Quick, how many types of engineering degrees can you name? If you said three or four — things like civil, electrical, mechanical, maybe chemical — you're probably in pretty good company. But each of those large divisions is made up of many smaller subdivisions, each of which represents an entire body of specialized knowledge unto itself — not to mention a wide range of career options for the engineering student.

Here, then, is the first in our series of articles on engineering degrees. This one focuses on the many types of mechanical engineering, a field that dates back at least as far as the invention of the wheel.

Acoustical Engineering

Sound is vibration; vibration is sound… and that's probably why the overarching field of mechanical engineering claims acoustical engineering as its own. The goals of this field include noise and vibration control, though the design of objects such as hearing protectors, noise buffers, and sound barriers; fidelity enhancement, through the design of vessels such as announcement systems and concert halls; and the use of ultrasonic frequencies, through applications such as medicine, sonar and nondestructive testing. Machine recognition and synthesis of speech is another important area for acoustical engineering. Acoustic engineers frequently start with undergrad studies in mechanical engineering, before moving onto specialize in the field via graduate study. The Acoustical Society of America (ASU) is an international organization; it got its start at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the late 1920s.

Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine is tested at Robins Air Force Base. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.Pratt & Whitney turbofan engine is tested at Robins Air Force Base. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Aerospace Engineering

So you want to be a rocket scientist? Two overlapping branches comprise this field, which is concerned with the development of aircraft (aeronautical engineering) and spacecraft (astronautical engineering). Because of the complexity involved, aerospace engineers generally work in multidisciplinary teams comprised of specialists in aerodynamics, avionics, manufacturing, materials science, propulsion and structural analysis. There are numerous schools for studying aerospace engineering. Based on peer assessment studies, U.S. News & World Report identifies the Top 5 schools (among those where a doctorate is the highest degree offered) as MIT, Georgia Tech, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Stanford and Caltech. A main resource for the field is the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which serves as the U.S. representative for the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), based in Paris.

Automotive Engineering

Baby, you can drive my car. One of three branches of vehicle engineering (along with aerospace and marine engineering), this field focuses on the production, development and manufacture of all types of road vehicles. Specializations include automotive electronics, fuel economy, quality management and safety engineering. In the U.S., very few universities and colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in automotive engineering; interested students often study mechanical engineering before narrowing their concentration through graduate-level study. A top resource for the field is SAE International, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Visualization of car deformation using finite element analysis. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.Visualization of car deformation using finite element analysis. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.Marine Engineering

Ship ahoy! This field concerns itself with the development, design, operation and maintenance of all types of water-based craft. It includes oceanographic engineering, which works with the physical and biological aspects of the ocean; and offshore engineering, which involves the design of structures such as offshore wind farms and oil platforms. Marine engineering programs are often found at schools with nearby bodies of water, such as the University of New Orleans (UNO), as well as government-run schools such as the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). A top resource for professionals in the field is the Society for Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME).

Mechanical Engineering

And then, of course, there’s plain old mechanical engineering itself — but it’s a broad and diverse field with nothing plain about it. One of the oldest of all the engineering disciplines, it focuses on mechanical systems — their design, analysis, manufacture and maintenance. The field encompasses many core areas including thermodynamics, materials science, structural analysis and more. Mechanical engineering touches everything from factories and industrial equipment to heating and cooling systems to weaponry, and just about any type of machinery you can think of. Degrees in mechanical engineering are offered throughout the world; in the U.S., most programs fall under the auspices of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET); for four-year degrees alone, 318 programs are currently listed. There are several professional resources that serve the field as well, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in New York and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in London; both are international organizations with members throughout the world.

Mechatronic system. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.Mechatronic system. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.Mechatronic Engineering

Mecha-what? Japanese engineer Tetsuro Mori coined the term “mechatronics” in 1969 to describe a hybrid approach to mechanics and electronics. This is an evolving field that revolves around the design and manufacture of intelligent systems built to streamline processes, such as industrial robots, machine vision systems and many of the “smart” devices that have transformed a wide variety of industries. The internet of things (IoT) will be largely comprised of mechatronic components. At present, the number of colleges and universities offering degrees in mechatronic engineering is small, but interested students often complete mechanical engineering studies with a leaning toward robotics and automation. Several schools also have labs for mechatronic research. A good source for a variety of links on mechatronics can be found here.

Railway Engineering

The first time most kids hear the term “engineer,” they probably think of the person who runs a train. Well, turns out they’re not so far off when it comes to this field, which deals with the design, construction and operation of all types of rail transport systems. The history of rail technology goes back further than many of the other transportation engineering disciplines, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. Freight rail, in particular, continues to catalyze economic development, along with easing highway congestion, saving energy and reducing carbon emissions. According to Progressive Railroading, a growing number of colleges and universities are offering electives in rail-related studies; there is also Penn State Altoona, which offers a four-year undergraduate degree. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) serves as a strong resource about the state of the industry and its technology.

Watch this space for more articles in this series. In the meanwhile, have a look at our list of Top 20 Mechanical Engineering Marvels. Happy engineering!