This is the most common definition…
Engineers are applied scientists
No! Scientists are applied scientists. Our educators are applied scientists. Scientists make sense of what exists in nature. They test and examine nature. Scientists discover. Engineers take nature and make what exists outside of it. Engineers invent, create, and make. Engineers are makers. Engineers are designers. Engineers design real things.
In Alan Harris famously said in his essay Architectural Misconceptions of Engineering:
Engineering is no more applied science, than painting is applied chemestry [Harris, 1975:17]
The applied science portion of what we do is actually the easiest and most straight forward. It is objective and has its’ own linear, step wise methodology. That is why the young engineers are doing the calculations and the modeling, while more experienced engineers are not. Yes, it needs to be right, so there is a lot of responsibility in this phase but that doesn’t make it difficult. The experienced ones are doing the other 90% of what we do, the more difficult tasks, tasks that require much more than a calculation. Design is the other 90% of engineering that is only achieved after one graduates from being a mere applied scientist (or technician) to being an engineer!
Borrowing from Donald Rumsfeld, scientific application or procedural design is about the known knowns. Design is much more about the known unknowns. So why do we align ourselves so closely with science? Because it is “hard”? Nope. It is because we have allowed the educators of our profession to define it for us. Our educators are not engineers, they are scientists. That is okay, but let’s be honest about it. Please understand, I love science, but I am as much an artist as a scientist and I suspect so are you. They only differ from scientists in the fact that they absorb themselves in practical problems. They are great educators and researchers and I am incredibly impressed by our educators – but they are rarely engineers. They are really “practical” scientists. They rarely design big things. Is there any other professional major where the person who is teaching the thing, does not perform the thing? Law? Architecture? Medicine? Engineering may be the only one. Research is very different than practice but we have a system in place that rewards science and research over the richness of engineering practice. Research is science, not engineering. I am not saying we replace the incredible faculty we have with engineers, nor am I suggesting that the curriculum should change. Design is learned in practice, and applied science is learned in school. That is all fine. I am merely describing who are educators are. I do think our educators have the responsibility to know who we are, so this blog is for them too.
The Urgency of Engineering Education Reform by William Wulf presses this point further:
Engineering faculty are, for the most part, judged by criteria similar to the science faculty, and the practice of engineering is not one of those criteria. The faculty reward system recognizes teaching, research, and service to the profession, but it does not give the same status to delivering a marketable product or process, or designing an enduring piece of the nation's infrastructure. [Wulf, 1998]
Am I the only person who finds this strange? Our Architecture schools are completely different. They encourage their faculty to have their own practices. When I interviewed for a position at an Architecture School, they asked me questions about the buildings that I designed. The tenured faculty of architecture schools are often well known architects. Why is it so different for us?