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Engineers Rant

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One often hears engineering students dismiss some subject with a statement such as, "I don't care about X, I'm an engineer."

X is normally the theory behind something. As a mathematics student I was often slightly offended at their dismissal of mathematics, as a CS student I often wondered what they planned on engineering where modeling was totally unnecessary, and as a student of science I just wondered if I was missing something...

I always figured that engineers had to be the really smart ones who really loved knowledge because they needed to know so much. I always thought that the situation was: Mathematics discovers techniques and tools that science use to make discoveries about nature and engineering uses those discoveries to invent/engineer practical applications. I thought engineers were the guys (and gals) who were always taking things apart to see how they worked; measuring, cutting, molding things so that they fit just so; buying the latest and greatest technologies NOT because they were "the newest/hottest" but because they were excited by the ingenuity of man, the functionality of the technology, the horizons opened up by the edges of human endeavors...

I guess I was wrong.

Now some engineering students did fit my mental profile even if they were a little dismissive of theory. These were the ones who always wanted to assign some practical attribute to something abstract. Given the variable x they were always trying to shove some number into it:

"So say x is 5..."
"Well x can of course be 5 but we don't want to limit ourselves to integers or reals etc."
"Ok -- So say x is 5j..."
"OR lets say that x is the matrix [[5, 0], [0, 5]], or the quaternian (5, 5, 5, 5), or the 5'th galaxy to the left of the center of the universe..."
"Ok -- So say x is the fifth galaxy from the center of the universe..."

These students are not necessarily dismissive of the subject, just require some practicality to their thinking. At first I thought that they lacked the ability to really do abstract thought, but after getting to know one or two I began to realize that, as irritating as it was from my point of view, they were able to better understand a model by looking at practical examples of it, but do not actually seem to loose much generality.

Side note: Mathematics students are warned early and often of adopting a favorite "practical" model for their thinking as it often blinds one to properties of the abstract model. Often the whole point of striving to understand an abstract model is to recognize things that are not easily distinguishable in the "practical" model.

However, maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe I just don't understand what it takes to be an engineer.

For example,

View PostRusty6288, on 07 November 2010 - 06:06 PM, said:

Yeah bc being able to program has to do with a lot in engineering... no it doesnt at all. It is just some dumb bull shit weed out class.

Here is an engineering student making the point that Engineering and Programming have nothing to do with one another. It would seem to me that computer programming would be quite beneficial to engineering. However given the number of times I have been presented with such statements I am inclined to think that maybe I just don't understand engineering.

To be honest, software engineering often has little to do with programming, at least in the way that designing a car has little to do with the ability to machine and assemble an engine. Solutions can be expressed in Class diagrams, flow charts (of one sort or another, state diagrams, sequence diagrams etc.), design patterns etc. And while a solid understanding of computer science and programming is definitely a positive addition, countless Business analysts, Project Managers, and systems architects blend their brains together to hand a set of lowly programmers a requirements/"design" document and say, "build this" -- and we do.

So maybe engineering really is tinkering and discovery and then let science "explain" why it works and let the "robots" build it. I honestly thought that engineers were the ones who really needed that deep insight to see how these abstract theoretical discoveries in science could be applied to real world problems.

Naive of me.

8 Comments On This Entry

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08 November 2010 - 07:56 AM

Definitely a legitimate rant. I don't know why engineers, mathematicians, and scientists dismiss fields that may not have "normal" applications to their fields. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. :)


08 November 2010 - 10:20 AM
I'm a mechanical engineer and your statements are too generalized to be considered accurate. The issue with engineering as with most collegiate degrees is that there is the mass huddle of students who fit the "just enough" prototype, and there are distinguished students who stand out.

