What does it mean to be a Mechanical Engineer?

Disruptive technologies and development engineering are not peripheral to the profession today.


Evan Thomas

April 2015


The Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, first published in 1915, was for many years an emblem of ASME and representative of the discipline of mechanical engineering. Our role was clear: Mechanical Engineers worried about welding, gears, sprockets, pistons, and valves. Big things that move stuff.

Today, our discipline is changing and the role of a Mechanical Engineer is no longer so easily defined. There are external pulls – the advent of highly capable, low cost microcontrollers like the Arduino and Rasberry Pi, hobbyist 3D printing MakerBots that are quickly approaching production quality prototyping, and QuadCopters that turn kids into drone pilots and programmers. These disruptive innovations are reducing the entry barrier for individuals from all backgrounds to engage in engineering innovation and invention.

There are internal pulls within our profession – students in engineering colleges around the world are no longer satisfied with discipline specific, technical information cramming, while employers are demanding graduates who are better prepared to be well rounded professionals and are willing to compensate for any technical deficiencies with on-the-job training.

ASME’s own Vision 2030, published in 2012, highlights some discrepancies between student and industry expectations and the reality of many ME curriculums today, including advising departments that, “Mechanical engineering education programs should be configured somewhat more flexibly in ways that allow students pursue their passion. Systems level and big picture thinking is highly valued by industry. A more flexible, holistic undergraduate curriculum with a strong professional skills component integrated across the curriculum is envisioned. … We suggest that undergraduate programs be designed with the expectation that most technical specialization and depth will come later.”

Some of our leading peers are responding. The MIT ME department mission considers giving “students the broad skills set they need to pursue their goals - whether that means working as an engineer, founding a company, continuing on to graduate study and research, or going to a professional school to study medicine, business, or law.”

Indeed, the primacy of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code may one day soon be replaced in ASME’s library by the Engineering for Change Solutions Library, a guide ASME is developing along with Engineers Without Borders-USA, IEEE, and members, including myself, of the academic, design, and implementation communities working to apply technology in developing countries.

There is resistance in some quarters to these changes. Some faculty fear a dilution of technical competence, or, worse, betrayal of duty. A faculty discussion in my department a few years ago circled around how we could best evaluate our effectiveness as educators.

The criteria was simple: Are our alumni employed in positions with “mechanical engineer” in the title. If so, we’ve succeeded. If not, we’ve failed.

We discussed that several of us did not, in fact, have mechanical engineering degrees. Are we failures in the eye of our alma maters? We discussed that many people with mechanical engineering degrees go on to medical, law, and business, and within a few years are running companies, labs, and influential public sector organizations – are these alums failures? Are we?

While of course no faculty suggested any of the above were failures, some were firm in their view that our mission was simple – teaching the pure, traditional definition of mechanical engineering.

That definition is changing, and the evidence is in our classrooms. In the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department at Portland State University, we offer a course in Engineering Professions. I recently surveyed our 66 juniors on why they chose to enroll in mechanical engineering: Adaptable. Customizable. Systematic problem solving – terms that are grounded in technical vocabulary and yet illuminate the shifting ground of our discipline. They also spoke to their personal motives - Impact. Society. Citizenship. Making life better.

One of several examples is the decade-long trend in students and young professionals attracted to humanitarian applications of their skills. Since 2002, when Engineers Without Borders-USA was founded (and I joined the first chapter), nearly 15,000 professional and student engineers have engaged in poverty reduction efforts.

These are not ‘nice to have’ extracurricular activities – these are purpose driven career paths employers are responding to.