The challenge of engineering

July 2007 » Columns
The upcoming Body of Knowledge (BOK) being developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is rapidly nearing completion. Many of you may be familiar with the content of the first BOK report, which contained 15 desired attributes of the graduate engineer, and which provided a basis for students and practitioners of engineering to reach those goals. The latest incarnation has 28 outcomes, which range from the strictly technical (math, physics, and mechanics) to the more abstract (engineering heritage, professional attitude, and uncertainty). There is no doubt that each of these outcomes is important at various stages of the engineer’s career. Less well-defined, however, is what inspires a particular student to accept that challenge and responsibility for the public’s health and welfare, and the advancement of science and technology.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM
The upcoming Body of Knowledge (BOK) being developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is rapidly nearing completion. Many of you may be familiar with the content of the first BOK report, which contained 15 desired attributes of the graduate engineer, and which provided a basis for students and practitioners of engineering to reach those goals. The latest incarnation has 28 outcomes, which range from the strictly technical (math, physics, and mechanics) to the more abstract (engineering heritage, professional attitude, and uncertainty). There is no doubt that each of these outcomes is important at various stages of the engineer’s career. Less well-defined, however, is what inspires a particular student to accept that challenge and responsibility for the public’s health and welfare, and the advancement of science and technology.

Depending on the curriculum at any given institution, there may be many opportunities for mentoring, internships, networking, or activity in professional organizations. On the other hand, another school may require that students rely on their own initiative and curiosity to recognize a good career opportunity when it arises. Whatever the institutional fate of the young engineer, each of the BOK outcomes depend on the individual’s own interest and passion to fuel continued learning. There are many resources for discovering "what" an engineer does, but only a few that address the "why." Without this, however, it is easy for an outsider, or even the student, to perceive engineering as simply another trade or vocation, in which one’s services are simply hired out to solve one problem at a time as they come along.

While many of us may inadvertently subscribe to or even promote this attitude, it is important to keep in mind that engineers practice for innumerable reasons, but it has been demonstrated that money is not usually at the top of the list. As the BOK outcomes illustrate, there is a broad range of topics that represents not only the requirements of engineering education, but also the expectations of an engineer’s growth in the profession. It is shortsighted to presume, though, that rules or expectations will somehow infuse the profession with some level of expertise that would otherwise be lacking. It is the engineer’s own innate interest in solving problems and building relationships that perpetuate and allow for lifelong learning.

Once the engineer is employed, it then becomes a joint effort on the part of the mentor and protégé continually to assess progress toward the desired goals and the intended career track. Without a continual and consistent review of these aspects, it is just as easy for the engineer to view his own contributions to the firm as commodities that are not really a true value, much as an uninformed outsider might view the profession as a whole. If we recognize that there is more to engineering as an art form, that personal growth comes from constant challenge inside and outside of work, and that most engineers will strive for a fulfilling career, we can easily observe that it will take more than task after task to make this a reality. Knowledge and experience will continually build on one another, but not without the engineer’s entrepreneurial attitude and support from the firm to promote the necessary growth. If we want to be able to express to the public how different we are from a typical profession, we need to cultivate the feeling of passion that got us into the job in the first place.

Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.

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