Dear high school student,

Thinking of engineering as a college and career choice? Great! My name is Seth Price, and I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in materials science and engineering. I currently teach chemical engineering and tutor high school math and science students. I was once in your shoes, and I write this letter to tell you the things nobody told me about high school and engineering.

I’m not sure how you first became interested in engineering. Maybe you aren’t even sure you are interested. Perhaps you have heard that people who play with Legos become engineers or people who are good at math become engineers, or some other rumor. Whatever led you to consider engineering, I think it will be important for you to know what it means to be an engineer, and how to make the most of your remaining time in high school to prepare for a career in engineering.

Engineering is all about problem-solving. The type of problems you solve will vary depending on your specific discipline. You may need to figure out why the temperature of a coolant leaving a heat exchanger is warmer than expected, or maybe you will need to figure out how to reduce the weight on a new engine block. Even when there isn’t a problem to solve per se, parts and processes can always be made safer, faster, more cost-effective or less damaging to the environment. There is no end to the problems that can be solved, and no end to the improvements that can be made.

Do you ever have some problem (not necessarily a math problem) that is frustrating, and you find yourself thinking about it later? Your car doesn’t start one morning and maybe you think about why. It’s not pleasant, but then you think, “maybe it’s the alternator.” Or maybe your favorite game stopped working after the last update, and you try to troubleshoot and figure out why. Thinking about it, revisiting a problem, trying different solutions, reading about similar problems —that is what makes a good engineer!

Back to the rumors about math. You have probably heard that engineering involves a lot of math and that all engineers are good at math. This is partially true. Good engineers are capable of learning certain math that they will use to solve problems; they aren’t born with some innate math ability. Instead, good engineers and good engineering students treat math as a set of tools that can help them solve problems faster. They learn the math that will help them solve specific problems.

As high school draws to a close, it is time to change how you think of math. Chances are, your math classes assign a set of problems, with a few challenging problems at the end of the assignment. Often, these are word problems. You may have skipped these and still earned good grades in the past, as they represent only a small portion of the grade. These problems are perhaps the most important ones for your development as an engineering student.

In the real world, math mostly presents itself in the form of word problems. Nobody says, “Hey, I need you to solve this equation for x.” Instead they say, “how thick should this cross member be to keep it from breaking?” and it will be up to you to figure out how to form the equations and answer them.

Hidden in every high school math and science class, perhaps even hidden from your teachers, is the real purpose of each math activity. Proofs in geometry class are not about memorizing side and angle theorems. Hidden in this activity is learning to follow logical steps when breaking down a problem. In algebra class, all of those problems that sound like “A train heads west at 20 mph and another train heads east at 30 mph, how far apart…” are about rates and thinking two-dimensionally (position and time), and how they are related (speed). Writing your name and date on the top of the paper is secretly a lesson in organization, using and developing standards, which is a skill you will need to have when you conduct your own experiments and test your own designs.

Also, be sure to take advantage of the opportunities you have. In high school, you have access to teachers for free. They are there to help prepare you for real life and to help answer your questions. Not sure how to divide fractions because you cheated your way through it in 4th grade? Ask. Not sure of the next step when solving for x? Ask. In college, your professors may have multiple classes of 500 students, and you may not interact with them at all. You may even have to pay for tutoring later. Right now, you are sitting in class and can get some of these questions answered for free.

What is keeping you from asking questions? Are you afraid you won’t understand something else? That’s great! Now, you can learn about what you didn’t know and what you realize that you didn’t know. Are you afraid of what others may think of you when you ask? Think back to your math class. Can you name the last ten people who asked questions? Probably not. If you can’t remember those ten people, chances are, nobody will remember your question, either, and you will walk away having learned something new.

Finally, take the time to read. There are millions of online magazines and trade journals that can be delivered to your email inbox. Interested in jets? Sign up for a trade magazine that discusses aerospace. Even if you don’t understand everything that they are talking about, you will be learning and integrating what you read with what you know. You are adding new tools to your mental toolbox.

Engineering is about solving problems, period. These problems can have serious, real-world consequences, but the problems in your classes aren’t so serious. Take a deep breath, and treat each problem as batting practice for the big game later on. The more practice you have, the easier college engineering classes will be, and the more tools you will have available when you solve problems in your career.

Sincerely,

Seth Price
Laboratory Associate, Chemical Engineering, New Mexico Tech

To contact the author of this article, email engineering360editors@globalspec.com