How to Make An Engineer’s Head Explode

I grew up in a family of engineers, so I’m used to the way engineers think. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate how lucky I was to grow up in a household where problems were normally handled in a straightforward manner, and most discussions were highly logical. In college I found it mentally exhausting to spend time in soap-opera-drama circles of people, and it baffled me that some people in the world go out of their way to speak in code. I mean really, who has time to parse every sentence for additional meaning??

So when I see people who are not familiar with the engineering mindset interact for the first time with a set of techies, I just have to smile a bit. In particular, people trying to TEACH engineers.

For instance, in undergrad I took a basic statistics class. The teacher was a lovely woman with a real heart for teaching and an honest dedication to her work. The course was “Statistics for Engineers.” . On the first day of class, the teacher explained that this was her first time teaching the engineering-geared course, and that she had been teaching the standard course for the past few years. “The main difference,” she carefully explained, “is that you guys have to cover about twice as much material as the standard course.” As we all groaned, she quickly continued, “But don’t worry! Because I know that would be a ridiculous amount of work, I’ve supplied you with copies of the notes for all lectures.”

And indeed she had. On the course website she put the entirety of her material, with some words blanked out. All one had to do was attend class, follow along as she talked, and write in the correct word in the blanks.

Fill in the blanks!

And the homework was pulled directly from those notes. For a class full of students who had just come from furiously scribbling derivations in Fluids class, and who were used to spending HOURS on four involved problems in Thermodynamics homework, it was a blessed boon.

We couldn’t believe that we had lucked out so completely. Nobody ever bothered to correct the teacher, laboring under the assumption that her class was nearly overwhelming for us.

However that’s an example of the workload for engineering students, not so much an example of the engineering mindset. To illustrate that point more directly, I’d like to also offer the following situation which amused me.

Every year my school has a huge ski trip for the grad students. About 500 people usually go, and it’s a huge hit. The trip includes beginner lessons for those who need it. The beginning snowboard instructor was trying to handle an entire class of engineers, all of whom were busily trying to test the limits of their athletic ability. (Some had very small limits).

Trying to explain how snowboarding worked, the instructor pronounced, “Now class, let’s get down to the….” and a pause, “… MECHANICS of snowboarding.” Evidently pleased with himself for coming up with the proper technical term, he continued.

“Now, there are two edges on the snowboard that you can ride on. And each foot has a toe and heel that can apply pressure, so that’s – let’s see – four different controls.” Building to his climax, he excitedly gestured, “So there are so many ways that you can combine those INPUTS,” (again, pleased at his selection of word), “in fact, the number is INFINITE!”


You can’t just throw something like that out there, such an obvious and simple fallacy, to a group of engineers, and expect the heads to remain un-exploded. Simultaneously, seventeen brilliant mathematical minds began computing the proof that the number of combinations was NOT infinite, and was in fact knowable. And in a few more moments, those same minds all began to arrive at exactly what that number was. It was not infinite. And then, the voices began popping up.

“But! But – ”

“Wait, but I think it’s actually…”

“I’m pretty sure that…”

And faster than the instructor could carefully choose another technical term to get himself out of the mathematical contradiction he had put himself in, his class began rebelling.

Fortunately, a bunch of engineers rebelling does not mean they walk out or quit, it just means that they quit paying attention to the lesson and begin arguing amongst themselves on the exact mathematical notation to express the problem. (permutation or combination? 4 choose 2? wait no. 6 choose 3? no. 2^3?)

“Okay FINE,” said the exasperated instructor, “but there’s A LOT of ways you can ride.”

That worked much better, and the lesson proceeded.

But you know all of us were thinking, “No, not simply ‘a lot.'”


5 responses to “How to Make An Engineer’s Head Explode”

  1. Janne

    You assumed the controls are binary, which is not only technically wrong, but also a lousy approximation. Board behavior varies continously as a function of an analog input. Your teacher was right, you were wrong, and he was just too polite to argue.

    That misplaced arrogance is also fairly typical engineer behavior in my experience.

  2. Cherish The Scientist

    My poor, dear son, who has the soul of an artist, is stuck living in a house of techies. It’s so bad that he was talking about an angle in a casual conversation and gave the measurement in radians, when most everyone else I know would’ve said, “3 o’clock.”

    I know what you mean, though. It’s so hard to say things casually. My technical brain wants me to be as precise and accurate (and detailed!) as possible in all conversations, not just technical ones. It can be really hard for a non-techie to understand (I’ve mentioned it here and here). While I think it’s funny, it just too often has the down side of being frustrating.

    I think this is influencing my kid in a good way, though. Too many artist types are a bit too far on the flaky side for my tastes (though I do appreciate them for their talents), so I like the fact that he’s got some pretty good critical thinking skills.

  3. Dino Segovis

    I was a bicycle mechanic in my mid twenties in Tempe Arizona. I found that explaining the technical parts of a bicycle to an engineering student was a challenge because I didn’t explain it in a technical manner and they couldn’t grasp the concept I was trying to convey. What was obvious to me on an intuitive level was completely lost on the engineering student. I lacked the vocabulary at the time. I admittedly formed an attitude that engineering students end up unable to comprehend the world unless they can somehow apply a formula or equation to it! I now realize I was wrong, to some extent,,, hah ah.

    I never went to college. What I know I’ve taught myself. I have an ability to understand complex problems and solve them in a logical manner, and I LOVE talking to engineers of all ages now. That’s why I like reading this blog, and commenting. You should all get an award just for completing your courses… but of course, you do. It’s called a degree.

    …and yes, Snowboarding is tricky, and on my first day on the slopes I found myself analyzing the dynamics and comparing it to surfing. It dawned on me that everything is opposite. Frozen water – liquid water. Concave rail – convex rail. Concave rocker – convex rocker.
    The thing is, none of it mattered because my butt was still sore at the end of the day. :)