Gas station without pumps

2010 June 10

Engineering vs. Science

Filed under: Science fair — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:27
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been an engineering professor for a long time (28 years now, but I still feel like a grad student).  In my current department, most of the faculty were trained as scientists, not engineers, and the differences are sometimes striking.  The public always lumps together science and engineering, and the education establishment even more so, lumping Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math together as STEM fields. But there is a difference, and it is sometimes important.

So, what is the difference between science and engineering? and does it really matter to anyone?

The difference between science and engineering is not so much in what you need to know to do them, but in what sort of questions you ask.

Science is mainly about “why?” questions: why is the sky blue? why can stem cells keep proliferating, while differentiated cells do not? The focus is on Discovery—studying phenomena and building models that explain them and enable accurate predictions about so far unobserved phenomena.  Acquiring new knowledge and understanding is the main goal.

Engineering is mainly about “how?” questions: how can I sequence DNA cheaper and more accurately? how can I kill cancer cells without killing stem cells? how can I make a cell phone that people will want to buy, even though they have  perfectly good phones in their pockets already?  The focus is on Invention—making new things or processes, on solving real-world problems, rather than on acquiring knowledge.

Take a look some time at what projects win at local and state “science” fairs.  The lists are almost always dominated by engineering projects—ones that try to solve a real-world problem using already well-known science.  The fields can be quite diverse, though lately health and environment applications have been the most successful.  At least the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair has an honest title including engineering, unlike most of the state science fairs.

Chicken or egg?

People have been taught since elementary school that science comes first, and that engineering is the application of science.  But this is a gross oversimplification of the real situation, which involves a cycle:  a phenomenon is discovered (science), an application for it is found (engineering), the application allows new things to be discovered (science), which in turn allows new applications, leading to new discoveries, … .

In the old days, this cycle was often quite slow, with generations between the discovery of a phenomenon and its application.  Nowadays, the cycle is often much shorter, with the application coming almost simultaneously with the discovery of the phenomenon. Consider, for example, RNA interference (RNAi).  The phenomenon of anti-sense RNA reducing the expression of genes in various organisms was first discovered in the  early 1980s (or perhaps late 1970s, I’ve not traced the original papers).  It was almost immediately used to control expression in genetic experiments.  A lot of both science (how does RNA control expression of genes?) and engineering (how can we reliably use RNAi to knock-down expression of genes we wish to control?) has been done since, and RNAi has become a standard tool for biotechnology, particularly for studying multi-celled creatures, where knocking out genes can be expensive or impossible.

Nowadays, the important advances in molecular biology are usually the result of a new tool becoming available (like high-throughput sequencing), so that the field is driven forward mostly by the engineering advances.  As the new tool becomes available, thousands of scientists start using it, and some interesting discoveries are made (plus a whole lot of rather boring minor ones—the trouble is, we don’t know in advance which ones will be important and interesting).

Who cares?

A single individual can do both science and engineering, discovering phenomena and applying them. So what is the point of making a distinction?

There is a distinct difference in the training one should give a student who is planning to be a scientist and one who is planning to be an engineer.  Sure, the basics are the same at the beginning (basic science, math, lab technique, computer programming, statistics, and so forth), but the engineer has to be taught how to design and debug, while the scientist has to be taught how to question dogma and discover new ideas.  These are not the same skills at all and both need substantial practice before people are competent at them.

For scientists, the tradition has been to devote the undergraduate years to acquiring basic knowledge, but not to practice being a scientist at all.  As a result it takes 5–7 years of grad school (and often several years of post doctoral training) to turn science undergrads into scientists. For engineers, the tradition has been to do 2–3 years of basic training, followed by 2–3 years of project work of gradually increasing complexity, culminating in either a B.S. or an M.S. degree.

The shorter training time for engineers means that it must be much more focused—you can’t hope that the students will pick up skills they need gradually as a by-product of years of doing something else (the way that scientists are trained). Instead, the specific design skills and group management skills need to be explicitly taught and practiced while the students are still undergrads.  This has a lot of consequences for curriculum design, as almost all junior and senior courses have to include design practice, and there needs to be at least one big project (preferably one too big for a single engineer to handle).  Explaining these curricular needs to faculty trained as scientists can be difficult—they want to leave all that to the grad curriculum or one-on-one training of postdocs.