I can cite one example from my own college studies. I had a class that involved electronic design for the purposes of robotics. In this class the professor wanted us to use what was called a BASIC Stamp kit. This was much like what an Arduino is. However, the chip itself cost around $70 at that time. The professor explained to us that the real brain behind the machine was a PIC micro processor that interpreted the BASIC instructions on the fly. I did some research, that processor itself costs $2, AND if you're a student you can request free samples to be sent to you. The programmer for it cost around $20. So I told my professor, why don't we just use the PIC itself? His reply, well development time is the reason we use this. His answer was that it takes longer to learn and program in assembly than it does to program in a higher level language, which is untrue. They're both equally difficult. Basically, he was just lazy and didn't WANT to switch his class. How can I make that statement? The proof lay in that I requested to be allowed to construct the same circuits using the PIC as opposed to the BASIC stamp. I didn't do this to be stubborn, it was simply that I recognized I would likely burn the BASIC stamp and there go $70 down the drain. I did in fact fizzle one of the sample PICs I was sent. I digress, once the class was all said and done the professor continually requested to keep my projects and research, and the next semester and subsequent semesters afterwards, the class now used the PIC as the primary chip and everyone learned assembly language.

Douchey move on my professor's part because he offered me no help whatsoever throughout the entirety of the class. Every question I asked was "you should really just switch to the BASIC stamp." If you are a scientist you must recognize that most things in nature move into a state of "stable" equilibrium. i.e. they attempt to achieve a balance that is naturally occurring. Human laziness is a state of stable equilibrium. Most engineers are happy to let someone else do the hard thinking and then simply reap the benefits afterwards. However, this is a function of the human condition overall, not of engineers specifically. When I learned Taylor Series in Calculus 2 I thought to myself this is f*cking useless and stupid because I couldn't understand what the application of it was. It seemed like an exercise in mathematical mumbo jumbo, and like many things in many disciplines there is a lot of theoretical mumbo jumbo, which doesn't necessarily aid in the progression of scientific thinking, just scientific dilly-dallying. It took a REALLY old school engineering professor who didn't use a calculator to show me what a practical application of it was when he arrived at the answers of e^x or some such function using a Taylor series expansion for the approximation. In that moment, I thought to myself, [email protected]$$.

With the advent of new technology (computers for one), there are lots of little interesting tidbits of information which have to be cast aside. Not because I don't care, if you've seen my quest to make a database (Mimesis) I'm all about tinkering and doing things my own way. However, in the business sense I do realize that things are on a deadline, and often times what helps you become a more educated engineer does not lie directly in line with what helps you become a more successful engineer. Knowledge and information, in my opinion and given my skills, expands much faster than the rate at which I learn, so there are certain things I will eventually sacrifice as a result of the velocity of human understanding. I cannot possibly hope to understand it all, even if I endeavor to do so.

Historically, most engineers were also mathematicians/physicists/scientists they disciplines were not mutually distinctive, but as science continually grows, divisions start to occur. As physical beings we have physical limitations, even our brain has physical limitations despite its ability to venture into the abstract.

To offer yet another viewpoint take notice that you are a curious and inquisitive person. The fact that you're on a forum writing about technical matters which others may or may not read highlights that. Most people do not subscribe to forums (by most I mean outside of the computer sciences). Facebook does not count as a forum lol. Most people do not think as you do, most people are lazy and are primarily interested in "makin' t3h moneyz." Which is not to say you have no interest in financial gain, but it isn't the SOLE reason you seek the knowledge you seek.

When you meet an engineer worth his salt, trust me, you'll be duly impressed, and likely annoyed. Once they start tinkering with stuff it can get pretty obsessive.


08 November 2010 - 03:30 PM


I honestly thought that engineers were the ones who really needed that deep insight to see how these abstract theoretical discoveries in science could be applied to real world problems.

To a point, you can't expect us to know EVERYTHING :P. The view that I take is that there are some disciplines that are important, but are not personally fascinating so I will investigate them to the point that I am able to perform my job but I will not delve into them to the same extent that I will an area the REALLY interests me. I am just guessing here, but you are probably not fascinated by the english language enough to study it in minute detail. You learn enough to come across as an educated person and can effectively communicate your ideas, but beyond that you do not really care. Maybe you apply the same concept to what goes on inside your computer at the lowest of levels (though given that you are posting on a programming forum that may be a bad example :P).

