What is engineering?

Forget hard hats and wrecking balls! It’s time to clear out any preconceived ideas about what you think you know about engineering, and learn about the 21st century definition. Image: Shutterstock

Engineers apply STEM skills to solve problems in the real world.

According to a 2019 Australian Government survey of young people, confusion about what the E in STEM means is one of the big reasons keeping them from choosing engineering for their study and career pathways.

To ‘engineer’ something literally means to design and build something – and engineers design and build everything from bridges, buildings and roads, to solar panels, software apps, prosthetic limbs and hospital ventilators. It’s their job to make our devices, machines and infrastructure work better, safer and more efficiently.

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Still struggling to imagine what an engineer actually does? That may be because engineering covers such a diverse range of careers – there’s no one way to be an engineer!

1. Defining engineering

If you’re envisioning hard hats and wrecking balls, we’re going to stop you right there. It’s time to clear out any preconceived ideas about what you think you know about engineering, and learn about the 21st century definition of an engineer. Engineering is:

  • “The branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building and use of engines, machines and structures.”
  • “A field of study or activity concerned with modification or development in a particular area, for example software engineering.”
  • “The action of working artfully to bring something about.”

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2. Engineering skills

While there’s no one single career that defines everything that engineering encompasses, there are a few key skills that are central to all engineering careers:

  • Maths and science like physics
  • Innovation
  • Design thinking
  • Technical skills
  • Creativity

3. What’s your type?

Software! Civil! Mechanical! Biomedical! With so many exciting specialisations out there, picking a compatible engineering discipline can be tricky. You might choose to study a more general engineering degree and after trying out a few subjects, discover your major from there. Keep in mind though, that most undergraduate courses teach you a transferable skill set that can be used across loads of different engineering roles. This should narrow down your job search:

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Computer engineer: tech-savvy engineers fluent in everything from programming, UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design, product development, electronic engineering, software design, machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Civil engineer: construction specialists that design, build, service and adapt the public infrastructure that we depend on every day – high- capacity roads, cost-effective transportation systems, railways, waste networks, airports, flood defences and pollution-control facilities.

Biomedical engineer: the ultimate STEM slashies, equally skilled in health science and engineering. On-the-job biomedical engineers apply their problem-solving skills to design and build devices and equipment used in healthcare.

Chemical engineer: an engineer who uses their extensive knowledge of chemicals to evaluate, assess and refine familiar products (think: food, drink and fuel), and improve production and manufacturing processes.

Mechanical engineer: a mathematician-meets-mechanic who spends nine-to-five hanging out with machines – maintaining, innovating, designing and building spacecraft, energy generators, robots or mining machinery. – Gemma Chilton, Cassie Steel and Eliza Brockwell

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Engineering 2020.

STEM Contributor

Author: STEM Contributor

This article was written by a STEM Contributor for Careers with STEM. To learn more, please visit our contact page.


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