testing engineers, perform tests on engineered products to determine their reliability and suitability for particular applications.
Construction engineers, build large structures.
Operations engineers, run and maintain production facilities such as factories and chemical plants.
Sales engineers, have the technical background required to sell technical products.
• Managing engineers, are needed in the industry to coordinate the activities of the technology team.
Constructing engineers, are specialists who are called upon by companies to supplement their in-house engineering talent.
Teaching engineers, to educate other engineers in the fundamentals of each engineering discipline.

To illustrate the roles of engineering disciplines and functions, consider all the steps required to produce a new battery suitable for automotive propulsion. (The probable engineering discipline is in parentheses and the engineering function is in italics.) A research engineer (a chemical engineer) performs fundamental laboratory studies on new materials that are possible candidates for a rechargeable battery that is lightweight but stores much energy.

The development engineer (chemical or electrical engineer) reviews the results of the research engineer and selects a few candidates for further development. She constructs some battery prototypes and tests them for such properties as a maximum number of recharge cycles, voltage output at various temperatures, the effect of discharge rate on battery life, and corrosion. If the development engineer lacks expertise in corrosion, the company would temporarily hire a consulting engineer (chemical, mechanical, or materials engineer) to solve a corrosion problem.

When the development engineer has finally amassed sufficient information, the design engineer (mechanical engineer) designs each battery model that will be produced by the company. He must specify the exact composition and dimension of each component and how each component will be manufactured.

A construction engineer (civil engineer) erects the building in which the batteries will be manufactured and a production engineer (industrial engineer) designs the production line (e.g., machine tools, assembly areas) to mass produce the new battery. Operation engineers (mechanical or industrial engineers) operate the production line and ensure that it is properly maintained.

Once the production line is operating, testing engineers (industrial or electrical engineers) randomly select batteries and test them to ensure that they meet company specifications. Sales engineers (electrical or mechanical engineers) meet with automotive companies to explain the advantages of their company’s battery and answer technical questions.

Managing engineers (any discipline) make decisions about financing plant expansions, product pricing, hiring new personnel, and setting company goals. All of these engineers were trained by teaching engineers (many disciplines) in college.

In this example, the engineering disciplines that satisfy each function are unique to the project. Other projects would require the coordinated efforts of other engineering disciplines. Also, the disciplines selected for this project are an idealization. A company might not have the ideal mix of engineers required by a project and would expect its existing engineering staff to adapt to the needs of the project.

After many years, engineers become cross-trained in other disciplines, so it becomes difficult to classify them by the disciplines they studied in college. An engineer who wishes to stay employed must be adaptable, which means being well acquainted with the fundamentals of other engineering disciplines.


Knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate. It is impossible to fully grasp engineering with a 4-year BS degree. Although you will continue leaning on the job, your experience there will tend to be narrowly focused on the needs of the company.

As you proceed through your engineering studies you should ask yourself, how much more formal education do I need? The answer depends upon your ultimate career objectives. Many of the job functions described above can be performed adequately with a BS degree.

However, others-like the research engineer and the development engineer-generally require an MS or a Ph.D. These individuals are engaged in the early stages of product development. More education is required because they must solve more challenging technical problems.

If you think that you would enjoy the technical challenges met by advanced-degree engineers, do not let the educational costs dissuade you. Most graduate schools provide financial assistance to their students in the form of a stipend. Although the stipend does not equal the pay received in the industry, it is usually enough to live a comfortable life.

Because people with advanced degrees generally earn higher salaries, the short-term financial loss may eventually be recouped. Financial gain should not be your primary motivation for obtaining an advanced degree, however. You should consider it only if you would enjoy a job with greater technical challenges.

Some BS engineering students decide to continue formal education in other fields such as law, medicine, or business. The engineering curriculum provides an excellent background for these other fields because it develops excellent discipline, work habits, and thinking skills.


Historically, a professional was simply a person who professed to be “duly qualified” in a given area. Often, these professionals professed adherence to the monastic vows of a religious order. So, being a professional meant not only mastering a body of knowledge but also abiding by proper standards of conduct.

