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How to engineer? (and some other questions)

  1. Dec 9, 2014 #1
    So, technically I'm a physics major. However as of late I've been experienceing a growing appreciation for the engineer, and particular, the engineer mindset. My question for you all is how can someone develop the engineer mindset? Does one simply just start building things like levers and pulleys, water screws, etc.?

    My plan right now is to find simple things that I want to build and try and build them. After successfully (or unsuccessfully) accomplishing this goal, I want to go online and find resources for how I could have more efficiently completed my goal. I'm thinking it might be beneficial also to begin studying the history of engineering and the ingeneous devices that have been used over the years, eventually working my way up to the devices that can be thought of as a crux of modern engineering.

    I'm just not so certain if this is a skill one can develop after a certain age. I saw a model of archimedes screw today and i was blown away. From a physics standpoint, it's a relatively simple device, but I would have NEVER thought about a screws ability to raise a fluid. It seems that the mechanical engineer relies on imagining the interactions of bodies without the mathematical scrutiny applied by a physicsist, and this in many ways frees up their mind to process more complicated or more imaginative mechanical interactions, do you think that is a fair assumption? Do you think that this is a skill that can be developed later in age?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 9, 2014 #2

    Doug Huffman

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    Gold Member

    The engineer is the one responsible when something goes wrong.
  4. Dec 9, 2014 #3
    That seems almost superstitious. Your brain does decline very gradually with age, and peaks around the late 20's, I think. However, there's no magic moment where you suddenly aren't capable of learning some subject or another. Why would there be?

    I'm not sure this is the most relevant thing for you, but I have a feeling you'd enjoy the book, The Way Things Work. I read it as a kid, and I still look at it from time to time when I get curious about how some device works.

    I like to draw on the historical approach to learning subjects, but it does have the disadvantage that you might spend too much time digging into the history to advance to the frontiers. Part of the tyranny of modern education, though, is that it tries to choose the right balance of historical vs jumping in at the deep end for you, and to my mind, goes far too much towards the jumping in at the deep end approach.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the devices in modern engineering are too complicated for any one person to understand and require large teams to design and build.
  5. Dec 9, 2014 #4
    You can change your mind later in life but it's more difficult.

    I had that book too! Awesome! But it was too complicated for me to understand when I had it I think as I don't remember actually understanding how a computer worked, then it disappeared, I don't even know where it ended up. I'm studying engineering regardless.

    Sorry for my bluntness but you're overidealizing it.

    First of all, you're talking only about mechanical engineering but call it "engineering".

    Then, you want to study the history: that's fine, all engineers need to know some history in order to understand stuff. I've heard the story of the invention of the feedback in electronics at least 3 times. I've heard about Shockley multiple times. This in addition to the pure scientists which everyone hears about.
    But it's just anectodes, maybe an example based on history to show concepts that are not actually used anymore but are good to know, all those introduction lessons in the new subjects (everyone uses the oscillating bridge to add that "whoa, real life relevant!" impression into the students), etc.
    But at the end, after the nice story, the baby gets thrown in the pool and has to swim and make something with the current technology, or you never learn to actually do anything.

    Also you cannot work your way up to all the devices that are the crux of modern engineering (whatever that means). There is strong specialization and you cannot know everything, just like in pure science. Building them and pushing the limits is reverie unless you're a billionaire who can finance his own company and do actual cutting-edge engineering-oriented research. Elon Musk did and is cutting cost on space missions, but do you have his money?

    You got your impression right: engineers have to put mathematical ways to solve problems aside and think in qualitative terms to arrive faster to the solution without doing all of the formal stuff (ofc keeping some approximate numbers in mind, and knowing what they're doing by knowing the theory).
    I guess this does free up the mind to be more creative.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2014
  6. Dec 9, 2014 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    @bmrick -- Are you familiar with the Maker movement?


