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What is an Engineering Technologist?

by Tom Ligon, Assorted Technical Expertise

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The Basic Definition

Once upon a time, engineering was a practical skill which could be mastered by anyone with a good head on their shoulders and a knack for basic arithmetic. You didn't even need a degree, it only mattered that your steam engines ran without exploding and your bridges remained standing. People like Oliver Evans were the prototype ... apprenticed as a wheelwright, with barely any formal education, he immersed himself in Philadelphia's Library Company and American Philosophical Society, and became a pioneer in high-pressure steam engines long before there were any Engineering colleges. It did matter that you understood the principles involved, and knew how to design things that the existing technology could actually fabricate, which meant you could either do it yourself, or at least had worked with people who could.

Nowadays, you need a very specific degree, with a very specific curriculum. For many of the engineering fields, this means you will spend several years doing calculus until you do it in your sleep (literally -- I had a roommate in college who was thus afflicted, an electrical engineering major). Some four-year engineering programs have been criticized for requiring so much math, there is little time left for much of the other real-world knowledge required of an engineer. One reason for this high-math emphasis: universities sense "prestige" in having their graduates go on to advanced degrees, and an "academic" program, heavy on calculus, is the prep for that route. This is great for the 20% or so of engineering grads who go on to advanced degrees. The remaining 80% often need a few years of practical experience before they are useful engineers. That 80% usually discover that they rarely need calculus, just proficiency with a pocket calculator.

That roommate of mine was a classic example. He revealed to me that it was possible to go thru your entire junior year in the EE program without setting foot in a lab. Most of his courses had no labs. If it were not for his Co-Op program and electronics hobbies, he could have graduated without being able to tell a resistor from a capacitor.

So, enter the Engineering Technology programs. Engineering Technologists receive a broader general technology education than the engineers. We study materials science, manufacturing processes, and engineering economics. With a very few exceptions, our classes all have labs. We study calculus, but less intensely, concentrating on the practical skills. We are not graduate-prepped, although a few ET's do go on to advanced degrees.

By all reports, industry loved us, and said it was great to get a graduate who was immediately useful, without several years of remedial practical training.

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University Programs

Engineering Technology is usually a four-year Bachelor of Science program. There are two tracks for entering typical Engineering Technology programs. The first is a normal four-year program at a college or university. The second is a two-year program at a community college, followed by two years at a university. Many of the people coming from the community colleges are experienced technicians, who have gone as far as they can in their careers without a sheepskin. These are often the most impressive: they know exactly what they want, they've saved their money for years to do it, and they're bound and determined to get their money's worth.

A name change in the program at Virginia Tech reflected an underlying difference between Engineering and Engineering Technology. The Engineering programs were all in a particular track, such as Electrical Engineering. My degree, however, was Bachelor of Science, Engineering Technology, Option Electrical. This reflected the fact that all of the ET programs had a common core, a body of practical knowledge shared by all ET's, but which was not common to all engineering degrees. ET's are generalists with selected specialties.

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The Curriculum

The first year or two of ET programs is similar to the Engineering programs (in my case, I did one year in Engineering, and the General Engineering courses substituted perfectly for the ET courses). The second year shows a shift in emphasis on math, with the ET's getting a head start on the practical courses while the Engineers typically put about 2/3 of their time in calculus and 5 hours/week of calculus-intensive Engineering Mechanics. The ET's cut the Engineering Mechanics back to 3 hours/week.

By the third year, the differences are more profound. ETE's, unlike EE's, would find themselves taking courses comparable to those taken by mechanical and industrial engineers, things the EE's never studied at all. Here's a sample:

Looking specifically at my Electrical option, ETE's usually covered more fields than their EE counterparts. An EE might specialize in digital design, and almost totally ignore such things as electrical power, electric machinery, analog design, and radio frequency. ETE's couldn't get away with this, and were required to take at least intro courses in each of these areas.

In my case, I took the basics, and then added more than the number of options required. I didn't take extra courses in electric machinery and microwaves, and regretted it, as both of these subjects unexpectedly became important in my career, and required some remedial OJT. I did study the following:

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Why I'm Proud To Be One!

