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.