STEM Tuesday: Thank an Engineer

In my essay, Evolution is Not a Belief System, I quote Pope John Paul II  who stresses that the theory of Intelligent Design diminishes God into


“an engineer who designs systems….


Dear Friend, a musician among a family of engineers, retorted, “Well, that would, indeed, explain a lot.”

We laughed that kind of synchronous laugh of complete understanding.  You know what I mean.  No further explanation necessary. Engineers have a way of looking at life that is, well, unique, to say the least. But, maybe we can all benefit.


Dear Friend’s experience with her engineer-dad fixing her breast pump into a super-duper fast and furious, better than ever, breast pump is a good example of the engineering mind-set run amok.Breast pump.



Today’s Wall Street Journal‘s book review of Applied Minds, reminds me that we need to seek out our engineers and give them some full body hugs and smacks on both cheeks in love of all they give. According to the author, Guru Madhavan:



[tweetthis]Structure, constraints, and trade-offs are the one-two-three punch of the engineering mind-set… [/tweetthis] They are to the engineer as  time, tempo, and rhythm are to a musician.

We have Sanford Fleming, an engineer and railroad planner, to thank for our global grid of time-zones.  Before his standard grid-system, we had 144 time-zones. Holy Guacamole, how would my iPhone automatically calculate which time-zine I’m in?


Everyone learns that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. He’s a national hero in England. Did you know that a chemical engineer, Margaret Hutchison, developed a fermentation method so that penicillin can be mass produced and made it possible to save thousands of lives?



Good engineers create structure so they can understand a problem and the value of possible solutions. They consider the constraints they must work within and they consider the trade-offs for each solution.  (If Dear Friend’s dad  had experienced milk-engorged breasts, he might have dialed back speed and efficiency in exchange for gentleness.)



Engineers improve efficiency. Thank an engineer for the assembly line, ATMs, or self-check-outs.  Engineers improve safety. Thank an engineer for safe bridges and highways. Heck, engineers impact almost every aspect of our lives, from immunizing our children,  getting them to soccer practice, and hydrating them afterwards, and almost everything in between.


Madhaven points out in our culture that elevates innovators, the unsung hero is the engineer. We can all benefit from infusing our lives with a little engineer-think.


It takes time to define a problem. Yet, that’s the most crucial part of coming up with the best solution. I remember a “Problem Solving” seminar I attended.  We first got a scenario: “Teen-age son suddenly becomes sullen and refuses to join in conversations. What will you do?” My group was awash with proposals, “It could be drugs;” “Maybe he’s hanging out with the wrong people,” “I think it’s hormones.” Wait a minute: What’s the problem? He’s non-communicative and sullen. Now let’s move on to the next phases. What are the possible solutions? What are the constraint? We could take son on a vacation by himself, but what will that cost and what about the other children? We could lock him in his room until he agrees to talk. We could interrogate his friends. We could have a game-night that encourages interaction. There’s a montage of solutions, all with different constraints and trade-offs.


Maybe if I’d used a little clearer engineer-think last week, I would have avoided getting off at the wrong stop on my way to Writing Chicago. I did a good job of defining the problem: What’s the best way to get to the site? I narrowed the possible solutions to drive or train. I considered the constraints: traffic, schedule, walking distance, parking. I used my GPS to keep me on track. If only I hadn’t assumed Northwestern campus meant Evanston.

Could you benefit from engineer-think? I’d love to learn how.