I recently came upon the book 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School by John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick (May 2013, Grand Central Publishing). It is part of the “101 Things I Learned Series” (billed as “books for the sophisticated beginner”) which offers entries in architecture, business, engineering, law, urban design, among other professions.
Upon first glance, I thought this little book was written for a very elementary audience. It consisted of no more than a paragraph or two explaining each of the 101 “things”, accompanied by a simple drawing illustrating the concept. At best, I thought that it might be a good introduction that I could recommend to anyone I knew who was considering studying engineering.
But I quickly became absorbed in this book. These authors had gone to some engineering school! Because yes, there were many things that I, too, had learned in engineering school — but there were several more that I had learned only after engineering work experience had piqued my curiosity. There were more that I hadn’t even really ever thought about until reading them right here in this “elementary” book. But most importantly, in my opinion, it captured exactly what I have found to the magic of engineering, the essence of what makes our job so interesting.
If the authors learned all this in engineering school, obviously the authors’ (or at least one author’s) school experience was different from mine. It turns out that John Kuprenas is a Civil Engineering professor at the University of Southern California and Cal State Long Beach. So when he is in engineering school, he is dishing out the knowledge – when I was there, I was trying to absorb as much as I could, at least when other typical college pursuits weren’t interfering. So it is no wonder he learned a bit more in engineering school than I did. (Co-author Matthew Frederick is not an engineer, but an architect. It does appear he was paying attention in his engineering classes, however.)
As it is intended for the “sophisticated beginner”, this book starts by presenting some general, but very good, guidance: ”The heart of engineering isn’t calculation; it’s problem solving”…”Every problem is built on familiar principles”…”Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out”. This guidance may appear trite, but it is not. Shortly into my structural engineering career, I had spent a day calculating out a very elegant solution using calculus to maximize the worst combination of shear and moment loads acting on a steel connection under a varying load. When I looked for approval from my boss, he told me “That’s a mathematician’s solution, not an engineer’s solution”. It was then that I realized that the best engineering solutions were often developed by breaking the problem down to a simpler problem, which can often be solved faster and more economically using a very basic engineering principal. That is one lesson that I have never forgotten, and which has always served me well.
Of course, the authors are not really dismissive of engineering doing calculations, just of engineers who rely too much on calculations. Their “Random hypothesis #1” states “You don’t understand something until you quantify it. But you understand nothing at all if all you do is quantify.” How true this is! Many times I have come across engineering behavior that was totally non-intuitive, but once analyzed from first principals I found that the predominant influence on that behavior was something that I had not even considered in the first place! So yes, calculation has helped me understand, explain, and predict behavior that had previously seemed non-intuitive. But just as important is the fact that I have been able to form my impressions of what was intuitive or not from lots of real life observations not based on calculation (by the way, I recommend as much exposure to job sites as possible for any young engineer).
From there, the book spreads out to cover a smattering of several different branches of engineering: hydraulic, electrical, chemical, system, project, environmental, etc.
Of course, the most enjoyable reading for me were those “things” related to structural engineering: The reference to the world’s first building code (found in Hammurabi’s Code of ancient Babylonia) was interesting. “A truss’s complexity is the product of its simplicity” reminded me of my most popular blog article “I’m a Truss Me Wizard, There has to be a Twist”. …”The contents of a building might weigh more than the building”…”Structural systems are built from the bottom up, but designed from the top down”…”A skyscraper is a vertically cantilevered beam”…are concepts that are taught in engineering school, but that don’t truly sink in until years later. ”The best beam shape is an I – or better yet, an І” (by the way, imagine that the second “I” has wider flanges) reminded me of the ingenious inventions of Alphonse Halbou, Henry Grey, and other engineers who have enabled structural engineering to advance to where it is today. ”Get even more out of a beam”, discussed a structural configuration that significantly increases the capacity of a beam – well I just had to test that one out using CloudCalc!
As I read over “Soldiers shouldn’t march across a bridge” and “Why Galloping Gertie collapsed” I remembered how difficult it was for me to conceptually grasp dynamic analysis – mainly because engineering schools teach it predominantly via the equations, without enough of these real life examples like these sprinkled in.
But back to what I enjoyed most about this book, the “magic” I mentioned before. What I find most fascinating about engineering is the fact that there are rarely clear cut answers, every solution is a balancing act, or a trade-off. Often a solution that betters one aspect of the problem typically worsens another, challenging the engineer to walk a tightrope to find the optimal solution. And these guys get that! “Thing” #24 clearly states: “There’s always a trade-off”; in addition several examples are provided. “Materials fight” talk about how combinations of materials bring disparate benefits, but also tend to act against each other – the engineer must resolve that. “Harder materials don’t ensure longevity”/”Softer materials aren’t always more protective” and “Buildings want to float”/“Automobiles want to fly” point to way that certain engineering properties and responses often tend to work in opposing directions to the impact that they are supposed to bring. “Friction is the enemy of a rolling object, but it is what allows it to roll”…pity the engineer who must incorporate the Goldilocks friction (not too much, and not too little) into the design!
My favorite example of this is described in “Earthquake design: let it move a lot or not at all” – this presents a concept that is very difficult for the layman to accept. Can you imagine that an earthquake can be resisted either by making a structure more rigid/stronger (OK, that sounds logical) or more flexible/weaker! While alternatively, if the engineer is not careful, making it more rigid (or more flexible) to the wrong degree, or in the wrong places, may cause failure! This sort of problem is what excites me as an engineer! This is what should excite anyone who feels they are a creative problem solver.
But finally, I came to the one I was waiting for: “All engineers calculate. Good engineers communicate.” I agree…that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog! And that is what Kuprenas and Frederick have done with “101 Things I Learned in Engineering School“.
Are you thinking of becoming an engineer? Then read this book, it will give you a good idea of what our careers are like. And after you have become an engineer? You will probably want to use CloudCalc — the collaborative, scalable, cloud-based structural engineering software. www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis in the Cloud.
By Tom Van Laan
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