What is Engineering?

Do you know what engineers do, actually do every day? OK then, can you identify the ways engineering has shaped your life? If you find these difficult questions, you’re not alone.

Educational researchers have found that K-12 teachers and students generally have a poor understanding of what engineers do, plus the opportunities available through engineering education are still largely unknown to most Americans [1]. A 2012 survey in the UK indicates that only 11% of 12- to 16-year-olds know what engineers do [2].

Average citizens probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how engineering has changed their lives. Yet, society’s transformation in only the last 100 years, because of engineering, is nothing short of stunning. By 1903, the world was not electrified; the airplane had just made its first flight; Ford will open his assembly line making cars affordable in 1913; few people had phones; the average life span was 47 – mostly due to unclean water and poor sanitation; commercial radio stations, television, computers and the Internet did not exist – and the list goes on [3].

From electricity to food production to the clothes you wear to the mobile device in your hand, engineers designed and developed the technology and production system that brought it to your home. Engineering takes you all the way from other cities to other planets in cars, airplanes and robotic spacecraft. From the telephone to the Internet, engineering has connected people across the globe in ways unimagined half a century ago. Everything – materials, food, clothing, transportation, housing, power, fuel, and fun – is an engineered addition to our modern world.

Anyone can dream about the future, but the people who actually turn those dreams into reality will be engineers. Traversing the path from concept to practical creation requires an understanding of the relevant science and familiarity with current technologies but also the vision to see beyond the world as it is and create something new. This is the job of the engineer – to combine the knowledge and tools of today with dreams of tomorrow to create the world of the future [4].

How engineering shaped the 20th Century is best summed up in a presentation by astronaut/engineer Neil Armstrong entitled, “The Engineered Century” where he describes the top 20 engineering achievements of the past 100 years [5]. How engineers will shape the 21st Century is unknown but one thing is certain – it will be a vastly different place.

That’s a lot of societal impact for just one profession. One would think that such rapid progress means America employs a great number of engineers. That’s a reasonable guess, but it isn’t true. Occupational Employment Statistics show that in 2012, 6.2 million people were employed in the United States as scientists and engineers, which accounts for 4.7% of the total US workforce.  Out of that figure, 1.53 million are engineers of all degrees and disciplines, making up only 1.1% of the workforce [6].  That’s around the total population of Philadelphia serving the engineering needs of an entire nation.

Are you interested in changing the world? Become an engineer and join the 1% of America’s workforce that designs the future.


  1. “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering (2008),” Committee on Understanding Engineering Messages, National Academy of Engineering, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., ISBN 978-0-309-11935-1
  2. Michael Cryer, “Why Modern Life Depends on Engineers,” Engineering Opportunities (EO),
  3. “Recognizing Engineer’s Spirit & Contribution to Society: A Tribute to Software Engineers,” GEOVIZ, 334 Donands Avenue, East York, ON M4J3R9, Canada, September 15, 2013.
  4. “What Engineers Do,” Michigan Technological University, College of Engineering, 712 Minerals & Materials Building, 1400 Townsend Drive Houghton, Michigan.
  5. Neil A. Armstrong, “The Engineered Century,” Presentation to the National Press Club, February 22, 2000; reproduced in The Bridge, Vol.(30)1, Spring, 2000, National Academy of Engineering
  6. “The U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce: Recent, Current, and Projected Employment, Wages, and Unemployment,” by John F. Sargent Jr., Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, R43061, February 19, 2014.