So what is Engineering? Is it some clandestine clan of old people safeguarding the secret of the Universe from prying eyes? Or is it some fancy degree which can be fathomed by only a selected few who pass a scrutinizing test taken in few hours? Or is it some hocus-pocus black magic meant to be understood only by a selected few? For most of us this is the picture we have for engineering:
Yes! Engineering is the sum total of the wisdom of many people smarter than us and we as students can only have a part of the knowledge, isn’t it?
Ah, the good news is engineering is nothing more than physics. Yes, that is correct all that is around us is a direct result of applying simple (?) laws of nature. No, wait a minute, so does that mean that the buildings we see around us is a direct result of applying the laws of motion and not because of some high-tech code that the secret society of civil engineers have imposed upon the society? This is blasphemy! How can one say something against the bible of engineers? Every young aspirant goes through the futile grill of learning painstaking formulae of mechanics, structural analysis along with “higher mathematics” to know that these are of little importance. It is the code that dictates the industry and all that a structural engineer has to do is to faithfully follow these set of rules in order to gain salvation.
Unfortunately, this is the story of most of the students. Even the researchers are more involved in ‘cookbook-izing” engineering. More and more students are inclined to memorize a formula, spit it out in the exam and forget about it. They feel that they can always look up. People are involved more in standardizing this wonderful profession. Even the government feels to have assembly line workers who can do the same design time and again and have no sense of innovation. Students tend to forget the first principles they learn mostly in their first couple of year of college and often struggle with their design classes they take in the latter two years. This is a fundamentally wrong approach.
The world does not need human-calculators, it needs competent engineers who can apply the concepts of engineering to solve vastly varying problems. There cannot be a “one-size-fit-all” approach, at least not in civil/structural engineering. While no amount of classroom teaching can inculcate this feel one can get only through practice, it is extremely important for a person to grasp fundamental concepts underlying the problem. Let me give you an example, a person in the business of designing residential buildings may easily estimate the dead load or the live load of any building only by visual inspection, but it is always good for him to have the tool, the technique to calculate the loads for any building, or for that matter any structure be it an industrial building or a military bunker. Good engineers are not the people who know the problem beforehand, but are those who can solve them. Now don’t get me wrong. An experienced engineer is always reliable. But it is because that he could digest the concepts well. And it is always good to know the answer before calculating it, so that you know if your numbers went wrong. But one must never under-estimate the importance of the notion that set up those calculations in the first place.
Engineering is not merely science, but is an art in itself. There are many solutions to a problem. And like any art, one must appreciate the beauty of the structure and not just calcs. And what a student must appreciate is that sometimes the most optimized answer is not the best one. Engineering is something that is closely sandwiched between physics and banking. While a building gets a nod from physics, it is usually the banks who decide the fate of a structure. It is to note that in a typical high-rise building, the cost of the structural frame is less than 15%. So generally people do not feel the need to have a precise analysis as it may turn out to be very “costly”. However, a passionate engineer will always strive to do the thing the right way, the honest way because there are no shortcuts to the things worth doing.