That is the view that I personally have towards mathematics. Math is very important to what I do, but I do not find myself fascinated by the abstract theory beyond what I need to know to be a competant engineer. I am not averse to investigating further if I think it will help me understand something, but I would rather be investigating something that actually interests me at a deeper level. I love ripping things apart to discover how they work, but instead of mathematical concepts I prefer to work with electronic and computational concepts.


09 November 2010 - 12:37 AM


These students are not necessarily dismissive of the subject, just require some practicality to their thinking.

I have realized from my experience is that humans have a limitations/difficulty in understanding abstract concepts without knowing a few practical models/examples. In fact my brain (and many others I know) works both, bottom-up and top-down, till I arrive at a conclusion.What I mean by "bottom-up" is that I try to understand how the abstract concept was derived, how it came into being...using a few practical models as a catalyst to understanding the abstract design. Once I understand the model I can generalize it. If my generalization is wrong, then I identify where I went wrong till I get it right.

The problem of not showing "practical models" is evident in my college. They have tried to teach abstract concepts and theoretical stuffs without giving even the slightest clue of it's practicality.

I mean they gave poor consideration to programming - which itself has crippled the students.
Then they taught discrete mathematics to a point that I felt it was useless to the practical world. A semester later I found myself solving math related programming problems and I was naturally moving towards what I learned in the discrete math class. Things like recursive equations,it's simplification,Taylor series etc. Like I said before, I put myself into the shoes of the scientist/mathematician who discovered/invented the concepts - questions like why did he bring a new concept, what was he thinking before/while creating the concept.

So my definition of engineer includes a mixture of practical and abstract thinking - If an "engineer" can't think practical and/or abstract, then he isn't one. You may call him scientist (or a nothing), but not an engineer.

A side note: Yes, people have their own topics of interest. But saying that a subject has nothing to do with engineering needs careful thinking.A few points to consider:
1) A student may not understand what is related and what is not...until he learns the subject.
2) It is very difficult to understand what is and what is not related to particular field of engineering.
Like I had biology in my first year of engineering. BIOLOGY!? Bio and comp science? How are they even related? I can't call it 'useless' but there were much important subjects than that. Subjects that are directly related to 'computers' and subjects that everyone would certainly find useful.


09 November 2010 - 11:19 AM
I did not mean to offend any engineers as I am more curious than anything else.

When I was a kid I was not the kind of person to take things apart to figure out how they worked. In fact I still hold a grudge against my brother for taking apart a toy car of mine. BUT things have always stuck with me. I remember quite clearly learning how an electric motor works. My brother had always tinkered with electronics and we had built several electromagnets with nails etc. and so when I looked at the pieces of my broken toy car and recognized the electromagnet on the rotor and the fixed magnets on the stator the idea kind of clicked for me -- I didn't really understand magnetism and "lines of force" etc. but I did get the idea that the brushes turned on the electromagnets which were attracted/repelled from the magnets, then the brushes lost contact and moved on to the next electromagnet... I was missing a few concepts but at about the age of 6-8 I made a small breakthough.

So the next thing I tried to do was invent new motors. I know that I had several ideas, most of which consisted of more and more complex layouts of the rotor windings. I think I saw some of my early engineering diagrams in a box of papers my mother has laying around -- like most kids I also "invented" rocket powered roller skates, kites/paper airplanes with rockets, a kite with a fan (self-propelled I guess?)... what I find neat is that if you spend time arround kids you will find many of these ideas "re-invented" over and over - and what is really neat, is that they are original each time!

So my early engineering endeavors were not exactly encouraged by my older brother who claimed patent rights on the rocket powered roller skates (yes I pre-date roller-blades) and could always think of some reason why my motor idea was "stupid". So as I learned about the secrets of the universe in Physics and later mathematics classes I always imagined that to be an engineer you need some combination of tinkerer and thinker. I am not saying you had to be able to read the deep mathematical theorems and "get it" right off the bat -- indeed not even mathematicians can always do that! But you needed the guts to dive in and "figure it out" and tinker with it and really "understand".