    You would probably enjoy building up some of their projects, and maybe even doing some 3-D printing of some useful things. Definitely building things is a great way to learn and develop some intuition. I call it "learning to ask the right questions" of yourself and others. Building up circuit projects in my spare time in EE undergrad taught me lots of practical things that were not apparent in my textbook learning, and helped me to ask better questions as I was learning concepts, which helped me to learn better in the end.

    Don't worry about getting a delayed start in engineering -- your background so far will be an advantage to you as you move on to develop more intuition in you product design career. :-)
  7. Dec 9, 2014 #6
    Engineering is a way of life. Engineers are kids who couldn't stop playing with blocks, legos, tinker toys, electronics kits, chemistry sets, and the like. They're always looking for a better way to build things. They'll look at a lawn mower engine and think, I can build a better one for less money. They'll look at a ham radio transceiver and think, I can build one just as good but with fewer components and less power consumption. They'll look at an airliner and wonder if the vortex generators on the wing are optimally placed. And the list goes on.

    Knowing the physics of how things work is the first step. The next step is understanding the standards and rules of thumb that engineers use. Then there are the issues of customer expectations, user interfaces, and the like. It is a profession because it is very much an art.

    If you find yourself asking things like this, then you just might become an engineer (apologies to Jeff Foxworthy).
  8. Dec 9, 2014 #7
    Well, I realized I wanted to study engineering when I was in middle school and realized I had an insane talent/interest in fixing stuff. So I would say if you want to start developing the engineer mindset, start by fixing things. Before you jump in headfirst building Tesla coils and wiring your entire house up to a Raspberry Pi, just think about the practical and simple ways you can use technology to make your life better.

    Engineering is about the application of technology to solving practical problems. Whenever you see something in the world that you're dissatisfied with, just ask yourself how technology could be used to make it better. If something in your house breaks down, see if there's someone online who's posted a guide to fixing it (within reason. Don't go fiddling around with your power outlets.)

    Then I think you ought to read a bit of the history. Technology tends to become a little more interesting when it's presented in the historical context than in an engineering textbook. Some of the more interesting subjects in the history of technology are the truly over-the-top solutions people came up with to solve problems that by today's standards would be trivial (such as the differential analyzer. Seriously, look those up).

    Since you've got a physics background, spend some time thinking about you might put that knowledge to work for you. Engineering is ultimately rooted in physics, but any given engineering discipline will focus only on the immediately relevant physics rather than developing a broad base of knowledge and understanding.
  9. Dec 9, 2014 #8
    Wow so many replies, thanks guys this has been informative. Jack, that's a good idea, I will look for things I can fix, but I do plan on beginning building very simple designs. Would a pedal powered air conditioning unit be too dificult? The hardest part I think would be building the pump.

    Formagella, that's very true, but right now I'm just trying to develop my intuition for building things. I will check out that book though.

    A couple of you guys mentioned history. I'm currently planning on studying physics history to see how the models of charge were developed, I'm hoping along the way I will notice interesting ways of utilizing EE that is inherent in the experiments used to define electricity.

    Someone mentioned 3d printers. Aren't those insanely expensive?
  10. Dec 9, 2014 #9
    Homeomorphic, I feel much the same way about the educational system. I'm my physics major they started developing electricity and magnetism without even touching on the history of he the concept of charge was developed. they treated it entirely as an applied vector calc class without going over the history of how that model came to be and it ruined the experience for me
  11. Dec 10, 2014 #10
    There are quite cheap ones too.
    You have to buy consumables to build stuff though.

    That's weird. Usually stuff like the wand rubbing or coulomb's experiment with the torsion balance or the two charged spheres thing are thaught.

    Although I must say, I mostly saw this stuff (also in practice) and the historical perspective in high school rather than in university. I guess it's due to time constraints.
  12. Dec 10, 2014 #11
    Yeah we did go over that in high school but we never got into how these observations seem to imply four types of matter (positive, negative, neutral, and magnetic) And how from these observations we developed the charged model of matter
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