What Do Engineers Do

Engineers Are Creative Problem-solvers

Engineers solve all sorts of problems, and one of their most important tools is their own creativity.

  • A damaged heart stretches its walls dangerously thin when the muscle expands, in an effort to increase pumping capacity. Engineers envision a gel-like “sleeve” that can surround it to prevent this expansion. After the heart is healed, the sleeve safely dissolves into the body.
  • Cholera is a major health problem in African villages. Engineers devise a water filtration system that not only stops the spread of the disease but is cheap and easy to use, and can be implemented in a culturally sensitive manner.
  • A large-capacity “green” office building is needed in a coastal town. Engineers design a 30-story building with one highly unusual feature: there are no internal support columns affording the structure maximal office space. The structure is built with eco-friendly materials but can withstand hurricane-force winds.  Even better, it stands out in the town's skyline and becomes a local landmark.

Engineering has been called “design under constraint.” Engineers are required to create elegant solutions while working within various limitations, such as the laws of Nature, the desires of consumers, or local statutes. Every potential answer an engineer devises for a problem must be weighed against the realities of the physical world and other concerns such as public safety, a client’s requirements, regulations, available materials, and a finite budget. It takes creativity to get successfully from problem to solution, all while navigating a tangle of constraints.  

There is never just one way to solve an engineering design challenge; there is no single, “right” answer to a problem. Engineers must accept a degree of uncertainty regarding a solution's endpoint, and creativity helps here, too. Engineering requires a sense of vision that goes beyond constraints to “see” a solution that others might miss or dismiss as farfetched.

Engineers today work in diverse and diffuse teams, often across time zones and national borders. At the same time, the problems engineers are being called upon to solve have become larger and more complex: reconstructing habitats in the Florida Everglades; protecting the integrity and security of the nation’s electrical grid; moving the United States toward greater energy independence. The modern engineer must be able to synthesize a broad range of disciplinary knowledge while keeping the systemic nature of the problem within her view. As we take on the challenges facing us, it will be engineers and their creativity that design the world we want and turn ideas into reality.

Source: National Academy of Engineering

Engineers Make a World of Difference

Most of the things that make our lives safer, more enjoyable, and more productive are products of engineering.

  • In the late 1970s, computer data were stored on 8-inch “floppy disks” that held 1.2 megabytes of data. Today’s flash drives are as small as 0.5-inch across and can hold 32 gigabytes or more—25,000 times as much memory as the old floppies. The engineers responsible for this dramatic improvement have made possible such modern essentials as smartphones, digital media players, and digital cameras.
  • For most of human history, doctors had little way of directly seeing what was happening inside a body. Over the past century, however, medical engineers have created a host of imaging devices. X-rays, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized axial tomography (CAT), positron emission tomography (PET), and other techniques allow doctors to diagnose and treat injuries and disease far more effectively than ever before.
  • The final battle of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, took place on January 8, 1815. Due to the slow-moving communications of that era, the battle famously occurred a full fortnight after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which had already formally ended the war. Modern communication allows today’s military personnel to communicate with each other in real time across continents. Commanders implement strategy, and soldiers in the field converse with loved ones back home using Internet technologies such as Skype.

A major difference between science and engineering is that scientists deal with the world that is, while engineers envision the world that could be. It is the job of the engineer to determine what people need or want and figure out the best way to provide it. This can involve something as simple as an improved garbage bag that is inexpensive yet tear-resistant, or as complex as the MS Oasis of the Seas, a cruise ship that is as long as four football fields, as high as a 24-story building, and carries 6,000 passengers on 16 passenger decks.

Modern humans interact with two worlds at once. The first is the natural world—the earth, water, air, plants, and animals that exist independently of any human intervention. The second is the human-made world—all the things people have created for themselves in order to improve their lives: their cities and farms and factories, their clothes, their televisions, their medicines, their musical instruments, their eyeglasses, their credit cards. Without engineers, this human-made world could not exist.

Source: National Academy of Engineering

Engineering is Essential to Our Health, Happiness + Safety

Engineering’s ubiquity makes it key to society’s health, happiness and safety.

  • A growing urban area has a major river running through it that is little more than an open sewer. Disease, spread by this water supply, ravages the populace, and during one summer the stench is so bad that all government offices close. After engineers design and implement an extensive sewer system, health improves dramatically and London becomes a leader on the world stage, one of the most important cities of the 20th century.
  • A soldier loses his arm to an IED in Iraq and returns home depressed, wondering how he’ll assimilate to life with his new disability. But equipped with engineer Dean Kamen's “Luke Arm,” a full-arm prosthetic, he can feed his kids, return to work, and enjoy many of the things he did before his injury.
  • A few friends set sail in the mid-Atlantic on a fishing expedition, only to find their boat taking on water 20 miles from land. An on-board GPS-enabled satellite messaging and emergency communications device – designed by engineers – sends a location-based message to an emergency rescue coordination center that dispatches the Coast Guard to rescue the group.

Engineering surrounds us, part of every aspect of our lives. From the moment we wake up, we interact with engineered devices and systems, from the obvious—the alarm clock that stirs us; lights that illuminate our way; and the car that takes us to our destination—to the more subtle—breakfast cereal brought to our grocer in a truck routed with logistics engineering; timed traffic lights; and “self-healing” concrete used in the buildings where we live and work.

Engineering enables some of the very things that make us feel human. We can bond and connect with others over the Internet; we can help each other, perhaps by using an automated external defibrillator in an emergency that is engineered so that even non-medical professionals can use it; and we experience joie de vivre playing Wii with our families, flying through the air on massive roller coasters, and being whisked away to 3-D worlds while at the cinema.

Engineering is so pervasive in advancements in our health, happiness, and safety that it becomes hard to separate its influence from that of other disciplines in technology like artificial hearts and computer security. The very success of engineering is in part the fact that it is sometimes subsumed.  Good design seems effortless, and therefore can be invisible; this leads to the continual problem that engineers do not get the credit they deserve for their many contributions.

The challenges engineers must overcome change and evolve over time, based on the needs and demands of society. From something as seemingly mundane as a sewer, to something as advanced as satellite technology, engineers are consistently imagining solutions to our problems, creating the world we want, impacting us in every aspect of our lives. It is difficult to point to areas of our well-being not brought about in at least some measure by what can be called “engineering."

Source: National Academy of Engineering

Engineers Help Shape the Future

No one can say what the future will bring, but one thing is certain: Engineers will play a major role in shaping the world of tomorrow.

  • The carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels is changing Earth's climate. If this looming disaster is to be averted, it will be thanks to engineers developing alternative energy sources and ways of minimizing the effects of the carbon dioxide.
  • Engineers specializing in robotics are collaborating with specialists in cognitive science to develop the type of intelligent robots that have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. These visionaries speak of robots that can navigate a battlefield to disarm explosive devices or enter a burning building to find people trapped inside and carry them to safety.

Anyone can dream about the future, but the people who actually turn those dreams into reality will be engineers. Traversing the path from concept to practical creation requires an understanding of the relevant science and familiarity with current technologies but also the vision to see beyond the world as it is and create something new. This is the job of the engineer: to combine the knowledge and tools of today with dreams of tomorrow to create the world of the future.

The power of engineers to shape the future is clear. Consider such powerful handheld devices as the iPod or the Blackberry, or the coming generation of practical electric cars. Not long ago, each of these was no more than a dream, but today each is a reality thanks to the vision of engineers. We cannot say with certainty what our world will look like 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, but we do know that whatever new wonders appear, engineers will have played a major role in bringing them to life.

Source: National Academy of Engineering

What is Engineering?

Learn more about the various fields of engineering.