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What is Engineering? | Types of Engineering

Engineer at drawing board
Engineers use science and math to come up with practical solutions to problems.
Credit: Ollyy | Shutterstock


Engineering is the application of science and math to solve problems. Engineers figure out how things work and find practical uses for scientific discoveries. Scientists and inventors often get the credit for innovations that advance the human condition, but it is engineers who are instrumental in making those innovations available to the world.

In his book, "Disturbing the Universe" (Sloan Foundation, 1981), physicist Freeman Dyson wrote, "A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering."

The history of engineering is part and parcel of the history of human civilization. The Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, the Parthenon and the Eiffel Tower stand today as monuments to our heritage of engineering. Today's engineers not only build huge structures, such as the International Space Station, but they are also building maps to the human genome and better, smallercomputer chips.

Engineering is one of the cornerstones of STEM education, an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to motivate students to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Neuroengineer Silvestro Micera
Silvestro Micera, a neural engineer, led a team that developed a bionic hand that can feel.
Credit: EPFL / Hillary Sanctuary

What does an engineer do?

Engineers design, evaluate, develop, test, modify, install, inspect and maintain a wide variety of products and systems. They also recommend and specify materials and processes, supervise manufacturing and construction, conduct failure analysis, provide consulting services and teach engineering courses in colleges and universities.

The field of engineering is divided into a large number of specialty areas:

  • Mechanical engineering involves design, manufacturing, inspection and maintenance of machinery, equipment and components as well as control systems and instruments for monitoring their status and performance. This includes vehicles, construction and farm machinery, industrial installations and a wide variety of tools and devices.
  • Electrical engineering involves design, testing, manufacturing, construction, control, monitoring and inspection of electrical and electronic devices, machinery and systems. These systems vary in scale from microscopic circuits to national power generation and transmission systems.
  • Civil engineering involves design, construction, maintenance and inspection of large infrastructure projects such as highways, railroads, bridges, tunnels, dams and airports.
  • Aerospace engineering involves design, manufacturing and testing of aircraft and spacecraft as well as parts and components such as airframes, power plants, control and guidance systems, electrical and electronic systems, and communication and navigation systems.
  • Nuclear engineering involves design, manufacturing, construction, operation and testing of equipment, systems and processes involving the production, control and detection of nuclear radiation. These systems include particle accelerators and nuclear reactors for electric power plants and ships, radioisotope production and research. Nuclear engineering also includes monitoring and protecting humans from the potentially harmful effects of radiation.
  • Structural engineering involves design, construction and inspection of load-bearing structures such large commercial buildings, bridges and industrial infrastructure.
  • Biomedical engineering is the practice of designing systems, equipment and devices for use in the practice of medicine. It also involves working closely with medical practitioners, including doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists and researchers, in order to determine, understand and meet their requirements for systems, equipment and devices.
  • Chemical engineering is the practice of designing equipment, systems and processes for refining raw materials and for mixing, compounding and processing chemicals to make valuable products.
  • Computer engineering is the practice of designing computer hardware components, computer systems, networks and computer software.
  • Industrial engineering is the practice of designing and optimizing facilities, equipment, systems and processes for manufacturing, material processing, and any number of other work environments.
  • Environmental engineering is the practice of preventing, reducing and eliminating sources of pollution that affect air, water and land. It also involves detecting and measuring pollution levels, determining sources of pollution, cleaning up and rehabilitating polluted sites and ensuring compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
Chemical Engineer Purifies Water with Prickly Pear
Chemical engineer Norma Alcantar uses the prickly pear cactus in her work to create an inexpensive, sustainable way to purify drinking water.
Credit: Norma A. Alcantar, Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, University of South Florida

There is often considerable overlap among the different specialties. For this reason, engineers need to have a general understanding of several areas of engineering besides their specialty. For example, a civil engineer needs to understand concepts of structural engineering, an aerospace engineer needs to apply principles of mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineers need a working knowledge of electrical engineering.

Particularly, engineers require in-depth knowledge of mathematics, physics and computer applications such as simulations and computer-aided design. This is why most college programs include basic engineering courses in a wide range of topics before students choose to specialize in a particular area.

Engineering jobs & salaries

Many employers require engineers to obtain state certification as Professional Engineers. Additionally, many engineers belong to the American Society of Professional Engineers and other engineering societies for their areas of specialization.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has information on various specialized fields of engineering, including educational requirements, job descriptions, work environments and job outlooks. Another source of information on job descriptions, educational requirements and required skills and knowledge for different areas of engineering can be found at MyMajors.com.

Engineers work in many different settings, according to the BLS, including research laboratories, factories, construction sites, nuclear power plants, offshore oil rigs and even on the International Space Station. Additionally, many engineers work in businesses related to their areas of specialization; for example, an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) engineer might own a heating and air conditioning company, and a structural engineer might own a construction company.

Most engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in engineering. State certification as a Professional Engineer, which requires passing a rigorous and comprehensive test, is also required by many employers and to work as a consultant. Senior engineering positions and professorships generally require a master's degree or a doctorate.

Employment of engineers is projected to grow from 4 to 27 percent between now and 2022, depending on the field of specialization, according to the BLS. According to Salary.com, a newly graduated engineer with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn from $50,817 to $78,487 per year; a mid-level engineer with a master's degree and five to 10 years of experience can earn $68,628 to $114,426; and a senior engineer with a master's degree or doctorate and more than 15 years of experience can earn $91,520 to $156,895. Many experienced engineers are promoted to management positions or start their own consulting businesses where they can earn even more. Additionally, some engineers go on to law school to become patent attorneys, where they can earn upward of $250,000 per year.

Engineering has matured and expanded over the centuries along with our knowledge and understanding of science, mathematics and the laws of physics and their applications. Today, engineers apply both well-established scientific principles and cutting-edge innovations in order to design, build, improve, operate and maintain complex devices, structures, systems and processes.

It was engineering that brought us out of the caves; it was engineering that took us to the moon; and if we ever make it to the stars, it will be engineering that takes us there. As our knowledge continues to advance, engineers will have new opportunities to find practical uses for scientific discoveries.

As the novelist James A. Michener aptly put it in his novel "Space" (Fawcett, 1983), "Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them."

Jim Lucas is a freelance writer and editor specializing in physics, astronomy and engineering. He is general manager of Lucas Technologies.

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