An Engineer, Defined

As part of our Engineering Week celebration this past week at UMass Lowell, I presided over our Order of the Engineer induction ceremony.  I always enjoy this event – although it is a bit somber, as we reflect on the history of the Order, which originally started in Canada, motivated by the collapse of the Quebec Bridge during its construction in 1907 and again in 1916.

In our ceremony, we further reflect on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, as our alumnus, Mr. Roger Boisjoly staunchly raised objections to the launch on the day before the disaster.  He correctly predicted that the O-rings would fail in cold weather, which ultimately led to the shuttle’s failure.  Boisjoly ultimately received the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for his work.  We use this example to illustrate the deep responsibility that we have as Engineers.

As you might imagine, reflecting on these two tragedies can lead to a somewhat depressing induction ceremony.  However, we close by talking about the great advances in technology, and society, due to the efforts of Engineers and the world of opportunity that awaits the next generation of Engineers (our audience at the ceremony).

To aid in this discussion, I took the liberty to look up the definition of an Engineer.  Here is the Oxford Dictionary  version:

“1    A person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.

  • A person qualified in a branch of engineering, especially as a professional.
  • A person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship.
    • (North American) A train driver.
  1. A skillful contriver or originator of something.”

Other common sources, such as Merriam-Webster and were no less glamorous.

It’s not that any of these definitions are false (although I have never wanted to be accused of being a “contriver of something”), but rather, there is no explanation as to “why” we design or “originate” something.  In my mind, this is misleading, as Engineers are driven to solve important problems under various constraints.

In my continued search, I found a number of references to the definition of Engineering from ABET, the leading accrediting body of Engineering programs (although I could not find the exact reference on the ABET website):

“The profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.”

This is a vastly improved definition, as our motivation to be Engineers is stated clearly: to benefit mankind.  But my years in academia want a more explicit definition.  Thus, here is my attempt to define an Engineer:

“A person who applies the laws of science and technology to the design, build and implementation of solutions that improve the human condition while considering performance, safety, economic and ethical impacts on the user, society, and the environment.”

I believe a first step in attracting more people from all backgrounds to our profession is making it clear that the purpose of Engineering is not to “contrive” things, but rather, to provide solutions to problems in order to improve our quality of life.

Choosing College

I’ve Been Admitted.  Should I Accept?

We are fast approaching the time when colleges and universities mail acceptance letters, if they have not done so already.  UMass Lowell has contacted early admission applicants and will soon reply to students who applied during the regular process.  If a prospective student receives acceptance, the decision is literally in their hands.

A timely article in The Chronicle for Higher Education looked at the prospective student’s decision of college choice through results of a survey of 90,000 college-bound high school seniors by Eduventures.  In summary, more than 70 percent of those surveyed identified at least one of the following criteria (below, in bold) for selecting a college.  I have added my opinion as to how each criterion relates to UMass Lowell Engineering:

  • Affordability:  As a public institution, the cost of attending UMass Lowell can be extremely appealing to residents or those that can take advantage of proximity programs.  However, even non-residents can find it affordable when compared to attending a private institution.  Furthermore, UMass Lowell offers a variety of scholarships, grants, loans and employment opportunities for undergraduates, as well as graduate students. Please note that affordability refers to cost, not value, which is noted in the following criterion.
  • Value of education for cost of attending:  Value is in the eyes of the beholder, but ranks schools based on their return-on-investment (ROI), which is an annualized measure of one’s median income 20 years after graduation when compared to that of a high school graduate (24 years later), less the cost of attending college.  Lowell ranks 33rd in annual ROI amongst over 1,800 schools ranked nationally, second in the state of Massachusetts.  This affirms that a UMass Lowell degree leads to a productive career at a reasonable cost.
  • Availability of a desired program:  I am often asked why one should attend a “bigger” school.  The answer generally comes down to options, as larger schools can offer more programs.  For example, we offer undergraduate degree programs in Biomedical, Chemical, Civil, Computer, Electrical, Environmental, Mechanical, Nuclear and Plastics Engineering, with a number of additional options and minors.  The number of programs grows considerably at the graduate level, which is important for undergraduates seeking work in research labs or access to advanced courses for technical electives.  Also, larger schools, tend to provide more options outside of the classroom, including co-op programs, student clubs, and sports.  While UMass Lowell’s enrollment does not define it as one of the largest schools in the country (i.e., over 30,000 students), it is one of the largest undergraduate engineering programs in the Northeast and big enough (roughly 20,000 students at the University) to provide a wide variety of both curricular and extracurricular programs and activities.
  • Career outcomes/job opportunities for graduates:  Engineering is a profession, and thus, engineering degrees are defined as professional degrees.  Therefore, it is important, and expected, that an engineering degree will lead to gainful employment, albeit potentially after graduate school.  I am repeatedly told by employers that our students are in high demand.  This is supported by our placement rate (percentage of graduates gainfully employed or in graduate studies within six months of graduation) which has been over 90% for all graduates over the past few years, with some majors approaching 100%.  Why?  In addition to our hands-on approach to education, we provide students numerous opportunities to prepare for a rewarding career upon graduation, including a professional co-op program; interdisciplinary senior design projects sponsored by industry; and access to a variety of services from the Career and Co-op Center designed to prepare students for all aspects of finding and starting a job, including resume posting, interviewing, negotiation, and professional etiquette.
  • Reputation/academic quality: There is truly no substitute for quality.  ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, assesses programs, upon request, across the country on six-year cycles to ensure that programs are up-to-date and continuously improving.  Our established programs are all ABET accredited while we will seek ABET accreditation for our new programs after the first cohorts graduate – a requirement of ABET.  In addition to accreditation, there are many rankings for reputation with U.S. News and World Report generally considered the leader as it considers surveys of peers and employers, as well as statistical program data, in its graduate program ranking.  UMass Lowell Engineering is currently ranked 67th among public engineering programs and 104th overall, having risen over 35 spots in just the past four years.
  • Feeling of fit:  This may be listed last, but that should not minimize its importance.  Every school has a “feel” or “character” and it is important that one can envision themself as a student on campus.  The best way to do this is visit!  We would be happy to take you on a tour and even shadow a student.

In all, choosing a college is a difficult decision, and one that is critically important.  It is likely that one of the above reasons will drive your decision.  Thus, you must determine which of these criteria is most important and investigate accordingly a each school of interest, and visit to gauge the “fit”.  I invite you to do so at UMass Lowell!