I hear a lot of kids say, “I don’t think I could be an engineer because I’m not good at math.” Yet these same kids have built go carts, figured out how to make things go boom, and have found ways to launch potatoes with incredible force. What they don’t realize is that it took a fair amount of engineering ingenuity to accomplish these tasks. More than the fear of crashing or blowing off a finger, they are afraid of the “math” that it takes to become an engineer.
Granted, a small percentage of graduate engineers will work in a R&D setting that will require high level math. However, the reality is that the vast majority of engineers that graduate will work in industry. If you look at what they do, day in and day out, you will find that they need to be very good at algebra. You know, y = mx + b kind of stuff. Engineers get giddy with excitement the handful of times they get to use the TAN key on their HP-85 scientific calculator. Kind of makes me want to brandish my K+E slide rule with 22 scales.
“Wait… Did you say algebra?! So you’re telling me that the majority of math that
engineers do every day is the same stuff that I learned from Brother “Jumpin’ Joe” O’Meara my junior year of high school?”
That is exactly right. Engineering is not so much being good at math but more about having a passion for understanding how things work and interact. Let’s take a parabola as an example… y = x2. Boring, right? Why should you care?
What if your teacher asked “Do you have Dish TV?”… Then went on to explain that your dish collects radio waves from outer space. No matter where those radio waves hit the surface of the dish, they all bounce to the same point (the focus). That point has an amplifier that can take those very weak signals and present a signal that allows you to watch the Rams beat the Bears on national TV. Congratulations! You just learned a practical reason to care about parabolas!
Thomas Edison did poorly in his math classes in school, but went on to patent over 1000 inventions. In engineering, what matters more than love of math is being a person that wants to understand how things work, likes to take things apart, and likes to put things together to make the world a better place. If you look around your garage and think “I can make an automated robot that takes the trash out from these miscellaneous pieces and parts,” you might make a great engineer. Don’t let the fact that you don’t see the redeeming social value of calculus get in the way of becoming an engineer!
Yes, in engineering school the math sequence can be intense. Some of the classes will kick your butt. Suck it up! Every one of us have taken classes in which we “toughed it out.” For me, one of those classes was Financial Accounting. I still couldn’t tell you a credit from a debit, and I have an MBA. Loved Finance. Hated Financial Accounting. Still had to pass it to cross finish line. Like anything in life, there will be things you just have to survive to achieve the goals you have for yourself. Don’t let a couple of pesky math classes stop you from being a great engineer!
John is a Principal Electrical Engineer and the President of EPIC Systems, Inc. As a young boy, he too had a passion for understanding how things work.
Written in collaboration with Eric Coale.