Engineering is the practice of using the laws and resources of nature to create products - such as instruments, bridges, computer programs, airplanes, chemical plants, machines, and computers - that perform useful functions for mankind.
Engineering provides a way of extending the ability of people's biological faculties - human physical power (extended, for example, by engines and explosives), human senses (extended by the telephone and televisions), the human brain (extended by books and computers).
Engineering is also beginning to modify the human biological faculties themselves (as in the use of implants and biotechnology). The result is that humans have a growing ability to increase their control and use of the environment not only on land but also on and in water, in the atmosphere, and (increasingly) in space. In creating products, engineering deals with the same main themes as in the physical and biological sciences and is just as dependent on mathematics.
Engineers are basically problem solvers. Typically, they approach any problem such as how to cross a river, fly somewhere, transmit information, build an artificial kidney, or maintain a fleet of airplanes by following certain steps and procedures that aid in finding solutions to the most difficult of problems.
When an engineer is confronted with a need or a problem, he or she routinely:
- Analyzes the situation;
- Sets up the problem;
- Determines the constraints that apply to finding a solution to the problem (for example, those that involve size, materials, tools, instruments, labor force skills, and social and environmental impacts);
- Develops a strategy or plan and, if necessary, a model and a prototype for the solution; and
- Designs (and in some cases constructs) the actual product (for example, a bridge, an airplane, a computer program, or a dialyzer."
By following this procedure or steps similar to these, engineers are able to look at problems clearly and find the methods or means of solving them.
An engineer's job, however, is not simply to design a product that works; he or she must develop a product that not only works but is also safe and affordable. The least costly product may not be the safest one. For example, leaded gasoline is certainly less costly to produce and use than unleaded gasoline, but it puts potentially hazardous amounts of lead in the atmosphere. On the other hand, the most expensive design is not necessarily the safest, either; for example, an elaborate high-rise building may have fewer safety features than a rather plain factory building. Ethical considerations may be all important in making a choice, particularly when human safety and the environment are considerations.
Have you ever looked at a bicycle and wondered why the rider is able to move faster on the bike than by walking? What keeps the rider upright when his or her feet aren't touching the ground, and what natural forces act upon the rider and the bike? An engineer can help you find answers to all of these questions and many more. It is the purpose and function of the profession not only to design bicycles, but to keep improving upon the design of bicycles. The bikes of today contain many improvements over those first created by early engineers. The basic natural laws and principles affecting bike operation and construction, however, remain the same today as they did yesterday, but engineers keep expanding both their technical knowledge and ability in manipulating nature to build even more efficient products.
Air travel offers another excellent example of how natural laws remain the same while our ability to manipulate and take advantage of nature is ever improving. The large jet engines of today are vastly superior to the old propeller engines of earlier decades and have made air travel safer and more enjoyable.
As you become better acquainted with engineers and the engineering profession, remember that engineers are the master problem solvers of our society. What problems would you like to see them solve?