When I was a student, I thought engineering would be about solving equations. It wasn’t until I grew into my career that I came to understand that the equations are just a small part of my job. The whole purpose of engineering, I realized, is to make life better for people. Engineering problems are not merely intellectual exercises, and their solutions demand a skill set far beyond a paper plan.

The problems of the world are in newspaper headlines every day: lack of water, crumbling infrastructure, food shortages, environmental issues, global warming, need for new energy sources, the widening gap between haves and have-nots in educational opportunities, the need for easier and cheaper communication, the need for better transportation systems, etc.

These are all issues which engineers are being called to solve, and not one of them is likely to be solved by a single engineer—no matter how brilliant—working alone to simply solve equations.

Changing Perceptions

People think of engineering as a solitary pursuit, involving sitting alone for hours in front of a computer screen. Indeed, engineering is very much a team sport. Success demands varied and considerable technological knowhow and “soft skills,” such as communications and the ability to relate to colleagues, communities and customers—many of whom will have no technical background. Engineers obviously must consider the costs of their projects. Often, today’s engineers must call on negotiation skills, as well. Timelines must be constructed. A sensitivity to culture must be considered to make a solution possible. Certainly, advocacy and a respect for political process play critical roles in success.

It is crucial that we give today’s students a better understanding of these aspects of engineering. It is so much more comprehensive and meaningful a pursuit than simply solving equations. Students must understand this before selecting a career if we are to generate the higher-volume flow of engineers committed to humanitarian good that our world needs today and in the decades ahead.

Some engineering educators, in fact, are working to expand engineering education to reflect this reality so that their graduates are more complete engineers with the right mix of technical and soft skills.

For example, today’s engineering students get a head start on embracing these truths through EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) in IEEE, which empowers students to work with local service organizations to apply technical knowledge in implementing solutions for a community’s real and unique challenges. There are more than 75 socially innovative projects occurring within EPICS in IEEE.

It also inspires students to pursue engineering for community improvement as a career. Through EPICS in IEEE, university and pre-university students engage with their local communities and gain invaluable, real-world engineering experience, and advisors expose students to unique, project-based opportunities and challenge them to use their education and enthusiasm to transform lives. Students develop a broad range of technical and non-technical skills and attributes, from project management and professional development, to emotional intelligence, that advance their careers and nurture their community engagement for the rest of their lives. In short, students learn what real engineering is—creating real solutions for real problems of real people—and that’s a pretty exciting thing for kids to get to do.

In these ways, EPICS in IEEE is emblematic of a larger shift in engineering education, and industry not only endorses but has actually pushed the change.

Toward More Valuable Engineers

Engineers capable of devising elegant and highly technical solutions are obviously valuable to industry—but less so, in many cases, than those engineers who are stronger in the soft skills and who have learned to forge working solutions in spite of whatever financial, physical or other constraints they confront in their work. Because in the real world, a lower-tech solution might actually be more appropriate.

If your customers live in a remote village in Africa, where sourcing replacement parts or technical expertise is challenging, engineering a more crude solution that is less likely to break down and require maintenance might be more suitable given the cultural restraints.

Industry needs more flexible engineers with this more nuanced understanding of the profession. Industry needs more engineers, period.

Here again, showing that engineering is more than solving equations stands to attract more students to engineering and perhaps attract more bright young minds from demographic groups that have been historically underrepresented in engineering. Many young people have a mental picture of an engineer being the stereotypical, nerdy, misfit physicist in Big Bang Theory. A more realistic understanding of engineering today makes it a profession that is compelling and exciting to a more diverse group of students, including women and minorities.