Starting Engineering School: Frequently Asked Questions

Students entering engineering school often find out that that they have to study certain courses, and carry out certain activities they had never anticipated. For instance, quite a number of students often wonder why they have to study certain theoretical courses before they can get to do the real thing that they came to university for.

In addition, students are often surprised and dismayed that they have to do certain courses, such as communication and professional skills, which don’t seem to have any connection to engineering at all.

Lastly students often wonder why they have to undertake a final year project, and why they have to seek work experience alongside their studies.

In this article I have put together some of the questions that beginning students have asked me. They don’t cover all that a beginning student needs to know, and I will be very happy to add to this list if you have some more questions.

I have organised the questions under three headings:

  • Basic Science and Engineering Fundamentals
  • Communication and Professional Skills
  • Final Year Project and Work Experience

Basic Science and Engineering Fundamentals

Question: Why do we have to waste time in the first year and second year studying maths, science and introductory fundamentals that we are never going to use in engineering practice?

Answer: When you come into engineering school, you want to start on the really interesting stuff like designing and building aircraft, bridges, high rise buildings, nuclear power stations or developing your own mobile communication system. However, typically, you only get to do some of this stuff in the last two years of your degree programme (for a four year MEng), or in the third and final year of your degree (for a 3 year BEng). The chief reason for this is that you need a thorough understanding of the science and engineering concepts that form the building blocks of most of the really interesting engineering stuff. For instance, to effectively design and analyse high rise building structures you need to understand the physical principles of bodies at rest and forces in equilibrium. And to build a mobile communication system, you need a good knowledge of telecommunication theory. And to understand the necessary telecommunication theory, you need to be familiar with mathematical concepts such as series, transforms, probability and statistics.

Question: Nowadays we use computer systems to design engineering systems, so why do I need to master any engineering theory?

Answer: In general, for every problem that you are solving there is more than one solution. Whilst a computer system can give you a design solution based on the data that you enter, you need to make a professional judgement on which design is the best, and this requires an understanding of the technical theory underpinning the problem area. Also a computer system usually generates an output even when you have entered the wrong data, or there is a faulty bug in one of the computer systems algorithms. An understanding of the appropriate technical theory will enable you to know when this happens.

Question: Why do I need to study mathematics in engineering school?

Answer: For two reasons mainly. First, because the relationships between engineering variables, for example force and mass, are best described using mathematical expressions. Secondly, because the behaviour and operation of most engineering systems is best explained and modelled using mathematical functions.

Communication and Professional Skills

Question: I applied to study engineering at university. Why do I have to learn how to compile reports, make presentations and write and send emails as if I am on an English language course?

Answer: As a practising engineer you will spend a significant amount of time communicating information to fellow engineers, work colleagues, managers, customers, suppliers, regulatory authorities, and the people whom you lead. For example, you may write a report documenting how you solved a problem faced by your customers, or putting together operating instructions for a system that you have procured and installed.

Question: I prefer working alone. Why are we forced to work in teams on some of the programme activities, for example in design and problem solving tasks.

Answer: In general, as an engineer you will be working as part of a team. For example, when building a bridge, you will exchange design ideas with other bridge engineers in your team, and you will work with various categories of skilled and unskilled labour to ensure that the bridge is completed on time, and within the allocated costs.

Question: I am an engineer who loves technology, and I have absolutely no desire to go into management? Why am I being forced to learn and demonstrate leadership and management skills during my degree programme?

Answer: As an engineer you will routinely lead and manage other people. For example, experienced engineers generally lead a team of technicians and junior engineers. In addition, as an engineer one of your roles may be to lead project teams made up of people from within and outside your own organisation. You therefore need to learn leadership and management skills.

Question: I am studying to be an engineer, and not an accountant. Why should I attend business management courses?

Answer: Managing financial costs is critical to the survival of organisations. As an engineer, therefore, you need to ensure that the engineering solutions that you provide are cost-effective for both your organisation and your customers if your organisation is to remain in business.

Final Year Project and Work Experience

Question: I have to do a final year project as part of my course. Why is this necessary?

Answer: A final year project offers you the opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which you can apply your engineering knowledge and skills in carrying out a non-trivial engineering task. Your project is useful in revealing your understanding and application of technical theory, problem solving skills, design and implementation skills, time and cost management, as well as your ability to communicate your work in multiple ways to targeted audiences. For example in your project you will communicate your work to the examiner by way of a written report, and you will communicate to other students and academic members of staff through presentations, videos and pitches. All these skills are required in the engineering workplace.

Question: Why do I need to do work experience as part of my degree programme?

Answer: Work experience gives you the opportunity to work on real projects that have an impact on an organisation and on individuals. In the real world you will experience the tensions, conflicts, and uncertainties associated with everyday engineering work, and you need to develop appropriate coping mechanisms in order to effectively apply your engineering knowledge and skills.

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