I’ve just started reading “The Essential Engineer“, a somewhat belated college graduation gift I bought for myself as I switch from being a “science” student as undergrad to an “engineering” student in grad school. And just the preface has already made me start screaming yes (in my head). Evidently one of the points the author, Henry Petroski, hopes to drive home is the difference between science and engineering. And this strikes me as something fairly important, especially because you see it pop up ALL. THE. TIME. Petroski writes about a story in The New York Times about the arrest of a worker at Los Alamos National Lab that switches between calling the accused a “scientist” and an “engineer”. Or the near-universal American description of aerospace engineering as “rocket science”. It’s also interesting, because it seems like a kind of weird conflation, given that engineering has only become heavily dependent on science in the last century. To me, it seems kind of like calling the person who operates on you and the person who manages your medication both “doctors”, though maybe this example falls flat because people do tend to run into surgeons and pharmacists a lot.
One could claim that this is nitpicking, and to be fair, it kind of is. But I feel like conflating two entire general professions might actually harm them. For example, my undergrad institution’s student newspaper recently published an editorial about the career fair being too “science-focused”, but then went on to only talk about how most companies wanted engineers. That’s certainly a legitimate complaint, but it ignores the fact that my undergrad university had very few companies recruit students in non-engineering science majors (which would be considered the ACTUAL science majors). For some reason a lot of advisors viewed the science majors as not being in the “liberal arts” either, and while I could understand not viewing something like biology as being equivalent to art history, that doesn’t really fit the traditional view of liberal arts in my mind. It also put science majors in this weird Twilight Zone between “practical” engineering and “useless” liberal arts fields. Or there’s the fact that a lot of “STEM reform” seems really engineering-focused. To use my own life as an example, I didn’t really know what engineering was until college when I was exposed to it. I kept thinking I would do physics even though I knew I didn’t want to do theoretical physics.
Of course, there’s also some rationale for the science/engineering confusion. If you’re in physics or chemistry and aren’t involved in fundamental theory, the distinction between science and engineering can be kind of blurred. (Aside: ecology and the various disciplines of the Earth and space sciences don’t have this problem as much) The research project I worked on at Rice on polymer membranes could very easily have fallen into a chemical engineering or materials science department, but I worked for a chemist. Honestly, the main reason it might not have been engineering was how far away the research was from practical application at this stage. But my roommate in Virginia is a biomedical engineer, and his work is a very basic science project that is also years away from practical application. If you’re in industry, I’m not sure if there really is a clear division between, say, a chemist and a chemical engineer. On the other end, some engineering research in academia can be very fundamental. At one of my summer jobs in an engineering lab, one of the other students (an applied physics grad student) was working on developing a model to describe why carbon nanotubes bend during growth. While that would be useful for manufacturing longer nanotubes, to be honest, there was a lot of mechanics he was considering in his model that we don’t understand yet.
The seemingly growing popularity of engineering science programs also blurs the distinction. And of course, my new field also has a confusing name. I’m in a “materials science and engineering” department, but you can also find departments labelled only as “materials science” or “materials engineering”. Purdue has an amusing anecdote that their department is just “materials engineering” because the natural science departments objected to the engineering college using “science”. But that’s actually one of the reasons I do find the field very attractive. There is a very strong engineering, “practical” side of it, but also a side focused on understanding the science of how materials work.
So I realize this was kind of a rant, but I hope someone finds this interesting, because I do.