  1. Very nice post! Welcome to the blogosphere!

    Comment by GMP — 2010 June 18 @ 21:48 | Reply

  2. Thank you for alerting me to your Blog. I really enjoy following your thinking. I am specially intrigued by your “Science – Engineering” cyclical sequence. This closely matches my own observations, expressed more succinctly and precisely than I myself have ever formulated the question. I would have benefitted if my teachers and mentors had understood this, But “I do not blame the Wright brothers for not building a 747.”

    Comment by Henry Karplus — 2010 June 26 @ 08:23 | Reply

  3. I just read a column by H. Steven Wiley in The Scientist titled “Scientists vs. Engineers”.

    He makes two major mistakes in that article:

    1. He says “We are starting to get to the point where the engineering sciences can make a real impact on our progress,” when engineering advances have been driving biology research for the past 50 years.
    2. He says “Basic scientists seem to be more comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown,” but later contradicts this with “But rejecting engineering proposals because they ‘lack a hypothesis’ reflects an unfortunate prejudice that only basic science projects deserve support.” Engineering research proposals often involve building a new new tool that can be used for discovery research, which takes biologists into uncomfortable territory—if they don’t already have a model for what is going to happen (the essence of hypothesis-driven research), they don’t want to go there.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 July 19 @ 12:43 | Reply

  4. […] do, somewhat surprisingly for educators, recognize that science and engineering are not the same, saying[page […]

    Pingback by Quick look at New Science Education Standards « Gas station without pumps — 2010 July 22 @ 14:45 | Reply

  5. I just saw a supporting quote by Christoph Bock of the Broad Institute and Harvard Stem Cell Institute:
    “The field of epigenetics is moving at an incredible pace, almost exclusively driven by technological development in the sequencing field.” Biomedical Computation Review, Summer 2010.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 August 5 @ 14:18 | Reply

  6. […] engineering classes.  I’ve written before about the confusion a lot of people have about the difference between science and engineering, but in this post I’ll talk about the need for engineering education at the high school […]

    Pingback by High school engineering « Gas station without pumps — 2010 August 19 @ 19:04 | Reply

  7. […] I would quibble with her about one noun phrase: good science and engineering does not have a “narrow focus”.  Although some science is narrowly focused, much of the best science comes from a bringing together ideas from disparate fields, and good engineering always relies on the combination of systems thinking and attention to the details (see my posts Specialists vs. generalists and Engineering vs. Science). […]

    Pingback by USA Science and Engineering Festival « Gas station without pumps — 2010 October 9 @ 09:41 | Reply

  8. […] new tools, rather than the mere application of them to scientific questions (see my post Engineering vs science).  But students from the science departments (particularly biology departments, but also ocean […]

    Pingback by Thoughts for revising a grad curriculum, part 2 « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 9 @ 21:10 | Reply

  9. […] posted about science vs. engineering 2½ years ago. In looking over that post, I see that even then I was thinking about the differences […]

    Pingback by Teaching engineering thinking « Gas station without pumps — 2013 January 30 @ 00:31 | Reply

  10. […] The article points out “the even more powerful lesson that what life-sciences students bring to our classrooms is not just less skill in mathematics than the average engineering student but a deeply different perception of what science means and a deeply different expectation of how it is done.” If the difference between physics and biology perceptions of science are profound (based mainly on the model-driven vs. data-driven aspects of the fields), imagine increasing that difference further by adding the difference between science (how things work) and engineering (making things that work). […]

    Pingback by Physics for life-sciences majors | Gas station without pumps — 2013 June 29 @ 08:07 | Reply

  11. […] they brought to the class and what they wanted out of the class.  I also talked a bit about the difference between science and engineering and why I saw a need for teaching engineering […]

    Pingback by First day of freshman design seminar | Gas station without pumps — 2014 January 8 @ 10:28 | Reply

  12. […] does this work?”  I’ve talked about the distinction between science and engineering in one of my early blog posts, so I won’t belabor the point here.  Although scientists and engineers often wander back and […]

    Pingback by Critical thinking | Gas station without pumps — 2014 October 26 @ 10:57 | Reply

  13. […] any posts recently.  I checked the statistics and found that the bump was mainly from one post: Engineering vs. Science, which got 173 views on Monday and 185 all week.  The referrals were from, so […]

    Pingback by Spike in views on Monday | Gas station without pumps — 2017 September 22 @ 12:06 | Reply

  14. Adding to the engineering – science cycle, consider developments such as germanium crystal radios, early transistors, and superconductors. These were built without understanding the underlying science, inspiring its progress.

    Comment by miguelaznar — 2017 September 22 @ 14:04 | Reply

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