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What is Engineering?

April 13, 2018
Teresa Irigoyen-Lopez

One of the most common reactions I get when I introduce myself and say that I am studying Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is: "Wow, that sounds complicated! What is it like to study engineering?" I often don’t have enough time or energy to explain in depth what my experience studying engineering has been like or how my classes have shaped my thinking and way of approaching things; so I just say lazily shrug my shoulders and say, "It’s interesting but tough!" And while that is true, it does not really say much. My three years at Princeton have taught me a lot, and breaking down what the engineering experience is like is perhaps helpful for those trying to decide their majors or what they might want to study now!

Like all children, I grew up changing dream jobs every week and wanted to be everything from an author, dancer and scientist to a teacher. Yet, the one thing that stuck to me for the longest was an "arregladora," which is really a made-up profession that could be loosely translated to "a person who fixes things" -I came up with this career when I fixed a door lock in my childhood and found immense pleasure in it. As I got older I somehow became aware that such a profession already kind of existed under the mysterious name of an "engineer," so by the time I was applying to University I had already decided what my major would be. During my time at Princeton, making the connection between what we learn in class about eigenvalues or compressible flows and fixing things is often tough. But comparing my engineering classes to my other courses has allowed me to understand them much better, and studying a language at Princeton while pursuing an engineering degree has made me aware of many similarities!

An engineering degree starts just like a language class: you first have to learn the very basics. You can never construct phrases if you don’t know what verbs or nouns are. So my first two years were packed with classes on fluids, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, dynamics and differential equations. And just like one gets bored of conjugating verbs but doesn't get bored of being able to understand native speakers use the language, I was growing tired of solving problem sets but not really being able to design a system to meet a real need. As I have taken more classes, I have moved from the "elementary" level classes to the "intermediate," and I will hopefully eventually reach the "advanced" ones. I am now taking classes with fancier names such as “MAE 342: Space System Design” or “MAE 427: Energy Conversion and the Environment: Transportation Applications’, and it is the concepts that I first had to learn that have become more apparent in the overall idea of engineering and its creative application.

Just like the more I studied a language the more I realized native-like fluency is an admirable goal but probably impossible, the more I advance in the completion of my degree requirements, the better I see how engineering is not aiming for perfection but constant improvement. It is an interesting field in which nothing is ever how we want it to be, just like I understand my Mandarin textbook but get lost when I hear the same phrase from a native speaker in rural China. I memorize the most important physical laws, but then they suddenly are not quite right when I am in the laboratory. I have come to really appreciate that uncertainty and the resourcefulness that it creates. Studying engineering has forced me to become less of a perfectionist but more perseverant, which I have found really helpful outside of classes, too.

If you also think being an "arregladora" or "inventora" is really cool, you should check out the engineering school!