Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Not All Engineers Are Handy

I am an engineer, and I am not handy.

If you are the accountant in your family, you probably get financial questions from your friends and family members – particularly around tax season.  If you are the doctor in the family, you are probably inundated with medical questions from aging parents or in-laws, hoping to save themselves a trip to the clinic.  Although talking shop when not at work can be annoying, it is nice to be able to help family and friends by sharing your expertise with them.

If you are an engineer, you may receive a call from time to time from a friend when something of theirs breaks.  Engineers like to talk shop; unlike the doctor or accountant, engineers are excited that someone has taken an interest in what they do.

The thing is, not all engineers are endowed with practical abilities.

There are two sides to engineering: theory and practice.  Most of University is spent acquiring theoretical knowledge.  Mechanical engineers, for example, take many math, mechanics, thermodynamics, and fluids courses.  Very little time is spent educating engineers on how to apply their knowledge in a “hands-on” kind of way.  They may do projects in heat transfer where they design the optimal spacing of a double window pane for a given winter climate, but they will not be required to install the window.

Some years ago, my dad gave me a broken stand-alone picture frame.  He said, “Steve, you’re an engineer, you’ll like this problem.”  It was a very typical failure mode for such frames: the flimsy stand supporting the heavy frame upright had bent at its connection from the desired 30 degree angle to about 150 degrees.  The frame could no longer be propped up.

When I first looked at the broken stand, I knew I was the wrong guy for the job.  Still, I took it home and it sat on my desk for a while, next to some thick textbooks.  It was pretty embarrassing when I brought it back to my father weeks later completely unchanged.  I could have drawn him a free-body diagram of the frame, and shown that the bending moment caused by the frame’s mass had induced a large stress in the cantilevered stand, but this information would not fix the frame.

At the time, I was on an engineering team optimizing the design of multi-million dollar space hardware, and yet, I could not repair a simple picture frame.  You know, some kids like to tinker with their radio – they’ll open it up, see what is inside, disassemble, and reassemble...Not me!  I just enjoyed listening to the music.

A further reality check came when I became a first-time home owner.  People who work in trades are incredibly useful when it comes to fixing up their house.  Plumbers, electricians, architects... These people can build things and fix things independently.  I, on the other hand, needed help from my in-laws for the simplest things, like painting the deck or putting up a banister.  I suppose that owning a first home is a humbling experience for most people, but for an engineer who knows the science but has very limited practical abilities, it can be a real shot to the ego.

I have taken on some projects around the house over the past few years, like installing wainscoting on the walls, and assembling some storage cupboards.  I have found that it is very rewarding to get your hands dirty.  With practical stuff, you learn by doing.  If you have not had the experience of physically doing it in the past, Newton’s laws are of little help.  An Uncle who has owned a home for decades, on the other hand, can be very helpful.

I do have some engineering friends who are extremely handy.  One such friend has a machine shop in his garage.  He has built himself a high-quality surround sound speaker system... from scratch... for fun.  His practical expertise makes me somewhat envious.  His wife wanted a specific coffee table, so he built one.  His child sleeps in a crib that he designed and assembled.  When we two couples hang out, and he talks about his latest home project achievement, I grin lovingly at my wife and say, “I painted the den last year.”

An engineering degree gives one the conceptual understanding of how to solve nearly any science-based problem.  But, as you pace the aisles of Home Depot, questioning what materials you need to change a leaking pipe in your home, the fact that you can recite Bernoulli’s law of fluids will not get you anywhere.

Oh, and don’t get me started on cars.  If your problem does not involve windshield wiper fluid, I can’t help you.