What does Thinking Like an Engineer mean?

We are often asked about the title of the book.  We thought we’d take a minute and explain what this means, to each of us.  Our responses are included in alphabetical order.

For me, thinking like an engineer is about creatively finding a solution to some problem.  In my pre-college days, I was very excited about music.  I began my musical pursuits by learning the fundamentals of music theory by playing in middle school band and eventually worked my way into different bands in high school (orchestra, marching band, jazz band) and branching off into teaching myself how to play guitar.  I love playing and listening to music because it gives me a creative outlet to create and discover art.  I pursued engineering for the same reason-- as an engineer, you work in a creative field that creates or improves designs or processes.  For me, thinking like an engineer is exactly like thinking like a musician-- through my fundamentals, I'm able to be creative, yet methodical in my solutions to problems. 

D. Bowman, Computer Engr

Thinking like an engineer is about solving problems with whatever resources are most available—fixing something that has broken with materials that are just lying around. Sometimes it’s about thinking ahead and realizing what’s going to happen before something breaks or someone gets hurt—particularly in thinking about what it means to fail safe—to design how something will fail when it fails. Thinking like an engineer is figuring out how to communicate technical issues in a way that anyone can understand. It’s about developing an instinct to protect the public trust – an integrity that emerges automatically.

M. Ohland, Civil Engr

To me, understanding the way things work is the foundation upon which all engineering is based. Although most engineers focus on technical topics related to their specific discipline, this understanding is not restricted to any specific field, but applies to everything! One never knows when some seemingly random bit of knowledge, or some pattern discerned in a completely disparate field of inquiry may prove critical in solving an engineering problem. Whether the field of investigation is Fourier analysis, orbital mechanics, Hebert boxes, personality types, the Chinese language, the life cycle of mycetozoans, or the evolution of the music of Western civilization, the more you understand about things, the more effective engineer you can be. Thus, for me, thinking like an engineer is intimately, inextricably, and inexorably intertwined with the Quest for Knowledge. Besides, the world is a truly fascinating place if one bothers to take the time to investigate it.

W. Park, Electrical Engr

Engineering is a bit like the game of golf. No two shots are ever exactly the same. In engineering, no two problems or designs are ever exactly the same. To be successful, engineers need a bag of clubs (math, chemistry, physics, English, social studies) and then need to have the training to be able to select the right combination of clubs to move from the tee to the green and make a par (or if we are lucky, a birdie). This text aims to prepare the embryonic engineer with the proper use of the clubs which they are given in other courses. In short, engineers need to be taught to THINK.

B. Sill, Aerospace Engr

I like to refer to engineering as the color grey.  Many students enter engineering because they are “good at math and science.”  I like to refer to these disciplines as black and white – there is one way to integrate an equation, one way to balance a chemical reaction.  Engineering is grey, a blend of math and science that does not necessarily have one clear answer.  The answer can change, depending on the criteria of the problem.  Thinking like an engineer is about training your mind to conduct the methodical process of problem solving.  It is examining a problem from many different angles, considering the good, the bad, and the ugly in every process or product.  It is thinking creatively to discover ways of solving problems, or preventing issues from becoming problems.  It’s about finding a solution in the grey and presenting it in black and white. 

E.  Stephan, Chemical Engr