Engineering: The Mysterious “E” in “STEM”

It has been said that a country’s economy is only as good as the sum-total creativity of its citizens. That is true. Today, creativity goes hand in hand with technology; and doing wonders with technology is the realm of Engineering, that mysterious term in the quartet STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In all the countries trying to make it economically, STEM is the buzz-word, and engineering is the way to go.

For the past several decades, five nations have sworn by the term engineering, and they have prospered beyond their wildest beliefs. Because of their phenomenal economic and technological success, they are now collectively termed the Asian Tigers. Officially, the Asian Tigers are Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. But in any narrative referring to them, Japan is always included, and for good reason – it is the Master Tiger of Technology. Put together, in terms of land-size, these five countries hardly make a blip on the earth’s total land mass. Natural resource-wise, they have next to nothing. Their total natural resources don’t even make 1% of the sum total of Africa’s natural resources.  However, when it comes to wealth, they rank high on all measures of economic performance.

Their products, companies and technological innovations are household names.  Just think of South Korea, and Samsung, Hyundai and LG immediately spring to mind. Turn your thoughts to electronic manufacturing and notebooks, and Taiwan, and its technology conglomerates, Foxconn and Quanta Computer, immediately flash past your memory. And when it comes to banking, your list won’t be complete without the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, otherwise known as HSBC. And if you are both technologically and civic minded, the mere mention of “smart city” and “smart nation” immediately conjures images of Singapore. And of course, you can hardly begin to think about technology, whether it be the nice affordable cars that have flooded the world for decades, or the futuristic robotics that now threaten our own jobs, without ever thinking of Japan.

The economic success of the Asian Tigers is all down to engineering, yet few people here in the UK have got any idea what engineering is all about. Ask any child what a lawyer, doctor, or accountant does, and I bet they can give you a very concise explanation. Ask them what an engineer does, and you draw a blank, or at best they refer you to the “engineer” who comes to repair the drain pipe. Talk about science, and they refer you immediately to all the science stories appearing on television. Except that what is often termed “science” by the professional media is really engineering in practice. “Scientists have designed a super-fast computer; scientists have built a gravity-defying rocket to reach planet Mars” – No! All this is engineering. Scientists discover and test theories, engineers design and build.

So what is engineering? The Oxford online dictionary defines engineering as “the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.” Of course, engineering is all about applying science and technology to the design and construction of all these things, and many others beside them. However, this definition looks a bit stodgy, and distinctly frightening and unappealing, and for me it is quite  incomplete.

I like better their alternative definition: “The action of working artfully to bring something about.”  Bringing together people and technology to solve problems is what engineering is all about. To succeed one has to have a good understanding of the science behind the problem, but above all, one has to be creative, and determined. Here at UCL Engineering we have gone one step further, and define engineering as “the art and practice of changing the physical world for the use and benefit of all.” In short, you can’t talk of engineering without talking of creativity. In today’s world, the two are synonymous.

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