When I was still a student I came to my father, who was a mechanical engineer himself, and told him very proudly about my studies and mechanical design courses. I was very impressed by the ability to use mathematical tools to solve all sorts of theoretical problems. To my surprise, he told me that the most advanced mathematics he ever used at work was the operation of multiplication! I was baffled. Things must have changed in the thirty plus years since his graduation!
Learnings from Mechanical Design Courses
Now, 50 years later, I recently spent some time thinking about how much of the knowledge I use today originated from my studies. I was horrified to discover that I use practically nothing of it! I hardly remember even the names of most of my classes. In college I did develop some analytical skills and acquired a better understanding of the world. The scientific background is well embedded in me, but I cannot help wondering whether the way I studied was really the best way to make me a design engineer.
It’s not that I think I should have given up math, physics, strength and fluid dynamics, statistics, and all the other standard engineering subjects. They were all important at the time, but something was missing. A few years later I told a friend that I had mastered design in the five years after graduation. I was young and naive then. I did not know that it would actually take me ten, twenty or even fifty years to become a master of design. Can this long period be shortened somehow? Isn’t it a terrible waste of human resources?
Can History shape us?
A few centuries ago there were no engineering schools. Universities were places for research and for pure knowledge. Engineering was mostly studied by apprenticeship, rather than by formal studies.
Was it all wrong? University gave us some great masters of art and of engineering degrees. The two French engineers, the father and son Marc and Isambard Brunel, never attended any technical school. Yet they became very bright engineers and they left a significant mark on the history of technology.
Is apprenticeship still a good and efficient way to study engineering today, with the large demand for engineers and the sea of modern knowledge? Probably not, but maybe we should adopt some of it into our system of mechanical design courses. After all, we all have to pass through a sort of modern apprenticeship before we become real designers. We just don’t call it by that name. Unfortunately, during this period of informal apprenticeship most of us are not privileged to be under a boss who is a master of design himself. Most of the time it is just another engineer, a few years older. In addition, not everyone has good teaching skills. Wouldn’t it be better if we had a sort of apprenticeship under real masters and eloquent teachers in the university?