In the modem world, our concept of a professional has become more formalized. We consider a professional to have the following traits:
Extensive intellectual training – all professions require many years of schooling, at the undergraduate or postgraduate level.
Pass qualification exam-professionals must demonstrate that they master a common body of knowledge.
Vital skills-the skills of professionals are vital to the proper functioning of society.
Monopoly society gives professionals a monopoly to practice in their respective fields.
Autonomy-society entrusts professionals to be self-regulated.
Code of ethics-the behavior of professionals is regulated by self-imposed codes.

Engineering, architecture, medicine, law, dentistry, and pharmacy are examples of professions; they are some of the most prestigious occupations in our society.


In high school, you probably have been exposed to the scientific method:
1. Develop hypotheses (possible explanations) of a physical phenomenon.
2. Design an experiment to critically test the hypotheses.
3. Perform the experiment and analyze the results to determine which hypothesis, if any, is consistent with the experimental data.
4. Generalize the experimental results into law or theory.
5. Publish the results.

Although engineers use knowledge generated by the scientific method, they do not routinely use the method; that is the domain of scientists. The goals of scientists and engineers are different. Scientists are concerned with discovering what is, whereas engineers are concerned with designing what will be. To achieve our goals, engineers use the engineering design method, which is, briefly stated:

  1. Identify and define the problem.
  2. Assemble a design team.
  3. Identify constraints and criteria for success.
  4.  Search for solutions.
  5. Analyze each potential solution.
  6. Choose the “best” solution.
  7. Document the solution.
  8. Communicate the solution to management.
  9. Construct the solution.
  10. Verify and evaluate the performance of the solution.

Your engineering education will focus primarily on analysis. The hundreds (or thousands) of homework and exam problems you will work on during your studies are all designed to sharpen your analytical skills.

In their analysis of physical systems, engineers use models. A model represents the real system of interest. Depending upon the quality of the model, it may, or may not, be an accurate representation of reality.


All of us would like to be successful in our engineering careers because it brings personal fulfillment and financial reward. (For most engineers, financial reward is not the highest priority. Surveys of practicing engineers show that they value exciting and challenging work performed in a pleasant work environment over monetary compensation).

As a student, you may feel that performing well in your engineering courses will guarantee success in the real engineering world.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in life. Ultimate success is achieved by mastering many traits of which academic prowess is but one. By mastering the following traits, you will increase your chances of achieving a successful engineering career:

