Engineers Rule the World (or do they?)

Since joining up with The Big Beacon to discuss how A Whole New Engineering Education can produce A Whole New Engineer in the future, I have been thinking a lot about my own engineering education experience.

Studying engineering is not just about academic rigour – though there is plenty of that! It’s also about an identity; being a member of a sub-culture.  That culture influences members’ behaviours and choices, and since students are the engineers of the future, it’s worth understanding the subculture of engineering students. One slogan in particular sums up that subculture as I experienced it: ERTW, standing for Engineers Rule The World.

Engineers Rule the World.  Really?

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found as much elsewhere), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. Scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls, mostly close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other spirited shenanigans are happening. The pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, mostly when yelled in fun at rival faculties.  But is there something more signficant about the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

The logic goes that if we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But during my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   We knew it was probably true!   We were being groomed to work for the companies that they were being groomed to run. They also called us plumbers, which had no truth, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have malfunctioned due to a broken differential equation inside of it.

Plumbers no more

Many of my friends who graduated as engineers have gone on to positions in management, and now make decisions alongside their business-major colleagues.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that they have interpersonal and leadership skills as well; skills which start in the subculture of engineering education.

Rule the World… or just Rule

As a student, I had great enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave my mark on the world.  And to do it using math and technology – how awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   Faculty pride is also a way to stay sane during the undergrad engineering education experience.  Even while straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically, a slogan like ERTW reassured me as a student: what I am learning is powerful and useful.  But could the arrogance implied in the word ‘rule’ be damaging to engineers’ ability to be effective team players in the work place?

A Humbler Alternative 

At the Engineers Without Borders Canada National Office, I saw water bottles, binders and shelves decorated with a nearly-identical alternative acronym: ESTW.

A little digging revealed this rant; so ESTW stands for Engineers Serve The World.

Some further explanation at

The concept engineering as service feels right to me.   What is my education for if not to positively affect people’s lives?  What is my profession’s purpose if not to help? What is on my knowledge worth if it doesn’t actually make a difference?  I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, but of the two, ESTW speaks to my identity as an engineer more clearly.

The Whole New Engineer of the future is humble, and a team player and a community builder.  Clearly these are not skills or traits that can be acquired from a textbook.   But in my experience they are well worth developing. They represent an authentic personal change that comes from within, no matter what you learned in school.

Future engineers, ask yourself:  Which version works best – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you – ruling the world or serving it?   Engineering educators:  How can you help your students down the path to being proud of what they do, but self-aware and humble?

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Joy in Engineering: Some real-life data points

Big Beacon Manifesto:  The whole new engineering finds joy in engineering and in life.

Last night I hosted the Big Beacon twitter chat, Joy in Engineering.

After introductions to welcome participants from the engineering community (including professional engineers, engineering students and engineering educators) in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, the topic was served up:


This 1st day of May we’re looking at the 1st point in the #BigBeacon manifesto: A Whole New Engineer finds joy in #engineering and in life.

Q1. What aspects or parts of engineering bring you the most joy? When did you discover what they were?

Although we wondered whether the unlikely topic would yield much conversation, (are engineers and engineering education supposed to be joyful?  are we even allowed?)  it did not take long for our assembled chat group to reveal the sources of their engineering joy, and they were many!


Joy as being part of history

Joy in triumphing over complexity to make something work

Joy in seeing theory applied to real-life experience

Joy in learning together (not from lectures)

Joy in nostalgia (seeing how far technology has come in our lifetimes)

Joy in helping students get something for the first time (that gleam in their eye)

Joy in unlimited possibility (in the number of options that engineering opens up)

Joy from innovating and meeting needs

Joy from coding

Joy from finding and fixing root causes

Joy in helping others solve their own problems

Joy in creativity, innovation and internationality

Joy of machines and the majesty of technology

Joy in creating something that didn’t exist before

Joy in working on products that save lives

Joy via overcoming hardship or joy in doing hard stuff with simple parts


What a great list!   Big Beacon Founder Dave Goldberg (@deg511) shared his presentation deck on the joy of engineering (with passion and pride to boot).

We also uncovered some interesting topics for future chats:  the Marshmallow Challenge,  rigor in engineering education as an obstacle to joy, Olin College as a Beacon for the future of engineering education and rites of passage in engineering.   To read the entire twitter chat on storify, click here.

Thank you to everyone who came and participated.  We love having you as part of the chat and looking forward to more twitter chats!  We meet every Wednesday at 8 pm EDT/EST.

It’s not too late to add your voice to the conversation!  Leave a comment on this post or tweet at us on #BigBeacon.  What parts of engineering (or engineering education) bring you most joy?

Next week’s topic is Entrepreneurship and Education with guest host from Epicenter USA, the national center for engineering pathways to innovation.  Join us Wed May 8th at 8 pm EST on twitter, hashtag #BigBeacon.

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