So when I am faced with students who dismiss things like programming or mathematics with a quick, "I don't need to know that, I am an engineer" I just feel that they are cutting themselves off. I would rather hear, "I don't need to know that, I don't ever plan on engineering anything in this area".

As for abstraction -- there really is nothing wrong with non-mathematicians working with practical models, in fact that is the whole point of abstract concepts, they CAN be used in many practical models. HOWEVER, people tend to associate the technique with the area of problems that they learned it in. That is, in one engineering class you learn how to use first order differential equations to solve a certain kind of problem, and then when the equations come up again in another subject you have to "relearn" it even though NOTHING CHANGED!. One student I was tutoring did GREAT in one class and was really struggling in the other, so I showed him how the equations were EXACTLY the same only the variable names had been changed and he could solve the equation! but for some reason he could not map the two problem spaces. Without me to map the variable names (I literally made a table with translations) he could not solve the problems in the new class.

This is a danger of learning with practical model. One begins to imagine that the reality and the model are somehow tied to one another.

Mathematics is NOT about the electrical circuits, or water flow, or pressures, or economics -- the SAME techniques might apply across all of these subjects. What is important is to be able to recognize the structure.

And that is one area I really think modern education really sucks! They ignore this completely. You learn abstract concepts in math classes with maybe a few different "examples" taken from other disciplines, and you learn to use mathematical techniques in the various disciplines -- but no one ever really seems to talk about how to recognize the structures in the wild.

To be honest, from my experience you just have to "notice" -- something in your brain has to say, "Hey, I have seen this kind of thing before" -- and the only way to do this is to get used to looking at the practical as "abstract".


09 November 2010 - 02:05 PM


HOWEVER, people tend to associate the technique with the area of problems that they learned it in.

A very good observation. Many people have this problem and in various situations - probably even you had this. These are things that blocks our thinking and learning process. There was an incidence where I met a person in my elevator and he greets me...and I am like "Do I know you?"...He says "You come regularly to the restaurant I work in" :blink:. I couldn't recognize him without him wearing his work outfit, and he standing at a place where he usually doesn't stand. Funny!


...and the only way to do this is to get used to looking at the practical as "abstract"


Steven Smith 

12 November 2010 - 12:11 PM
Several comments as a practicing engineer...


I thought engineers were the guys (and gals) who were always taking things apart to see how they worked; measuring, cutting, molding things so that they fit just so; buying the latest and greatest technologies NOT because they were "the newest/hottest" but because they were excited by the ingenuity of man, the functionality of the technology, the horizons opened up by the edges of human endeavors...

In many respects, your assumption is correct of most engineers that I meet. However, for some people their profession defines them as a person, and they tend to exhibit many of the stereotypes of that profession... and for others it is only a job.

Abtract vs. Practical

This is nothing but preference and a difference in learning styles. I think you were able to summarize this point yourself by noting that the desire for engineering students to relate an abstract concept to a real model doesn't necessarily show a limitation in understanding the concept. Many engineers excel at being able to draw relations between the concept shown in one model to similar concepts in another. For example, we will often explain concepts in electrical circuitry by drawing analogues to a fluid piping system.

Programming and Engineering
The comment was obviously a rant. Extending a single comment into a generalization about the thoughts of millions of engineers is only acceptable because you were ranting yourself. I know you don't believe every engineer shares that viewpoint. Programming is not critical to my mechanical engineering role from a standpoint of being able to solve a given problem. However, it does help me work more efficiently, which is critical to being a successful engineer. Programming exists in engineering curiculum not because every engineer needs to know how to program, but because programming requires you to be able to break complex problems down into finite steps and apply logic. These skills are highly transferrable, and they are basically required to be successful as an engineer.


14 November 2010 - 02:20 AM


...because programming requires you to be able to break complex problems down into finite steps and apply logic. These skills are highly transferable...

I really like that phrase, "Highly transferable"
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