What engineering exams can’t teach you

When I speak with young engineers, as I often do in my work as founder of Engineer Your Life, I notice how focused many are on impressing their new employer and getting a good job.   I remember feeling that too.

I also remember thinking that, when I entered the workforce, my success would depend on my ability to plug the right numbers into the right formulas, as it had when I was a student.  I’ll get the right answers and it’ll be okay, I reasoned.  I will save the day and be rewarded with a good salary the same way I used to be rewarded with a good mark.  Hurray!

The truth of what I found was very different.  Treating the workplace like an equation to be solved is incredibly limiting – at best ineffective and at worse career-shortening.  I wrote this post because it wasn’t until several years after I graduated that I realized that  students are absorbing these conclusions about life from their studies without even knowing it.

Let me explain.  As an engineering student you study a lot of equations.  You memorize a lot of information.

(At least we did back in my day!  Today engineering schools do wonderful things like this and this, but I digress…)

You solve a lot of problem sets.  If you’re lucky you get a design course or an industry partnership project which allows you to glimpse the realities of how all of those math and physics tools will be used in the real world.  But mostly you solve a series of pre-made  hypothetical problems in ascending order of difficulty.

Answer too simple?  Must be wrong

You start to know that you’re on the right track when you use all the equations you’d memorized for that particular course or module. If it was just hard enough to solve, it would be right.  You can feel it.  If it seems too simple, it’s definitely a trick question. You’d better go back and produce a 5 line equation answer, unless you wanted to get a mark of 20% on the test – and nearly all of us had our share of those!

A non-technical solution is absolutely out of the question. Doing nothing is never the right answer. In fact you learn to scoff at any solution that didn’t have an equation or at least a good graph in it.  Anything that was too easy was NOT engineering!

We (engineering students) grew proud of the fact that our courses were difficult, and that we carried a freakishly heavy course load: 35 hours a week compared to the 10 to 12 hours schedule of class for our Arts and Science friends.

I love this video because it pokes fun at the pride so many engineers come to feel for how hard our courses are, and how we can come to identify with the tools (math and science) and not the masterpiece.  It’s a light-hearted look at a really good point: our education inadvertantly teaches us to think about ourselves as work-hardened numbersmiths, and we embrace it!

Equations are not enough

Basing your professional confidence on a belief that you have an equation ready to fix any problems that they might have is foolish, because those equations alone will not make you a good engineer.

Real life is not simple or pre-fabricated or hypothetical.   Problems do not organize themselves into neat logical order for your benefit.

Sometimes the right answer is to do nothing at all.  Sometimes you’re solving a problem that hasn’t happened yet.  One formula is rarely ever good enough to solve any problem worth anything, and – imagine the horror when I discovered as a young manufacturing engineer – sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you have the right answer!  These are not conclusions you’ll learn from your coursework.

Beyond the ‘right’ answer

Sometimes your attitude  matters more than the quality of your solution.   Sometimes it comes down to who you have convinced that your solution is the right one.  You nearly always need to do a mixture of managing the change and calculating the solution; the latter might take you one glorious afternoon alone with your spreadsheets, then the former an entire year.

In my own experience, it doesn’t have to be mathematically difficult to be important.   Chances are you at any given point in your engineering career, you will have way more data than you need.  The hardest part is organizing and filtering the information to turn it into wisdom, or at least a reasonable sound conclusion.   Formulating the question, testing and discarding hypotheses about what the problem really is, and then figuring out how to measure it.

So you see, kids – in the real world, before you calculate the answer, you have to make up the exam yourself, so to speak.  Then you’ll have to get the job done in less-than-perfect conditions and then make it matter to the right people: that’s engineering too.

So study up, learn your equations, but ask yourself – what else do I need in my toolkit?




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Studying engineering: The upside of difficult

Mountain climbing is like engineering because it’s really really hard!

There’s been a lot of talk lately (in my world anyway) about how hard studying engineering is, and whether it has to be. Check my post on the engineering education site Big Beacon here. (Note there’s a virus issue on Big Beacon’s site right now but I will put the link in as soon as it’s fixed).  You can re-read the twitter chat about it here.

