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Myth #5: Engineers work alone

27 July

This is the most persistent and damaging of all 6 myths.  I am not exaggerating.  It is 5th because I had to lay groundwork for it to make sense.

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Myth #5:  Engineers Work Alone

The stereotype of the genius engineer toiling away alone in his workshop to make the next greatest thing is very persistent.  The solo genius is part of the american mythos.

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Please forgive me MacGyver, patron saint of Engineers. But you are pure fiction.

I heard it frequently from the undergraduate students that I taught Mechanics of Materials Lab (translation=we broke things).

“Why do I have to write a lab report and get graded on my grammar? I’ll just be designing things.”


“Why do we have to do lab in groups?  I don’t like people, that’s why I became an engineer.”

True story.  I found this attitude distressing.

At that point I had already worked in Aerospace for 6 years and knew those kids would have a rude awakening in their first jobs.

In the real world, engineering is highly collaborative.

Modern projects involve dozens if not hundreds of engineers.  Today’s machines are too complex for any one person to design the entire apparatus in a lifetime.  Dozens of people working in parallel on connected pieces can get a lot more done, and quicker.

Engineering is a team sport.

One will work on a single part of a car, say the rims.  Another engineer may be in charge of designing the brakes.  A third the tires. These engineers will have to work closely with each other so that their parts work together perfectly.

And in the internet age they could also be in different parts of the world and from different cultures.

English may not even be their first language.  Or second.

People skills, cultural sensitivity, clear written and verbal communication, etc, are essential for the successful 21st century engineer.

These soft skills are hard to measure but highly sought after by smart managers.  HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER.

Why do I go so far as to say the solo myth is damaging?

Several reasons:

1. It gives kids and students an excuse not to develop their people skills.

Like my students above, many devalue soft skills.  This will hurt them in the long run at their jobs.  Better to start learning collaboration and communication skills early.

2. It keeps extroverted kids out of engineering.

The social kids see the introverted loner stereotype and think engineering or science it isn’t for them, even if they love solving puzzles or working with their hands.

We need the extroverts just as much as the introverts to help solve the huge problems of the future.  Global warming anyone?  Mission to mars?  These problems will require massive collaboration across many cultures.

3. Most importantly, poor communication has cost money and LIVES.

Something as simple as mislabeling the units on a number can cause a 125 million dollar spacecraft to crash.  And poor communication between groups was a major factor in the Challenger disaster, where 7 astronauts lost their lives.

Still think communication skills aren’t important for engineers?  I hope not!

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