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Engineers Solve Problems

by Van J. Brackin, P.E. BSME

Why are Engineers so different than everyone else? That question is often asked by many who are not Engineers, but who may know some and wonder about these peculiar people. Scott Adams made us all laugh exploiting Dilbert's idiosyncrasies. Non-engineers often didn't get the jokes, but we did. We understood who Engineers are, what we do, and what we have to deal with when surrounded by non-engineers. While people often comment on "how" we're different, I'd like to explore why are we different.

Engineers are, in general, good at solving problems. In order to graduate with a degree in Engineering, we have to be. We have to be able to pass classes that involve Thermodynamics, Material Science, Physics, Electronics, Chemistry, and so on. In order to do this, you have to take tests with lots of problems. Mind you, none of these problems are subjective. None of them ask you how you feel about a train moving 60 mph. Every problem has a unique solution (or set of solutions), and every problem has one or more methods of solving it. All problems boil down to a simple process. You identify what is being asked and what been given. Then you apply the appropriate principles to derive an answer. As my Dynamics professor used to say..."the solution is trivial, the problem is solved."

So, is it that Engineers are good at solving problems, or is it that people who are good at solving problems become Engineers? Which came first, chicken or the egg? A Philosopher may ponder on the question indefinitely, but as an Engineer I'll give you my simple logical answer. Dinosaurs hatched from eggs, before there were ever chickens on earth. Therefore, eggs came first. With Engineers it's the same. People who become Engineers usually start solving problems from an early age. This ability, this interest in figuring things out, in many cases, develops into a path of high education, experience or both that gives us a lot of practice to solving problems.

So how does this make Engineers different than everyone else? In solving all of these problems we tend to think about everything. We look at all problems analytically and pick them apart. We have the training to help us understand the fundamental principles about how the world works, and when we don't understand something, we dig in and figure it out. We are always asking "WHY", not philosophically, but physically. If B, then WHY because of A? With our knowledge, training, education, and application of our skills, we continually look at the world as a series of puzzles. As we move through life, we fill in more and more pieces.

It is through this expansion of our understanding of the world, we become better at solving those problems that our customers bring us.