The E in STEM

Feb 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi, I am FrauTech and I am a mechanical engineer. I blog over at Design. Build. Play. as well as at Engineer Blogs. I've been following the Science Blogging community for a couple years now and in fact it is this larger community that inspired me to try my hand at blogging. It's been very exciting to see science blogging gain in popularity and following. And while I've felt like these were my kind of people, the people who talk about how kickass their science is, I've wondered how and where I fit in.

One of the questions I'm constantly thinking about is, is engineering science? I pondered this question over at my own blog. I believe there are many engineers in academia or research labs who are doing science. But the typical engineer working in private industry does not necessarily do science as a part of their job on a daily basis. So when the fine folks here at Scientopia asked me to guest blog I was very honored but still unsure as to my place in the science blogging community. That was part of the reason several other blogging engineers and myself started Engineer Blogs.

One of the strange things we've found so far is the lack of engineers in the blogosphere. And I'd like to postulate some reasons for why this might be. It's no surprise science blogging can be a little life sciences heavy. This is probably because these topics are easy to understand and get interested in by people not necessarily in the field. Compare that to say, "pure" mathematics, and it's plain to see who's blogging and who's getting read. Back in the day there were all these great videos like Disney's Man in Space. America had its first pre-Obama Sputnik moment.

But now despite the closeness in the average person's life to computers, their iPhone, and complex and advanced automotive systems there seems to be less of an interest. I don't think this is engineering only, certainly scientists suffer the lack of interest in what they do and how they do it. My second explanation for the lack of engineers in the blogosphere is the kind of work they do and the fear in discussing it. Academia seems to me to be the last bastion of a place where people's jobs are protected enough that a certain percentage of them can speak out with no fear. But for private companies there's an emphasis on secrecy. Despite the recent ruling in favor of the fired employee who complained on Facebook I think the general trend is in the other direction. And this is why I blog under a pseudonym.

So where does this leave engineering in the science community? I think it can definitely be a part of the science blogging world, despite not always being research-oriented. And I think like many other less glamorous parts of science the only thing to do is to keep writing and keep persevering because if I love engineering this much certainly that must come across in my writing at least some of the time and maybe more engineers will come along and write about what they do and the online STEM community as a whole will be all the better for it.

Thanks for having me here and I look forward to having discussions and interacting with this community over the next couple weeks.

17 responses so far

  • Colin says:

    I also find it interesting that a lot of people complain about the US falling behind in STEM in public schools, yet ~100% of the time they actually mean *just* STM because public schools don't actually teach engineering. They most certainly teach science — biology, chemistry, physics, computer science — and technology — shop class, drafting, "computers" — and mathematics — algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus. Where are the high schools that teach circuit theory or fluid mechanics or statics or chemical plants or building design? What percentage of high schools teach anything that falls under an engineering department at a university?

    Why is it STEM when the E is completely absent? And yet no one cares or notices?

    Every now-and-then I wonder how I "fell" into engineering considering it was 100% absent from my high school. (There was one class on electronics but it was not engineering.)

    • Drugmonkey says:

      Not clear to me that engineering needs to be in high school. Education builds on prior blocks. Is engineering ( distinct from physics, math, chem) a basic building block? I think not. Note, I don't think my two closest -ologies need to be in high school either. Psych, cog sci and heck, neuroscience don't need to stand alone from biology. Perhaps *included*, but not to major extent....

      • GEARS says:

        Yeah, but they major problem is that there is no emphasis at all at the high school level in engineering. Sure, you know about math, bio, chem, and most decent high schools have computer stuff... but there's nothing that teaches "problem solving", "creating/designing stuff" etc, etc...

        I had no idea what an engineer did until I was already enrolled in a university mechanical engineering program which I decided to do because someone said "you'd be a good engineer". When I found out what engineers actually did, my first thought was "They need to really change the myth about what an engineer does"

        How hard would it be to have a Basics of Engineering class in high school? Balsa wood bridge, light up some LED's with some basic circuits, build a mini trebuchet... it's not that hard.

        But no, we must all learn how to read Shakespeare and high literature which has little relevance to solving real world problems that we do have in society.

    • Peggy says:

      Introductory circuits and fluid mechanics were part of my high school physics class. It seems to me that that a lot of "engineering" subjects are actually part of the physic curriculum.

      I do think that "E" does get short shrift, but that's at least in part because engineering (at least as I think of it) is applied science and teaching those science fundamentals takes up most of the class time.

