In the mid 1950’s, Northwestern University’s Technological Institute offered me a full tuition scholarship to study Electrical Engineering. At the time, I had no idea what engineering was or what it took to be a competent engineer. All I knew was that I was good at math.
When I was in high school, back in the Dark Ages, our advanced math courses were limited to Algebra I and II, Plane and Solid Geometry, and Trigonometry. High schools did not offer Calculus back then. I loved math, and I was good at it, so I elected to take all the courses that our school offered. The teacher who taught most of those classes was Laura Smith. Miss Smith was the most feared teacher in our school because she was the toughest. Anyone who volunteered to take the toughest courses from the toughest teacher was considered to be asking for failure. But I was good at math and I loved it, so I took those courses and, I can say without false modesty, I pretty much aced them.
Sometime during my senior year, Miss Smith took me aside to discuss my plans for my future education. I had to tell her that our family couldn’t afford college, so I wasn’t really planning on a “future” education. She persisted, “You’re good at math. You should think about going into engineering. Look into some engineering schools and apply for a scholarship.” So I did.
During my first week at engineering school, Dean Eshbach gathered all the incoming would-be engineers into the Tech Auditorium. Early on in his greetings, he asked us to look at the person to our right and the person to our left. Then, he gravely said, “Sometime in the next four years, one of those people will no longer be your classmate.” The audience buzzed with concern…we each thought to ourselves, “Will I be the one to drop out? Is engineering school so hard that a third of us will flunk out? What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
To some extent, the Dean was right: quite a few people I knew did drop out of engineering. Some left school for good; others stayed, but switched majors. I don’t think any of them failed any engineering courses. After all, we were all in engineering school because we were good at math.
It took years, but I ultimately figured out what it takes to be a good engineer, and math is such a small part of it. The most basic characteristic of a good engineer is the underlying question he or she attempts to answer: An engineer focuses on “HOW” something works rather than “WHY” it works.
People who focus on “why” should go into philosophy, or one of its daughter disciplines, science or religion.
People who focus on “how” have spent a good part of their lives taking things apart and putting them back together, usually without benefit of an instruction manual. Sometimes they are more successful than others, but it is the process that is important.
An engineer’s impulse is to make things simpler. Engineers spend an inordinate amount of their spare time thinking about ways to make life easier, more comfortable, safer. Sometimes they improve on existing gadgets. Sometimes they come up with entirely new ways of doing things. (An engineer without benefit of an engineering education is called an “inventor.”)
So, if you are thinking about becoming an engineer, ask yourself if your most important question is “HOW” or “WHY”. But you should still be good at math.