A Distinction Between Engineers and Scientists

What I wish people knew about engineers: We can be distinct from scientists!

For those of us who left high school (or entered it) with a love of math, science, technology, and learning, there awaits a big, wide future of gainful employment in STEM fields. I’m sure we’ve all heard it recently: women in STEM this, STEM is great that, start a child in STEM today, etc. (I have a low tolerance for rote rhetoric, even when it benefits me.) STEM fields have been pushed so enthusiastically and across so many disciplines, it’s easy to forget one simple fact: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are all distinct fields.

It’s hard to notice, because what we can accomplish by crossing disciplines is so much cooler than a single discipline alone. Most products, whether consumer- or industry-oriented, rely on many different elements. Anything with a computer, for example, includes at a minimum computer science (originally a branch of mathematics), electrical engineering, thermodynamics, and materials science. A variety of knowledge goes into every modern device from conception through production, but even though folks specializing in different disciplines can learn and work with the same facts, there is a reason to select for specific backgrounds, depending on your purpose: philosophy.

Each field develops a different philosophy, born from a history of the typical problems solved in that field and, as applicable, in the field(s) that spawned it. Science fields used to be lumped under one term: Natural Philosophy, which focused on learning why nature works as it does. Comparing Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary, I think engineering has always had a more applications-oriented philosophy. Over history, creators of buildings and aqueducts, trebuchets and catapults, have been called engineers, retroactively or at the time.

Now, I’ve been called a scientist. (Usually within the term “rocket scientist.”) My education was in engineering, and I work with both aerospace engineers I would call scientists and physicists I would call engineers. Here’s my interpretation after eight semesters of education and four years of gainful employment:

Scientists focus on why.

Engineers focus on how.

While a scientist may hold up a product, because a single element isn’t well-understood, an engineer will use past results to determine whether its effect on the system is significant. A scientist will tell you he needs to investigate something to learn from it. An engineer will tell you he needs to investigate something because of a concrete effect it could have on the end goal.

The problem with these terms is that they’re not mutually exclusive. People are people and can adopt a several skill sets simultaneously. However, just as most folks tend toward introversion or extroversion without shutting out interaction or going insane after a second of isolation, most scientists and engineers will tend toward one philosophy or the other.

Is the goal to learn more or to get something done?

Or the better test: Do you give up learning more to make something that is probably good enough? If so, you might be an engineer.

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