What is the E in STEM?


Most of the scientists at NASA aren’t scientists at all; they are engineers. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are different from past national science standards because engineering was explicitly identified as an important strand in K-12 science education in America. But most teachers are left with the question, “What exactly is engineering?”

Engineering is the building and designing of things we use. Engineers are problem solvers. They plan, make, build, construct, and/or develop products (e.g. machines, building, structures, and systems). The things engineers create are practical. An engineered product improves life or makes life easier, better, or faster. Engineered products even improve the way goods are made. Engineers use the Engineering Design Process to solve problems.

Engineering Design Overview

Engineering Design Overview

Scientific method

Scientific Method Overview

Engineering design and the scientific method are similar, but they not the same thing. They do not serve the same purpose. Scientists learn about the natural world around us through investigations and experiments. Scientists perform experiments to test their hypothesis. Engineers are the builders and fixers. They use science skills, math skills, technology, and even critical & creative thinking to create products or solve problems. Engineers even take things a part to better understand how products and prototypes work. That is why science and engineering are two every important but different aspects in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

It can be confusing because engineering looks a lot like science in many ways. Engineers need to know a lot of math and science to do their jobs effectively. Indeed, science and engineering share many attributes. The questions and problems scientists and engineers are trying to solve are different. The process that scientists and engineers use to solve problems and draw conclusions are very different.

My Dad used to describe something as “pretty much the same but very different“. I used to think that was a dumb saying and made no sense. Yet, that’s how I feel about science v. engineering. It’s kind of the same but very different.


3 Scientists + 1 Engineer = Big Bang Theory

It pains me a little to type this, but if you want to see a blatant difference in science and engineering- Wolowitz from Big Bang Theory compared to the other 3 is a pretty good demonstration of science v. engineering. Wolowitz is always building and tinkering with things while the others perform experiments and research*. That’s what engineers do. They design, build, construct, repair, redesign, take apart, put back together, and innovate. From NASA to electricians from chemical engineers to maintenance workers, engineering is important of our society.

What you should not take away from this post:

1. That engineering and engineering design is better or worse than the scientific method.

2. There is one, single engineering design process or there is one, singular experimental design/scientific method. They both have general designs, but it’s not a nonnegotiable that there may be variations to the design or method. If you do background research after you perform your test or design your prototype. That’s fine.

* Engineers research too. Big Bang Theory deals with over generalizations. But the example is good to get a good idea on how science and engineering are alike and different.



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