  • Interpersonal skills. Engineers are typically employed in an industry where success is necessarily a group effort. Successful engineers have good interpersonal skills. Not only must they effectively communicate without her highly educated engineers but also with artisans, who may have substantially less education or other professionals who are highly educated in other fields (marketing, finance, psychology, etc.).
  • Communication skills. Although the engineering curriculum emphasizes science and mathematics, some practicing engineers report that they spend up to 80% of their time in oral and written communications. Engineers generate engineering drawings or sketches to describe a new product be it a machine part an electronic circuit or a crude flowchart of new computer code. They document test results in reports. They write memos, manuals, proposals to bid on jobs, and technical papers for trade journals. They give sales presentations to potential clients and make oral presentations at technical meetings. They communicate with the workers who build the devices designed by engineers. They speak at civic groups to educate the public about the impact of their plant on the local economy or address safety concerns raised by the public.
  • Leadership. Leadership is one of the most desired skills for success. Good engineering leaders do not follow the herd; rather, they assess the situation and develop a plan to meet the group’s objectives. Part of developing good leadership skills is learning how to be a good follower as well.
  • Competence. Engineers are hired for their knowledge. If their knowledge is faulty, they are of little value to their employer. Performing well in your engineering courses will improve your competence.
  • Logical thinking. Successful engineers base decisions on reason rather than emotions. Mathematics and science, which are based on logic and experimentation, provide the foundations of our profession.
  • Quantitative thinking. Engineering education emphasizes quantitative skills. We transform qualitative ideas into quantitative mathematical models that we use to make informed decisions.
  • Follow through. Many engineering projects take years or decades to complete. Engineers have to stay motivated and carry a project through to completion. People who need immediate gratification may be frustrated in many engineering projects.
  • Continuing education. Undergraduate engineering education is just the beginning of a lifetime of learning. Your professors can’t teach all relevant current knowledge in a 4-year curriculum. Also, over your 40-plus-year career, knowledge will expand dramatically. Unless you stay current, you will quickly become obsolete.
  • Maintaining a professional library. Throughout your formal education, you will be required to purchase textbooks. Many students sell them after the course is completed. If that book contains useful information related to your career, it is foolish to sell it. Your textbooks should become personalized references with appropriate underlining and notes in the margins that allow you to quickly regain the knowledge years later when you need it. Once you graduate, you should continue purchasing handbooks and specialized books related to your field. Recall that you will be employed for your knowledge and that books are the readiest sources.
  • Dependability. Many industries operate with deadlines. As a student, you also have many deadlines for homework, reports, tests, and so forth. If you hand in homework and reports late, you are developing bad habits that will not serve you well in the industry.
  • Honesty. As much as technical skills are valued in the industry, honesty is valued more. An employee who cannot be trusted is of no use to a company.
  • Organization. Many engineering projects are extremely complex. Think of all the details that had to be coordinated to construct your engineering building. It is composed of thousands of components (beams, ducting, electrical wiring, windows, lights, computer networks, doors, etc.). Because they interact, all those components had to be designed in a coordinated fashion. They had to be ordered from vendors and delivered to the construction site sequentially when they were required. The activities of the contractors had to be coordinated to install each item when it arrived. The engineers had to be organized to construct the building on time and within budget.
  • Common sense. Many commonsense aspects of engineering cannot be taught in the classroom. A lack of common sense can be disastrous. For example, a library was recently built that required pilings to support it on soft ground. (A piling is a vertical rod, generally made from concrete, that goes deep into the ground to support the building that rests on it.) The engineers very carefully and meticulously designed the pilings to support the weight of the building, as they had done many times before. Although the pilings were sufficient to hold the building, the engineers neglected the weight of the books in the library. The pilings were insufficient to carry this additional load, so the library is now slowly sinking into the ground.
  • Curiosity. Engineers must constantly learn and attempt to understand the world. A successful engineer is always asking, why?
  • Involvement in the community. Engineers benefit themselves and their community by being involved with clubs and organizations (Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.). These organizations provide useful community services and also serve as networks for business contacts.
  • Creativity. From their undergraduate studies, it is easy for engineering students to get the false impression that engineering is not creative. Most courses emphasize analysis, in which a problem has already been defined and the “correct” answer is being sought. Although analysis is extremely important in engineering, most engineers also employ synthesis, the act of creatively combining smaller parts to form a whole. Synthesis is essential to design, which usually stalls with a loosely defined problem for which many possible solutions exist. The creative engineering challenge is to find the best solution to satisfy the project goals (low cost, reliability, functionality, etc.). Many of the technical challenges facing society can be met only with creativity, for if the solutions were obvious, the problems would already be solved.


Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

If the above quotation is correct, you should expect your engineering education to stan with Creativity 101. Although many professors do feel that creativity is important in engineering education, creativity per se is not taught. Why is this?

  • Some professors feel that creativity is talent students are born with and cannot be taught. Although each of us has different creative abilities-just as we have different abilities to run the 50-yard dash-each of us is creative. Often, all the student needs are to be in an environment in which creativity is expected and fostered.
  • Other professors feel that because creativity is hard to grade, it should not be taught. Although it is important to evaluate students, not everything a student does must be subjected to grading. The student’s education should be placed above the student’s evaluation.
  • Other professors would argue that we do not completely understand the creative process, so how could we teach it? Although it is true, that we do not completely understand creativity, we know enough to foster its development.

Rarely is creativity directly addressed in the engineering classroom. Instead, the primary activity of engineering education is the transfer of knowledge to future generations that was painstakingly gained by past generations. (Given the vast amount of knowledge, this is a Herculean task.)

Further, engineering education emphasizes the proper manipulation of knowledge to correctly solve problems. Both these activities support analysis, not synthesis.

The “analysis muscles” of an engineering student tend to be well-developed and toned. In contrast, their “synthesis muscles” tend to be flabby due to lack of use. Both analysis and synthesis are part of the creative process; engineers cannot be productively creative without possessing and manipulating knowledge.

But it is important to realize that if you wish to tone your “synthesis muscles,” it may require activities outside the engineering classroom. Although the goals of authors, artists, and composers are many, most have the desire to communicate. However, the constraints placed upon their communication are not severe.


