What is Engineering? A Brief Overview

From GPS to wastewater management, we have a lot to thank engineers for.
Jaime Trosper

When Apollo 11 set sail on its trip to the moon, it forever changed what many people believed to be possible. What many people don't know is just how fundamentally the Apollo missions changed the world. Not in a philosophical sense, but a literal one. In the development and research portion of this mission, many things we still use today came to fruition. From vacuum-sealed food, to the dustbuster, these programs lead to so many technological advances—true feats of interesting engineering. Simply put, the Apollo program led many to understand even better how science and engineering touch every aspect of our lives. 

Engineering: The Definition

Engineering is surely a word most people have heard of before, but have you actually ever wondered what it means to be an engineer? Most people picture brainy individuals working behind the scenes on planes and trains, but there's so much more to this discipline than that. In the simplest terms, engineering is the act of using the scientific method to solve real-world problems, build practical machines and tools, and make the world a better place. 

Indeed, we owe pretty much all of our infrastructures to the work of engineers throughout the centuries. From the ancient Greek mathematical genius Archimedes, to artists-engineers like Leonardo Da Vinci and visionary Nikola Tesla (I suppose we must also mention Elon Musk), engineers help shape the world as we know it in a variety of ways. 

Here's a quote that pretty much encapsulates the spirit of engineering, from the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams,Normal people believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet.” Adams knows that engineers look at the world with curiosity, and love to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. 

How Many Types of Engineering Are There?

There are many various types and subtypes of engineering, but here are the most basic types summarized.

Mechanical Engineering:

Mechanical engineers at work
Source: industryview/iStock

Engineers in this field are definitely the kind of people who like taking things apart, learning how they work, putting them back together, and troubleshooting any problems that may arise. As such, they enjoy designing and building machines that function for specific purposes.

Currently, the biggest and arguably the most complex machine ever built is called the Large Hadron Collider. Located in Geneva, it is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It's responsible for the discovery of the long elusive Higgs boson particle.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a mechanical engineer in 2019 was around $88,000 a year. 

Civil Engineering: 

Since the beginning of history, humans have engaged in civil engineering (it's believed to be the oldest type of engineering). Simply put, civil engineering is the act of developing and maintaining buildings, roads, bridges, and dams. You know your fancy toilet? Yeah-those are pretty new in the grand scheme of things. Well, they wouldn't exist without civil engineers who designed not only sewage systems, but water filtration systems. Without these individuals, the world would look closer to the world of Westeros than the present (pass the chamber pot, please). 

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Other noteworthy feats of civil engineering include the pyramids at Giza, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the Channel Tunnel between England and France, the Burj Khalifa—the highest building in the world, and the city you are living in. Another very interesting yet controversial feat of civil engineering is the Three Gorges Dam in China, which, when full, can actually slow the speed of Earth's rotation (although only by 0.06 microseconds).

According to the BLS, in 2019, the median salary for a civil engineer was around $87,000 a year.

Structural Engineering: 

Structural engineering and civil engineering sort of go hand-in-hand. Structural engineers look at things civil engineers create, and see whether their designs and concepts are practical, and can be built safely. They also oversee the construction itself to make sure things like bridges, power plants, skyscrapers, large buildings, dams, and even homes are structurally sound.

The BLS does not separate out the salaries of structural engineers, but they can expect to be paid around the same as civil engineers, with a median salary of $87,000 a year.

Chemical Engineering: 

If you are interested in both engineering and chemistry, this is the perfect field for you! It's currently the most in-demand of all the engineering fields — largely thanks to advances in rechargeable batteries. It's a race to the top for big engineering companies looking to turn these advancements into functional transportation prototypes. 

Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and math to solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food, and many other products. They design processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing, plan and test production methods and byproducts treatment, and direct facility operations.

According to the BLS, in 2019 the median wage for chemical engineers was almost $109,000. The highest salaries are in petroleum products manufacturing and research and development. Not bad, eh?

Petroleum Engineering:

Petroleum Engineering
Source: industryview/iStock

Petroleum engineering, as you might be able to guess, involves the design and development of methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits below the Earth’s surface. Petroleum engineers also find new ways to extract oil and gas from older wells. You might imagine this industry is going by the wayside, given the push toward sustainable and clean forms of energy, but petroleum products are likely to be with us for a quite a while still. 

Believe it or not, petroleum engineering is consistently ranked as the top-paying engineering role. According to the BLS, in 2019, the median salary for a petroleum engineer was around $137,700 per year., with engineers in management positions earning a median of $172,000. 