      That's a bit of a shame, because I think seeing how science can be applied to solve real-world problems can both excite students about learning science, and help their understanding of the underlying scientific principals.

  • Namnezia says:

    I think there's a lot of writing about engineering on the web, but it is usually under the guise of "Technology" articles, and most are focused on consumer products or technology that will result in new consumer products. Unfortunately most are not written by engineers developing these technologies.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Ah, but how much of what we do is nitty-gritty stuff like change control, or making tradeoffs in a design between two factors that even our immediate colleagues aren't familiar with in the current project?

    I, personally, find all sorts of engineering topics not only fun but sexy. Still, any attempt to discuss them seems to bog down in endless backtracking to reach a point where it's even comprehensible.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In one sense engineers do not want to do science. Engineers should be using theories where they are known to work, not the hypothesis testing that is the core activity of science. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge is an example. Engineers who designed the bridge did not mean to test the hypothesis that it would survive a particular windstorm. But that's what they did; they ran a hypothesis testing scientific experiment. I wonder if most engineering failures are in fact the result of engineers unknowingly doing science? 🙂

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      In one sense engineers do not want to do science. Engineers should be using theories where they are known to work, not the hypothesis testing that is the core activity of science.

      That's true as long as everything works. Debugging, now, or failure analysis ...

  • fcs says:

    Welcome, Frau!

  • so engineers are 'scared' to communicate about their crazy-complex, math heavy and science light?, field. But Life Sciences are over represented because of the ease of access:

    "This is probably because these topics are easy to understand and get interested in by people not necessarily in the field."

    So, if teh sciblogs are full of Life Sciences which lay people are interested in and the same laymen are able to grasp the concepts of Life Science I would look to write about areas where engineering intersects LS

    You kinda come off arguing that the lay public is too stoopid to get the cool stuff you have to say. Has it occurred to you that maybe engineers as practitioners of a discipline are little concerned with promoting communication as a priority among the profession? Or that the profession has, and the members simply havn't caught on.

    If you are struggling to find your place as an engineer in the sciblogosphere maybe you should look to your professional organizations for guidance. For about five years now the NAE, http://www.nae.edu/ , has been touting education and communication as a top priority. I believe it was actually a president's directive under Wolf(e?).

    To see where and how engineering and life science intersect:

    2-22-11 Frances H. Arnold and Willem PC Stemmer will rec. the Charles Stark Draper Prize-$500,000- for Directed Evolution, a method used worldwide for ENGINEERING novel enzymes and biocatalytic processes for pharmaceutical and chemical products.
    Leroy Hood gets Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize-$500,000 for automating DNA seq.
    Edward Crawley gets the Bernard M Gordon Prize-$500,000 for leadership, creativity, and energy in defining and guiding CDIO (conceive-design-implement-operate) Initiative.

    PS-I will be live tweeting this event from Union Station, DC.
    http://twitter.com/drowningkittens

    I can agree with your last statement:
    "keep writing and keep persevering because if I love engineering this much certainly that must come across in my writing"

  • frautech says:

    Wow thanks for all the great responses everyone.

    Colin- agreed. Actually I've seen drafting taught in high schools, and often in physics you do engineering projects, but it's never advertised as such. Fancy charter schools around here teach engineering in high school, but I haven't seen it in public schools.

    DrugMonkey- I agree. I think of engineering as "applied physics" so if you have a strong physics foundation in high school I think you're good. Peggy hits it spot on with how it's there (in a good program) but maybe not taught as such, and we tend not to teach science like that anyways.

    chester- Thanks for the feedback. I did not mean to imply life sciences are lowly and that engineering is something people don't get. I was thinking more like a biologist can discuss animal behaviors and show adorable pictures and people tend to relate to other people or animals. A jet engine just doesn't get the same kind of hook that really draws readers in. I've never actually heard of the NAE, perhaps they are academically focused and so I wouldn't have come into contact with them. I don't think I'm so much struggling to find my place as an engineer in the blogosphere as much as I am struggling to find my place as an engineer period and figuring that all out. I don't have all of the answers yet, and if I thought I was good at writing about "cool stuff" I don't think I'd have a problem luring in interested readers. So it's all something I'm working on personally and I just haven't seen the numbers of blogging engineers as I have other STEM professions but perhaps I'm not looking in all the right places.

  • [...] Finally, FrauTech is guest blogging over at Scientopia.  You can check out her first post (The ‘E’ in STEM) here. [...]

