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STEM: What is Engineering?

Palm of Jumeriah, Dubai, Saudi Arabia (Source:  Jumana el Heloueh/Reuters/Corbis)

Palm of Jumeriah, Dubai, Saudi Arabia (Source: Jumana el Heloueh/Reuters/Corbis)

“A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.”  Freeman Dyson, Physicist and Author

In previous and separate post, the definition of Science, Math, and Technology were provided. Today’s post covers the “E” in STEM and attempts to answer the question: What is engineering?

My educational background includes bachelor and master degrees in engineering and an MBA. I have significant work experience in the engineering field, am a member of several engineering or technical organizations, and have and continue to serve as a volunteer and leader in a few professional societies. Given the above, providing an answer to the question: What is engineering? is still difficult. Why? Primarily because the experience of working in the field of engineering can be so vastly different from one engineer to the next.

Live Science provides one definition of engineering that I like [Ref 1]: Engineering is the application of science and math to solve problems. Engineers figure out how things work and find practical uses for scientific discoveries. Scientists and inventors often get the credit for innovations that advance the human condition, but it is engineers that are instrumental in making those innovations available to the world.

Wikipedia provides a broader definition that shows the breadth and depth of the field [Ref 2]: Engineering (from the Latin word ingenium, meaning “cleverness” and ingeniare, meaning “to contrive, devise”) is the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge to invent, design, build, maintain, research, and improve structures, machines, devices, systems, materials, and processes.

Mitra [Ref 3] approaches a course on modern engineering by stating that it includes technology, but is also concerned with development and understanding of technological systems and the products, affects and appropriateness of technology. It is also concerned with non-technological approaches.

Technical engineering is the activity of transforming and transporting:

  1. Materials and forces of nature.
  2. Energy and information, which are technical measures of utility.

This statement excludes reference to value and method. To complete our understanding of modern engineering, we should identify its values, its societal and environmental objectives and its tools. [Ref 3]

In my role as a consultant and small business owner, I am required to be competent in the principles of chemical engineering, project management, and business practices. In addition, I need to be aware of and more broadly understand the requirements of other engineering disciplines, especially when a team approach is required, along with non-technical specialties.  Add to the above marketing, branding, communications channels, and most important – the ability to communicate all of the above.

Looking back, there are numerous man-made engineering marvels that are included in the development of human civilization. They include the Tombs of the Pharaohs (Pyramids of Giza), Sennacherib’s Royal Palace at Nineveh, The Parthenon, the Great Wall of China and the giant statues on Easter Island.

Today’s engineers build huge structures like the International Space Station, man-made cities like The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, and National Stadium in China. They are mapping the human genome, building faster computers and smaller chips, and making plans for the first colony on Mars.

The National Academy of Science notes that the job of the engineer is to combine the knowledge and tools of today with dreams of tomorrow to create the world of the future.

In closing, anyone can dream about the future, but the people that actually turn those dreams into reality will be engineers. From concept to creation requires an understanding of science and math, and familiarity with relevant technology, and the ability to create a vision that does not exists today.


  1. What is engineering?: Types of Engineering, by Jim Lucas in Live Science, August 21, 2014,  (http://www.livescience.com/47499-what-is-engineering.html), website last viewed on 06.08.2015
  2. Wikipedia, wikipedia.org
  3. Modern Engineering (online offering), by Anil Mitra, PhD, http://www.horizons-2000.org/7.%20Archive/EDA/Modern%20Engineering%201985/modern%20engineering.html

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.



  1. Pingback: STEM: Why is Science Always Changing? | BridgeBizSTEM - November 5, 2017

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