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Why do students become engineers?

The Timesonline had a recent article about the current crop of architectural students studying at the  Bartlett School of Architecture at University College, London.

The article gives some insight into the motivations behind becoming an architect.

So, what do you go into architecture for? Iain Borden, the head at Bartlett, puts much of the rise down to the Grand Designs factor. “Architecture is much more visible nowadays,” he says. “It’s on the TV. Icon projects are a factor. Students see them on adverts or on holiday. People such as Norman Foster are household names.”

Allen agrees. “We get students at 18 who all like Foster and the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Santiago Calatrava. Architecture is a bit cool. But it’s also a career, so the parents like it too. Everyone’s happy.”

After reading the article my thoughts naturally wandered to the question of why engineering? I became an engineer partly because my father is an engineer, partly for the  money but mostly for the sense of accomplishment. It is one of my biggest thrills to see a project that I designed, built and used.

Looking back when I first started I had not heard of any other engineers beside my father. I saw that he had a keen mind and I could sense his immense satisfaction in his work. He loved to point out his projects to us and you could tell how proud he was of his designs.

I was wondering if an article was written about “why engineering”, if students would  mention engineering role models?  (I’m not sure they could.)

So, why do students become engineers?

5 thoughts on “Why do students become engineers?

  1. Engineering is surprisingly visible on TV: there seems to be an endless supply of Megastructures-style programmes on the Discovery Channel. I watched one recently on the Millau Viaduct which had some very entertaining explanations of the engineering principles involved, but not a single mention by name of the lead designer (Michel Virlogeux – although unusually there was also no mention of the lead architect, Foster and Partners). In contrast, whenever historical engineering is featured, the media makes much of the “heroic” central figures (Brunel, Stephenson etc). Most of the wider culture is people-centred (be it sports, politics, art or architecture), and for the wider world to appreciate engineering, they need to be told about individual engineers.

    What is to be done?

    I’ve suggested in the past that engineers can win more attention if they have more “style” – this is why structural engineers like Isler, Nervi, Candela, Torroja, Maillart and others remain well known in the engineering community – they had a strong focus on specialist areas of design, establishing a recognisable body of work in a similar manner to an architect.

    I think at college, study of the history of engineering should be mandatory for engineering students, either as a separate course or woven into the fabric of all the other teaching. Too much teaching mentions in passing the great engineering theoreticians (Timoshenko, Euler etc), but not the great designers, and this is largely a function of the academic backgrounds of the lecturers. Teaching material is certainly available, I seem to recall that David Billington developed a set of course materials that can be used anywhere, for example.

    I think also that engineers need to make themselves more articulate (understanding how to communicate about broader issues than just the statics and dynamics), and more visible (whether by blogs like this or whatever other avenues exist). That means in particular seeking to supplant the architect as the lead design voice, which in turn means being able to talk like an architect.

    I became an engineer because I was best at maths and physics at school, certainly not because it inspired me as a career: that only came after I had experienced it directly.

  2. Thanks for the comments HP, it is always great to hear from you!

    I think without the influence of my father I would never have become an engineer. He was the only “strong” (stylish) engineer that I knew for much of my early career. He was not afraid of, and even sought out, new solutions to problems. I believe a role model is important in the decision to become an engineer.

    Today, I am fairly disappointed with the current state of engineering. I feel enormous pressures from our profession to reduce creativity and stick to the tried and true.

    To be honest, creativity in engineering has hurt my career (in the engineering profession) but bolstered it somewhat in the eyes of non-engineers. (Go figure…) I agree whole-heartedly that education and promotion of notably engineers has to be encouraged in University but I doubt it will be.

    I am glad to be part of a new wave of engineers (even though I am older..) commenting on current designs and events. (I’m not sure commenting is good for my career either..) I also agree that engineers need to get out and discuss issues in public but that is a hard sell…..

    Thanks again for the comments!

  3. I became an engineer partly because my father is an engineer, partly for the money but mostly for the sense of accomplishment. It is one of my biggest thrills to see a project that I designed, built and used.

    Aside from your father’s influence, these reasons are the same ones that would encourage students to become architects. Both engineers and architects want to see their projects completed and both enjoy building our world, but engineers appreciate the “nuts and bolts” of the issue and architects appreciate the human factors of design.

    Either path a student chooses gives them an opportunity to be innovative. As you pointed out, there is often resistance to innovation and creativity within the workplace but this is the same for architects as well as engineers. Young architects and young engineers need to have confidence in their ideas and learn to communicate them well.

  4. Thanks for the comment Graeme!

    but engineers appreciate the “nuts and bolts” of the issue and architects appreciate the human factors of design.

    Do you think it is possible to straddle the divide between engineering and architecture? I like both sides but I’m not sure I fit into either one.


  5. I definitely think it is possible to incorporate aesthetics into engineering designs. However, I am not sure if it is possible to get compensated for it. But if you include it as part of your standard office procedure that is done on every job, I imagine you could build a reputation for your work and it probably would be only a small marginal cost.

    I just finished reading Horst Berger’s book “Light Structures – Structures of Light” and was definitely impressed with his ability to combine engineering and architectural disciplines. Selected reading for anyone interested:

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