Electrical Engineering: 

Electrical Engineering
Electrical Engineer at work Source: Depositphotos

Electricity powers our phones, TVs, homes, offices, and it pretty much makes the modern world go 'round. Without it, the world would revert back to the dark ages. Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacture of electrical equipment, such as electric motors, radar and navigation systems, communications systems, or power generation equipment. Electrical engineers also design the electrical systems of automobiles and aircraft.

They are also responsible for designing and developing electronic equipment, including broadcast and communications systems, such as portable music players and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. Many also work in areas closely related to computer hardware.

According to the BLS, in 2019, the median salary for an electrical engineer was around $89,500 per year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $63,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $155,880. The highest-paying jobs were in the field of research and development.

Industrial Engineering: 

Industrial engineering is all about optimization: Can we design something that is more cost-efficient, takes less time to build with less resources, manpower, and energy, but still up to the standards of quality something that cost more would be? 

They also solve technical problems with phones, planes, cars, computers, and other things we deal with in our daily life.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for an industrial engineer as of 2019 was around $88,000 per year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,290, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $134,070. The highest-paying jobs were in the field of professional, scientific, and technical services.

Aerospace Engineering: 

The final launch of a Saturn IB (AS-210)
The final launch of a Saturn IB (AS-210) from pad 39B at KSC on July 24th, 1975 Source: NASA

Aerospace engineering, otherwise known as aeronautical engineering or astronautical engineering—is probably one of the most exciting branches of engineering, being that it is involved in designing and building devices that could allow humans to leave the planet and go in search of another home.

Whether we migrate to the nearby planet of Mars, figure out a way to settle on the Moon, or leave this solar system entirely in search of another planet, aerospace engineers will be responsible for helping develop the spaceships of the future. 

Aerospace engineers are also responsible for helping design aircraft, missiles, spacecraft, and national defense systems. Ever heard the term, "It's not rocket science?" Well, in this case, it kind of is... The two disciplines are very similar. Additionally, aeronautical engineers — people who work with airplanes and other propulsion systems — are an important part of the field. 

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for aerospace engineers was $116,500 in May 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $72,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $166,620, with research and development being the highest-paid field.

Biomedical Engineering: 

Biomedical engineering is an exciting field that combines engineering with biology — combining engineering principles with medical and biological sciences to design and create equipment, devices, computer systems, and software used in healthcare. For example, we can thank biomedical engineering for so many breakthroughs: artificial organs, kidney dialysis, robotic instruments for non-intrusive surgeries, artificial limb replacements, pacemakers, dentures, and so much more. 

There are many different job opportunities available, but according to the BLS biomedical engineers made a median salary of $91,000 in 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,280, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $148,210.

Environmental Engineering: 

This subset of engineering focuses on ways in which we can protect the Earth and Earth's biodiversity from pollution, and overall improve the health and extend the longevity of both the environment and all living things on the planet. 

There's some overlap with civil engineering here, as environmental engineers also help build sewage systems, focus on water filtration systems, irrigation, and other forms of improving the things we take for granted — like clean water and indoor plumbing. Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They work to improve recycling, waste disposal, public health, and water and air pollution control. They also address global issues, such as unsafe drinking water, climate change, and environmental sustainability.

In 2019, according to the BLS, environmental engineers made a median salary of approximately $89,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,330, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $142,070. The highest paid jobs tended to be for the federal government.

Nuclear Engineering:

If you have an interest in particle physics and engineering, welcome to the field of nuclear engineeringNuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Many others specialize in the development of nuclear power sources for ships or spacecraft.

Large Hadron Collider at CERN
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN Source: Maximilien Brice, CERN

As far as pay goes, it can vary wildly based on what specific job you have in the industry. The median pay in 2019, according to the BLS, was around $113,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $71,860, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $179,430. The highest salaries were in engineering services.

Scientists vs Engineers:

You might not be aware, but there's always been a bit of a friendly rivalry between scientists and engineers. You might think this odd, since engineering and science are so intrinsically interlinked, but alas, it's a thing. 

So, what's the difference between the two? I think Einstein summarizes it pretty eloquently: 

“Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.”

Scientists do research, experimentation, differentiate between theories and hypotheses, analyze data, and a host of other things. All of which are important aspects of making a scientific breakthrough. 

Engineers, on the other hand, come up with practical applications for those scientific breakthroughs. They build prototypes and machines, perform experiments, tinker with existing technology to improve it, and other things more specific to different engineering fields.

So, there is quite a bit of overlap obviously. However, what it basically boils down to is, engineering is the act of creating things, while science is the act of observing and explaining nature. Both fields are important for almost everything about modern life.

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