Considering this question got me thinking about my own university experience, and while I fully support the movement to bring engineering education into line with the realities of the profession (which might mean loosening up on its obsession with technical rigour), I can’t regret what I went through back then, as brutal as it was at the time. So when an engineering student asked me whether I thought it was a good thing to learn all that math and physics this past weekend, answering purely from my own experience, I had to say yes. Here’s why.

Once upon an undergrad

I went away to university with questions lingering on me: here I am, at the base of a mountain I am maybe not ‘supposed’ to be climbing. Will I fall? Will the grade be too steep for me? Will I be kicked off?

My sensitive, thoughtful side was frightened by these disaster scenaria. I wanted so badly to be successful; not to fall, not to embarrass myself, not to continue relying on my parents.

My warrior side was determined: we were getting the hell outta that little hometown of mine! And we WERE going to be successful. Climbing a big tough, steep mountain where the girls weren’t necessarily supposed to be seemed a better bet than climbing a more lady-like mountain (something everyone would expect of me).

Even at that age I understood I wanted to do something solid, something substantial, something relevant and real. So I’d need a solid ticket. Something that would show that I was tough, strong, smart. Worthy of being listened to and included in big decisions; even though I was a girl.

Suiting up at the basecamp of life

So that was that. Between the insurance I’d need against my gender, and the fact that I hated to back down from a challenge, the warrior side convinced me to sign up to climb Mt. Engineering. As I started the climb and the academic rain started to come down hard, I found myself straining. It was a blow to my ‘smart’ ego; maybe I wasn’t so smart after all!

On top of the degree of difficulty there was the scorn (or was it just indifference?) of my professors. They really didn’t seem to be reassuring me that it was ok, that I still belonged, that I could still make things right. Most didn’t speak to me in any language that I really understand. They spoke in a sort of code, and we were playing a sort of game. The game was I had to listen, write down the code and repeat the code back to them then I’d get a treat. Luckily I’d always been good at puzzles, and the treat (a passing grade) functioned like the reassurance that I wanted. It made the indifference bearable.

Really all I wanted to know at the time was that that I was okay, that my life would be good, that I belonged, that my contributions mattered in the world. Calculus and thermodynamics and phase diagrams did not provide that reassurance, but at least it gave me something to do.

You know you’ve found your people when…

The saving grace was my peers. I met smart people, lots of them who also had varying interests, big dreams, and the ambition to do… something. I don’t really remember us knowing what, but we were all pretty determined and I could definitely see that they were capable. The academic rain was falling hard on everyone – endless classes and labs and homework – and so I figured if it’s not just me, we might as well all push on up the mountain. No point in turning back now.

Bring it on, calculus!

In fact we kind of gloried in how bad the weather was at times. Our trek took on a sort of epic flavour; a band of misfits, plucky talented, beaten but not broken. (This video by some UBC Engineering students is wickedly subversive and nails that warrior feeling!). Struggling but still jubilant, a flask of ale beneath our shabby clothes to steady and warm us against winter’s most vindictive storms. We may have been getting our asses kicked by the terrain and the weather, and we might have been lost on that mountainside, unsure of exactly where we were going or whether we might even want to go there. But by golly we were in this together. There really is nothing like the bond you share with your mountain-climbing buddies!

So at last, there was victory. Our reward for reaching the top was an iron ring, a rented gown and a handshake from the Principal. The last treat. Hardly even a moment to savour it before we had to base-jump off the mountain, into this thing called Real Life.  But I’ll get to that later.

Our knowledge reworked and rewritten

Just over a decade later, I am going to be reuniting with several of my classmates tomorrow to write a paper together using our obscure materials knowledge to write a metaphor paper about various modern business organizations.  If you’re reading this you probably understand that that is 10 different types of geeky awesomeness.  I can’t wait to see them again.  Though most of us aren’t close anymore, they will forever be my mountain-climbing buddies, bonded and strengthened by what we went through together.

So to all those engineering students reeling from spring’s exams and wondering if you can do it:  until schools revise their curricula to make the workload more manageable, just keep pushing on up that mountain.  You might feel lost and alone but the path is well-worn ahead of you.


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