When I tell people I’m an engineer, I usually get a polite, non-committal acknowledgement. More than once, when I’ve clarified that I’m a robotics engineer, people look much more interested and have said, “Oh, I think you’re a lot cooler now!”
It’s sad to me that engineering is perceived as boring. As my example shows, it’s usually just a matter of explaining what my job really is before people understand how exciting it is. “I’m a system engineer,” “I’m a user experience designer” or “I’m a developer” just don’t have the same appeal as “I build space robots” or “I designed the revolutionary user interfaces that the iPhone is built on.”
As a society, we don’t do a good job showing people, especially young people, what scientists and engineers actually do. If you’re like I was as a student, maybe you thought of being a marine biologist, teacher, doctor or an astronaut. But chances are, the word “engineer” has never crossed your mind. I’m here to do something about that.
After I made the decision to pursue an engineering degree, someone asked me why. “Because I’m good at math and science,” I said. They chuckled. Apparently I was fitting a stereotype. When asked why they go in to engineering, women usually say it’s because they have good math and science skills. Interestingly, men usually say it’s because they enjoy building things.
Anecdotally, I’ve found this is true. But the key is that this is what women tend to say. Upon reflection, I realized my answer wasn’t entirely true. Sure, my parents and teachers encouraged me to consider engineering because I did well in math and science, and I had internalized that pretty strongly. But what convinced me to pursue an engineering degree was my experience as part of a high school team building a 120-pound robot in six weeks to compete at major events. Through this team, which I had only joined on a whim, I learned design, soldering, wiring, machining and programming. In short, I discovered that I loved building things, just like the men said they did.
Related to women believing that they pursue engineering because of their talent for math and science is women’s general reaction to challenging college-level math and physics coursework. Nearly every engineering student struggles with these freshman year basics; these courses are designed to be difficult. But a student who is only in a major because she is good at math and science may read the struggle as a sign that she was wrong. And if I’m not really that good at math and science, this student might think, maybe I should drop out of engineering. This was me, my freshman year at Olin College of Engineering. What kept me going was the fact that I realized that I loved what engineering really is: building things.
“Building” probably isn’t even the right term. Let’s go with “creating.” Engineering is about creating things. Whether it is traditional, physical building—from bridges and robots to power transmission systems and race cars—or a “virtual” product like Facebook or an iPhone app, engineering requires you to conceive of something that doesn’t yet exist, and then make it happen. Which is pretty cool.
And that’s where our society fails in telling people what engineering is. It is a really, really cool thing. It’s not just being a math and science geek wearing a lab coat and standing around pensively in front of whiteboards. It’s about inventing, creating and building. Thankfully, despite my freshman year struggles, I spent my four years at Olin with an amazing group of people, including my professors, who all understood the “cool” side of engineering and made it part of the curriculum.
Sure, math and physics problem sets have to be learned, but why not build a kinetic sculpture while you’re at it? Study the material properties of metals and metalworking techniques in order to forge your own jewelry? Have bottle rocket or air-powered dragster competitions? Start a small company and earn a patent for the product you design? Enter a mobile app in a national competition—and win? These projects, these opportunities to create, are all part of the curriculum at Olin (and at increasing numbers of engineering programs around the country). They’re all realizing the same thing: Engineering is about creating, and we need to do a better job of making sure everyone knows that.
For me, the greatest thing about having an engineering degree is that it only gets better after college. While I look back fondly on my Olin days, working in industry as an engineer is the greatest thing I can imagine. One of my coworkers once said, “An engineer is one who satisfies their curiosity at the expense of a company.” At Bluefin Robotics, I get to satisfy my curiosity about robots (and the depths of the ocean) by getting paid to build autonomous vehicles that dive thousands of meters below the surface. I get to spend beautiful days (and sometimes cold, snowy days) on boats operating these robots, and travel the world doing it. I get to meet climate scientists, underwater archaeologists, members of the armed services, and yes, marine biologists, in the course of my work. I get to feel the surge of adrenaline the first time a multi-million dollar robot that I helped create disappears beneath the waves on its first test mission, and the satisfaction when it returns exactly where we asked it to, full of data about the seafloor.
I feel incredibly lucky to absolutely love my job. Not everyone gets to say that. Engineering, as a creative endeavor, can be the most exciting, intellectually fulfilling thing you do. Math and science are of course the foundations on which the engineering discipline is built, but at the end of the day, it’s about inventing, making, creating, and building. What will you make?