Sep 10, 2011

Engineering for Social People

As I was researching for future book for Mechanical Engineers, I found out something interesting about engineering career advising. Get this...

Our Career Development director taught me about Holland Codes, a system for determining students' strong interests. No surprise: Engineers are highly Realistic (R) people which means they tend to be concrete, present-thinking, and hand-on oriented. However, the interesting part was how different types of engineering split on the secondary interest.
  • Electrical and Chemical Engineers have Investigative (I) as a secondary interest. They have more "scientific" personalities than other engineers; science people have "I" as a primary interest. They love analysis activities and really strive to "dig out" the specifics of phenomena they encounter.
  • Civil Engineers have Enterprising (E) as their secondary. This means they are more like business folks who love the interaction of politics, economics, large ventures, and risk. Civ E's I know are comfortable with LARGE scale projects involving a lot of players and very big money.
  • Mechanical Engineers had Social (S) as their secondary, which means that they like more interaction with people, seek out ways to understand and support others.
Frankly, this latter analysis of MEs surprised me. Not that I subscribe to the stereotype that engineers are socially inept geeks, but compared to education majors, social workers, and counselors, we really aren't SOCIAL.

My Career Development helped me process it: Do you work on team projects? she asked. Well, yes, I answered. Does success require successful human interaction, consideration, and motivation? Well, yes, mechanical engineering is so broad, even a strictly mechanical engineering project will require a range of experts.

In college, my EE roommate observed that MEs danced around in lab and joked around whereas the EEs stuck in their groups and often scolded each other. Today, practicing MEs have indicated that only about 20% of their work requires direct application of the technical knowledge that they were tested on while in school. The other 80% consists of a high degree of people interaction and communication, something they didn't actually learn in their formal education. One engineer even said he wanted to write a book to the younger generation, warning them about this. He was a bit relieved when I told him Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School might be a useful start; I don't think he had a lot of time on his hands.


I recently ran across The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, which further underlines the expected social interactions engineers must have with managers, clients, and vendors. No wonder ABET accreditation requires a successful engineer to have a well-rounded education.

When I was growing up, engineering was suggested to students who had interest and aptitude in science and mathematics. I have now refined the process to help students navigate the different types of engineering. I stay with some of the primary types, for simplicity, treating some of the other engineers are specialties within these larger ones (blame Princeton for my desire to keep a minimum number of engineering fields). My questions are:
  • Why engineering? Their answers give me an idea whether science, mathematics, or engineering is the best fit. If they love learning why things do what they do, love to set up experiments to figure out which variables that affect the situation, then science or a highly investigative field is probably best for them. If they really like the puzzles, logic, and pattern finding -- and the actual application is not as important, then mathematics (or computers) may actually be better. If they really are very problem-oriented, strive to find the solutions to particular nagging situations, then engineering may be it.
  • What types of engineering are you considering? Their answer gives me insight into their motivations. What types of things do they like to work with? Do they like machinery, calculations, electronics? Do they like large things, human-sized things, or things you can't even see with the naked eye. For example, My husband and I are both MEs because like cats, we find things far more interesting when they move.
  • What courses did you like in high school? Why? This third question helps me triangulate on their interests and gives me a clue about their theoretical vs practical inclinations. A friend asked me whether I advise a high school student to be an Electrical Engineer or Computer Scientist. I responded with the simple question of "What does he like to do? Work with the computer or work with electronics?" These are really very different jobs and thus different educations. If he didn't like doing one, why would he want to study it? It was a revelation to my friend who was just thinking in terms of salary and job security.
  • What do you like to do for fun? This gives yet another data point for triangulation. It also gives me a sense of the student's experience with tools and technology, communication, project management, creativity, persistence, and problem solving. With this information, I can give more concrete advice on what the students should focus on in future years.
  • What would your dream job look like/entail? This is sometimes harder for students to imagine. Either they have no idea what working for a living would even look like, or they want do what they want to do, when the want to do it (who wouldn't love to do that?). However, if they do have an idea of what their ideal job dynamics, challenges, and work environment would be, that helps me know whether a more investigative, social, or enterprising discipline is best.
So far, I've been able to predict the right engineering for my students. One didn't believe me, but later tried to switch into the field I suggested during her graduate years, and another ended up switching from aerospace to mechanical when she realized (as I had been suggesting) it provided a broader experience for her interests.

Okay, as Han Solo said in Star Wars, let's not get cocky...

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