The engineering mindset – asking questions vs. being given answers

For those who don’t know (and I figure that’s probably most readers at this time) I went to college starting in my mid 30s. I’m currently taking classes at Iowa State University in mechanical engineering. During my chemistry lab, one of my lab partners has reminded me of what is involved in thinking like and aspiring to be an engineer. I’m writing this post as a way to express my view on what the engineering mindset consists of.

Thinking like an engineer

When I was a kid, I liked to see how things worked. I’d visit my grandparents and play with the key on the lock of my grandfather’s roll-top desk. Unfortunately, while I’d figured out how the key actuated the lock mechanism, I didn’t think through the consequence of closing the desk after having activated the lock. In any event, I learned that the back of the desk was removable, albeit with some effort.

I also liked to take things apart. Give me an old top-loading VCR (I shudder to think about the youth of today that grew up on Netflix and YouTube and have no idea what a VCR is) or a record player, and I’d happily hunt down the screws holding it together and remove them to see the inner workings. I think any kid who expresses this kind of curiosity is on the path to engineering. If your kid is more happy to throw the device against the wall just to watch the parts fly, well, maybe an internship with a demolition crew or a tour of duty in the military as a demolitions expert is in his future.

My lab parter and his “engineering” aptitude

Last week, we were doing spectroscopy. You take a tube of a gas, place it in a lamp, send electricity through it, and the tube glows. Think big halogen light or a neon tube (in fact, neon was one of the gasses we tested). You then place a spectroscope (a prism on a fixed table with a movable optic on a rotary bearing) next to the lamp and look through the optic of the spectroscope to see fine lines which represent energy being emitted by the gas. It’s a time-consuming process of sweeping this optic back and forth carefully looking for these faint lines in order to record the spectrum of emission.

One of my lab partners said, “This would be easier if our lab instructor just gave us the values.” My first thought was, of course it would. My second thought was, I don’t know if he has the right mindset to get into engineering. In my opinion, engineering isn’t about having the answers, it’s about asking the questions. Engineering is a way to scratch the itch of curiosity. If you’re not curious as to what you’re going to find, why bother looking? Being given the answers isn’t the process of engineering, it’s the result of engineering.