Unscripted: Science and Engineering Research

Putting the E in STEM

By Allison Mills | Published

Question: What's the difference between a scientist and an engineer?

Answer: Well, it starts with a joke. An engineer, a scientist and a mathematician all walk into a bar…

And you're going to have to read the whole post to get the punchline.

That's because we first need to address something serious. Science and engineering aren't the same thing.  A scientist studies what is; an engineer designs what can be.  

Now, science and engineering are similar. Perhaps fraternal twins or at least siblings. That doesn't stop Fred and George from griping about getting mixed up—and engineers get touchy about offhanded lumping in with scientists.

In fact, some astute readers may have noticed a slight change to our blog name several months ago; we went from "Unscripted: Science and Research" to "Unscripted: Science and Engineering Research." And, yes, the conversation that resulted in that tweak also led to this blog post.

So, we took our question to the streets, or rather to the hallways, and asked our engineering faculty what's the difference between a scientist and engineer. (Some of their responses were good enough to pair with photos and post to our university Pinterest.)

A scientist tries to learn how the universe works. An engineer tries to make the universe work for us.  

Some were clearly tongue in cheek. (Yes, engineers do have humor. Seriously.) But they all speak to the same point: Much of the research world spins on the STEM axis, but not all research is the same S vs T vs E vs M.

At the same time…it's kinda hard to figure out the true differences between each of them. Like our twins example, someone who knows each twin well may be able to tell them apart by that tiny scar or that shade of hair—although, who hasn't mixed up a pair of twins?

This challenge is particularly tough for sci-eng distinction because many use the same tools to do their work.

Engineers think that equations approximate the real world. Scientists think that the real world approximates equations.  

One of the key themes is the idea of practicality. Not that basic science lacks applied value; check out the longstanding arguments for and against funding basic science, stemming from decades of Golden Fleece Awards, and more recently, Twitter debates about duck penises and blog posts on federal agency budgets.

Generally, it is (usually) easier to connect the dots with engineering. President Herbert Hoover calls these connections "an engineer's high privilege" and says while imagination spurs science, it takes engineering to put the plan to paper. That plan then moves stone and energy, making jobs and homes. Ultimately, it elevates our standard of living.

"To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope."Herbert Hoover

So, engineers approach the world with a slightly different framework. If scientists set out to explore and understand—and eventually bring that knowledge back to society at large—then engineers set out with the latter in mind from the get go.

We know. Behind all the calculus and CAD, the splitting-hairs precision and Exacto knife insight, deep down behind the ingrained skeptic's eye, engineers are idealists. Just pragmatic idealists.

 A scientist's work is descriptive; an engineer's work is prescriptive.  

And the punchline?  Let's start over

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard.

After some observations and rough calculations, the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing.

A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to herself happily; she now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.

This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humor from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny. 

In Science: Reality is what the evidence says it is, until you can gather more detailed evidence. In Engineering: Reality is as reality does.  

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.