The main reason I'm writing this is to explain to fans and prospective clients just why I'm so touchy if someone calls me an "Engineer". I practically consider it an insult! I'm proud to call myself an Engineering Technologist!

The Virginia Tech Engineering Technology program was killed when it was only a few years old. Officially, that was because "it was an experiment that failed." That's all they would say publically. Privately, we were told it was actually because we were a little too successful. ET graduates were being hired and given the title "Engineer." Certain Powers That Be (we were never told exactly who they were, but they were able to tell the Dean of the College of Engineering what they expected to be done) were outraged by this affront to their professional prestige. They demanded that this program be abolished before it could cheapen the reputation of the University.

We had a meeting with the dean in which he defended this decision. I managed to have a long personal conversation with him. I pointed out a few facts, all of which he agreed with.

No way, said the dean. This is a done deal. Besides, nobody would want to come here if we made the Engineering program a 5-year commitment. Too expensive.

I guess that's why MIT and Cal Tech are having so much trouble getting applicants.

So now you know why I'm so touchy about being called an "Engineer." Sorry for the rant, but those of us who were blind-sided by our program being labeled a "failure" were really rather outraged at the time. I've spent my career trying to prove how wrong this characterization was, and hope I've succeeded. I still believe that Tech had a really excellent ET program, and that it was a mistake to cancel it, especially the way they went about it.

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My Double Degree

A look at my resume will show I went well beyond the Engineering Technology degree. In fact, I started out in Engineering. By the end of four quarters, it was pretty obvious that calculus was my weakness. I could do the basics, but was seriously struggling with the advanced topics (none of which, by the way, have I needed in the ensuing three decades or so).

My goal, entering college, had been to "learn to make all those shiny machines you see on the doctor shows." I quickly learned the correct name for this, "biomedical engineering", and Virginia Tech did teach the subject. I chose that field because, in high school, I realized I was interested in too many technical subjects. I either needed to narrow my study to a specialty (the thought depressed me), or find a field that drew from many areas. I perceived that biomedical engineering fit this bill. While my career never did really go biomedical, the multidisciplinary approach I took has been the key to my success.

So it was, struggling with calculus, I transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences, enrolled in the Biology degree program, and immediately made Dean's List. Biology was a snap. I took a lot of microbiology, including studying pathogens. I took a course in "Symbiosis" which turned out to actually be a graduate-level course (there were three students, the other two were PhD candidates). Biology majors took more chemistry than the Engineers, going on to organic chemistry and biochemistry, and on to cell physiology. I threw in Human Nutrition and Foods for good measure. I took a full option in Health Physics (radiation safety), feeling that it would be a valuable tool in a biomedical field. I completed my BS in Biology in 1975.

The chemistry courses turned out to be more useful to my career than biology (I strongly recommend the combination of chemistry and electronics as a career path). In fact, I got snookered into Undergraduate Research in chemistry, doing computer programming for a professor researching chemical kinetics, including shock tubes and mass spectrometer designs. I dabbled in an independent project with biomedical applications, an attempt to build an ion-pump membrane system based on "valve" properties of certain bi-layer membrane systems. I took a job as assistant chemistry department librarian, and consequently learned my way around the literature. The VT chemistry department was a pioneer in small computer interfacing: I took the course, and also learned to use a PDP-8 minicomputer, a rare opportunity, in those early days, to actually lay hands on a computer.

My freshman English course was quite enjoyable. I had learned to enjoy writing while still in high school, and one English professor tried to get me to switch majors. I declined, preferring a job with more earning potential. I have proved he had a point, however, by my science fiction publishing record.

The Arts and Sciences program distinguished between humanities and social sciences, and required as much of each as Engineering required of both put together. I consequently have a better background in philosophy, psychology, music, and history than your average Engineer.

As I completed the Biology degree, the new Engineering Technology program had developed a full head of steam. It looked like just the thing for me, especially as I had already covered the humanities twice over the requirements. I could concentrate on technology, and still have time for a part-time job in practical applications of the field.

So it was that I ended up with twice the usual BS. Some would say it is the hallmark of my career.

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