College Major: Engineering

The first in an occasional series on college majors.  

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

With teachers, parents, corporate leaders and even the president encouraging teenagers to become engineers, a well-paying field with solid job prospects, it seems a good place to start this series that explores college majors. Read on to learn more about engineering and whether it’s right for your student.

IMG_0734What is engineering? From whatisengineering.com: “Engineering is the application of scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world. While science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) allows us to gain an understanding of the world and the universe, engineering enables this understanding to come to life through problem-solving, designing and building.”

We encouraged our son to study engineering because he learned by understanding instead of memorizing, had a problem-solving nature—he took things apart to figure out how they worked and, from an early age, showed no fear when touching random keys on a computer to see what they did. He studied computer science and engineering in college, and yes, he is working, using his engineering skills as a product developer.

What skill set and interests do you need to become an engineer? Along with good problem-solving skills, an engineering major should like math and science and possess competence in both. Creativity also helps, because solving problems involves original thinking.

Don’t let the math requirement freak you out. I once heard an engineer, in speaking to a class of high school physics students, explain that they didn’t need to memorize a bunch of formulas, but they needed know how to use them. Engineering departments/firms keep those formulas on hand (imagine a mythical binder filled with formulas).

Students who struggle with math or science need to be willing to put in extra effort and take advantage of their college’s tutoring center if they are serious about earning an engineering degree. Calculus is an essential piece of the engineering puzzle and most disciplines require more than Calc A & B. Choosing an engineering discipline that plays to your strengths rather than your weaknesses helps, too.

What should you study in high school to prepare for a major in engineering? The website Tryengineering.com recommends that students interested in engineering take accelerated courses in these areas: algebra II, biology, calculus, chemistry, computer science, language arts, precalculus, physics, a foreign language and trigonometry. Students who can’t take a course at the highest level offered should at least take the level that challenges them.

What are the most popular engineering majors? The Top 4 include chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering.

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  • Chemical engineering This field covers work on everything from pharmaceuticals to food products, from fuels to paper products, from fertilizer to household cleaners. Chemical engineers work in the lab and the field to create commercial products via chemistry.
  • Civil engineering Think roads, tunnels, bridges, dams and buildings. This broad area also covers applications relating to structural integrity, the environment, water resources and more.
  • Electrical engineering Almost everything you do today involves work by an electrical engineer—the computer or cell phone you’re reading this on, the program you watch on your television via the cable system that feeds it to your home. Electrical engineers work in various industries such as construction, manufacturing and design.
  • Mechanical engineering Considered the broadest of engineering disciplines, mechanical engineering overlaps with many of the other engineering fields. Professionals work on designing machines, systems, energy conversion devices and structures.

How many other engineering disciplines are there beyond the Top 4? Depending upon how specialized you view engineering, there are as many as 29 additional disciplines. These include but are not limited to audio, computer, aerospace, biomedical, environmental, mining/geological, automotive, manufacturing, nuclear, ocean, petroleum and software, among others. To learn about all the engineering disciplines, visit EducatingEngineers.com and Dedicatedengineers.org.

What career options are open to engineers? Engineering graduates can work directly in the field they studied or in a related area. Some would say engineers can work in almost any field they choose, even ones that appear unrelated, because of their problem-solving skills. Engineers do pursue careers in business, law and medicine. Various studies of the top CEOs have shown that anywhere from 20-30 percent hold degrees in engineering, equal to or more than those who earned business degrees.

IMG_0027.JPGHow do you pick an engineering discipline? Fortunately, good college engineering programs require freshmen to all take the same core engineering courses that cross disciplines, enabling students to find which areas meet their interests and fit their abilities in order to declare a major by sophomore year.

Why should girls and minorities consider engineering? Colleges and corporations have finally woken up to the fact that they need more diversity among their engineering students and employees and now offer scholarships and hiring incentives to young women and minorities in order to achieve their goals. Girls and minority teens who want to create, design, build and solve the world’s problems should take a closer look at majoring in engineering.

Where can you learn more about engineering majors and the colleges that offer them? Start with the sites below to find colleges with engineering programs. Then search online to see where schools rank using the terms “top engineering schools” or “top [pick discipline] engineering schools.” Look beyond the top 10; there are plenty of good programs that rank below that.

Educating Engineers—a guide to schools by state

Try Engineering–find a university worldwide

The College Board’s The Big Future

The Online Guide to Engineering Schools—a site created by engineers

Engineering Colleges – Niche

Share your thoughts on engineering degrees and careers in the comments section below.

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