The Education of Engineers

The education of engineers is unusual. What makes it strange, I think, is that most engineering professors are not engineers.

Economics students are taught economics by economists. Professors of economics have teaching duties, of course, but they also do economics, using the same tools and techniques, and studying many of the same sorts of problems studied by economists who work in the government, or non-governmental organizations or in industry. If you took a photo of a professor of economics tabulating Gini coefficients on a computer at a university and a photo of a economist at an investment bank tabulating Gini coefficients on a computer, the best way to tell the two photos apart would probably be to figure out which economist had more-expensive office furniture.

Likewise, biochemistry students are taught biochemistry by biochemists. Biochemists work in laboratories synthesizing and analyzing chemicals that are or could be biologically important or useful. Again, professors of biochemistry have teaching duties to worry about, but they also do biochemistry research in labs, using the same tools and techniques used in industry.

But engineering students are typically not taught by engineers. Most of the professors of engineering I’ve ever dealt with have not been engineers – they’ve been scientists. Civil engineers build bridges and dams. They wear hard hats and steel-toed boots and talk to each other through walkie-talkies. Professors of civil engineering, on the other hand, have labs. Professors of civil engineering don’t teach classes in the morning and then go supervise the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in the afternoon. They teach classes in the morning and then, in the afternoon, go meet their grad students in the lab.

In my own field, chemical engineering, basically every professor I’ve ever met was a scientist, not an engineer. Some were materials scientists. Some were polymer scientists. Some were control theorists. Some were just plain old chemists. And some were biochemists. Some studied combustion. Some studied catalysis. Some studied thermodynamics. Some studied atmospheric chemistry.

But all were scientists, not engineers. None taught classes in the morning and then ran a network of oil pipelines in the afternoon. They taught classes in the morning, and then went to the lab.

Engineering is probably not the only field like this, maybe other fields are this way too: Are psychology professors typically practicing psychologists? I’m not certain.

I don’t know what the larger implications are of what I’m saying. And I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers – Scientist is a perfectly respectable vocation. It has always just seemed strange to me that an entire branch of human endeavors is taught by people from another branch.

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