What defines being an engineer has changed greatly over the last half century with the addition of more advanced technology and more applications for engineering in everyday items. At one time engineers were thought of as people who designed structures. For example, bridges and
Skyscrapers were described as “feats of engineering.” Today, engineers still design structures as grand as bridges and buildings, however they also design items on the other end as small as nanotechnology and the applications that run it. Because of this the meaning of what it is to be an engineer has also changed. Being an engineer is also a personal desire and part of my mother’s dream for a perfect life.
Engineers still design large structures, and their jobs are still basically the same in this regard. When looking at the plans for a large structure they make sure the design includes sufficient support factures to stand and to accommodate its designed use. It is not enough for a bridge to span a river, it must also accommodate the weight and vibrations caused by the vehicles crossing over it. Likewise, a building must be able to house the people, furnishings, and equipment necessary to make it functional for its intended use. It also must be able to withstand the stresses and weight loads it might be subject to in the event of storms or other environmental events.
On a smaller level, manufacturing equipment, office equipment, even business furniture is engineered to accommodate the people who will be operating it. Now that the dangers of injuries caused by repetitive stress, like carpal tunnel syndrome for example, engineering is more involved in the design of everyday items.
Another field that created many new jobs for engineers in the last half century. In the 1960s computers were huge machines that occupied large climate controlled rooms in a few select corporations and government offices. Today, almost everything we have or use has a computer chip in it somewhere. We even imbed chips into our house pets to keep them from getting lost. Each of these chips employees at least three engineers. The first one designs the software, what the chip will do and how it will work with other software applications and technology. The second engineer designs chip itself and determines what physical connections need to be made in order to run the software. The third engineer designs the machinery that produces the chip. This is, of course an over simplification of what is involved in this sector of engineering today.
In addition to these common everyday contributions engineers make to our lives there is also the field of biotechnology and the engineering that goes into devices like pacemakers that keep peoples’ hearts beating regularly. Some diabetes suffers have insulin pumps inserted to monitor and control their insulin levels. At one time there were television programs about a “bionic” man and woman that seemed farfetched by the standards of the day. Today there are prosthetic devices that make that kind of replacement and rehabilitation a reality, and we are getting better at helping people all the time.
Nanotechnology is another field that is driven by engineering. Once again this technology employees at least three engineers to create the applications, the physical technology and the machinery to create it. There is also another field of engineering that creates the larger machines that use these computer elements. Engineers design our automobiles, home heating and cooling systems and toaster ovens. They also design the machines that build them and the structure of the factories that hold those machines. From being a specialty occupation only involved in a few large design fields’ engineers and engineering has become an integral part of our everyday lives.
It is not surprising at all then to consider that the popular view of an engineer has changed considerably as well. Once engineers were thought of as professionals, involved in the construction industry who often spent as much time in the field supervising the construction of grand structures as they did at their drawing boards. Now when we think of engineers we are more likely to think of the “Bill Gates” type of person who spends more time indoors than outside.
This makes the concept of being an engineer much broader and subject to choice for someone who has a degree in engineering. People are engineers still could spend most of their time outdoors at a construction site, checking to make sure all the necessary parameters are followed so the structure is safe for its use. They could also spend their time in a perfectly climate controlled laboratory where everything from temperature to dust levels are monitored.
It is easy to see the differences, but it is harder to see what all engineers have in common today. Engineers still use math to turn a concept into a reality. Whether it is a bridge or an intangible software application, engineers do the math. They still take concepts and turn them into linear equations; that is something all engineers have in common. Being an engineer means being able to have a big idea and take it step by step, doing the math along the way, until the concept is reality. Learning to be an engineer is not easy. There are long hours studying, math to learn and papers to write but it is worth it to make a dream come true.
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