The following list describes some traits of a creative engineer:

  • Stick-to-it-Inverness. Producing creative solutions to problems requires unbridled commitment. There are always problems along the way. A successful creative engineer does not give up.
  • Asks why. A creative engineer is curious about the world and is constantly seeking understanding. By asking why the creative engineer can learn how other creative engineers solved problems.
  • Is never satisfied.  A creative engineer goes through life asking, how could 1 do this better? Rather than complaining about a stop light that stops this car at midnight when there is no other traffic, the creative engineer would say, how could I develop a sensor that detects my car and turns the light green?
  • Learns from accidents. Many great technical discoveries were made by accident. Instead of being single-minded and narrow, be sensitive to the unexpected.
  • Makes analogies. Recall that problem-solving is an iterative process that largely involves chance. By having rich interconnections, a creative engineer increases the chance of finding a solution. We obtain rich interconnections by making analogies during learning so information is stored in multiple places.
  • Generalizes. When a specific fact is learned, a creative engineer seeks to generalize that information to generate rich interconnections.
  • Develops qualitative and quantitative understanding. As you study engineering, develop not only quantitative analytical skills but also qualitative understanding. Get a feeling for the numbers and processes, because that is what your subconscious needs for its qualitative model.
  • Has good visualization skills. Many creative solutions involve three-dimensional visualization. Often, the solution can be obtained by rearranging components, turning them around, or duplicating them.
  • Has good drawing skills. Drawings or sketches are the fastest way by far to communicate spatial relationships, sizes, order of operations, and many other ideas. By accurately communicating through engineering graphics and sketches, an engineer can pass her ideas easily and concisely to her colleagues, or with a little explanation, to non-engineers.
  • Possesses unbonded thinking. Very few of us are trained in general engineering. Most of us are trained in an engineering discipline. If we restrict our thinking to a narrowly defined discipline, we will miss many potential solutions. Perhaps the solution requires combined knowledge of mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering. Although it is unreasonable that we are experts in all engineering disciplines, each of us should develop enough knowledge to hold intelligent conversations with those in other disciplines.
  • Has broad interest. A creative engineer must be happy. This requires balancing intellectual, emotional, and physical needs. Engineering education emphasizes your intellectual development; you are responsible for developing your emotional and physical skills by socializing with friends, having a stimulating hobby (e.g., music, art, literature), and exercising.
  • Collects obscure information. Easy problems can be solved with commonly available information. The hard problems often require obscure information.
  • Works with nature. not against it. Do not enter a problem with preconceived notions about how it must be solved. Nature will often guide you through the solution if you are attentive to its whispers.
  • Keeps an engineering toolbox. An engineering “toolbox” is filled with simple qualitative relationships that are needed by the qualitative model in the subconscious. These simple qualitative relationships may be the distilled wisdom from a quantitative engineering analysis.


From above, Engineers are individuals who combine knowledge of science, mathematics, and economics to solve technical problems that confront society. As civilization has progressed and become more technological, engineers’ impact on society has increased.

Engineers are part of a technology team that includes scientists, technologists, technicians, and artisans. Historically, various disciplines within engineering have evolved (e.g., civil, mechanical, industrial). Regardless of their discipline, engineers fulfill many functions (research, design, sales. etc.).

Because of engineers’ importance to society, their education is regulated by ABET, and professional licenses are granted by states. There are many engineering professional societies serving a variety of roles, such as providing continuing education courses and publishing technical journals.

In meeting the needs of society, engineers use the engineering design method. An important step in the engineering design method is to formulate models of reality. These models can range from simple qualitative relationships to detailed quantitative codes in digital computers.

To be successful, engineers need to cultivate many traits, such as competence and communication skills. Among the more important skills is creativity, which is needed to solve the more difficult problems faced by society.

The creative process involves an interplay between qualitative models that are understood by the subconscious and quantitative models understood by the conscious. These qualitative models may be viewed as tools that engineers keep in their “toolbox” to help guide their creativity in productive directions.

We hope this article helped you learn more about An Engineer. You may also want to learn about Structural EngineersEngineering EthicsAluminium and Copper as Building Materials, and Construction Terminologies You Should Know.

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