  • I'll chime in here as the even more rare engineer in academia. There are a few of us out here, moving around randomly in the ether that is the blogosphere. The problem might be that we don't know how to connect well with others. Speaking from experience, more of us probably do fall into the awkward intravert category than in other fields. My theory is that one's personality influences career choices.

    Relating to the other topics being discussed, I don't think engineering needs to be taught as a stand alone course in high school, but teachers should spend more time in the core courses teaching about what can be done with the fundamental knowledge being taught, aka engineering. Jet engines might not do it for some any more, but bio and nanotechnology should fire up some imaginations. I for one thought biology was completely useless until I set foot into my first research laboratory, which happened to be related to Dr. Arnold's line of work.

    I find the engineering as a science debate the most interesting. It is something that I struggle with regularly in academia. I know people that try to make the argument that engineers should not get a Ph.D. because they don't actually discover anything. The million dollar question: are the people using directed evolution techniques doing science or is it engineering? They are just applying a technique. Is that novel? Does it deserve a Ph.D.? I make a conscious effort to do science, it does not come naturally. I try to answer questions that scientists can't because they don't have the same toys to use. I'm curious to hear how other engineerings approach academic research.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I know people that try to make the argument that engineers should not get a Ph.D. because they don’t actually discover anything.

    Sort of like arguing that medicine is just applied biology, or that chemistry is just applied physics.

    Higher levels of abstraction/complexity necessarily imply that less attention can be paid to the fundamental physical principles (e.g. solid-state vs. fundamental particle physics). The same applies to engineering: more attention to managing complexity means less applied to physics.

    Does this mean that the subject isn't a serious field of human scholarship, equivalent to archeology or paleontology? That there isn't a systematic body of knowledge which researchers advance for others to use and build upon?

    Silly notion.

  • GMP says:

    I have degrees in both physics and an engineering discipline, and I am a faculty at a research university with an engineering department as my primary affiliation. Yet I am the first to admit that I don't particularly care to read technical blogs on either physics or engineering, even if close to my field of research. I am more likely to read a popularly written blog entry about brain chemistry or mating of birds or academia in general or politics etc. I personally regard blog reading as a passtime and I want my blogs written fluently and on topics that I don't spend 60+ hours a week working on. I think most people, regardless of technical background, are interested in health, ecology, and other humans' experiences.

    I also don't think that engineering needs to be taught in high school. I actually wish I'd see more rigorous training in math, science, and general education (humanities, ethnic studies,, etc.) in high school, so that colleges would be more specialized, instead of students still taking "breadth courses" for years and true specialization being deferred to grad school. I come from a school system where high school kicked your effing ass (academic track high schools were really really demanding) but once you were enrolled in a university, the studies there were highly technical. What I wish I'd see more of in middle and high school in the US (now that my kids are in the school system) is drilling in of the math and physics basic concepts as well as of efficient techniques for problem solving. It makes me want to pull my hair our how poor my undergrads' math skills are. You can't teach a person engineering if they can't do math.

  • frautech says:

    Thanks for even more comments, I think those that talked about teaching engineering in high school and those who think it shouldn't both have good points.

    I agree with GMP that a strong foundation in math followed by physics is way more important. But in my high school physics class we built ramps and catapaults, in junior high we built cars that used a C2 cartridge as a rocket engine and built containers to protect falling objects (eggs). All of these projects were taught to me in the confines of "science" when so much of that is engineering as well. But like many other engineers I didn't have a clear idea what engineering was or wasn't until I hit college and the intersections between science and engineering were ignored before then.

  • KateKatV says:

    Hi from England Frautech, you and your contributors have raised some really interesting points and got me thinking - when I haven't been marking exam scripts.

    I'm a systems engineer who started as a psychologist, raised a biologist and has lunch with my friends from Applied Science, as well as Engineering, most days. I have remarked before to them on a small but crucial difference between the two groups: we decide which condiments we shall want and estimate how many mini-packets of salt, sauce, mayo, etc, we shall need while the life scientists gather handfuls on a just-in-case basis. I think it suggests a fundamental difference in worldview.

    GMP expressed what are also my views - hey, there's lots more out there to be interested in besides our own subject. I would add that engineers are trained to be cautious in what they say in a public forum. Start boasting about your latest invention and that's it, it's in the public domain, you can't get a patent (rules about disclosure are slightly different in the US but we all have to worry about commercial confidentiality).