Prior to college, I never had a “normal” job. Instead of stocking shelves at the local supermarket, or the water park, or bussing tables, I worked for my grandpa. He’s my hero in case you didn’t already know. It started when I was old enough to pull weeds (3 or 4 maybe? it was a long time ago…); he would give me $.50 to fill a bucket with weeds from the shop yard. As I got older and learned to do more demanding tasks, he paid me more. By the time I was a senior in high school I think he was paying me $8/hr, which was pretty good at that time.
It was also fun. I learned to drive a Case 580 front-end loader when I was 8. By the time I was 12 I could safely operate every basic tool in the shop (and there are a LOT). At 14 I could stick weld pretty well, and at 16 I could braze with an oxy-acetlyne rig. At 18 I was cranking precision parts out of a lathe and milling machine and helping with aluminum casting. At this point, I had more practical experience than any of my soon-to-be mechanical engineering cohorts.
As an aside, a good friend of mine (in food science, not ME) took a design class and had to tell an engineer what a pair of dics (pronounced dikes) is; It was rare to find someone who knew a monkey wrench was an actual tool; and to this day, without a picture, no one believes me that I once had a drill that drills square holes.
Needless to say, when I got to college, the engineering theory that was taught in my classes only reinforced the observations of my previous 10+ years of shop apprenticeship. It was actually the testing, and a pesky, well hidden learning disability that almost got me kicked out… but that’s for another post. During the <ahem> 5-1/2 years that I was there, I learned why mechanical engineering was considered one of the hardest disciplines: We were taught just about everything.
OK, not everything, but everything having to do with the physical world, and more. We learned advanced mathematics as the basis for defining and solving problems (I think I was only one class away from a math minor, and 4 or 5 away from a math major…). We learned advanced physics to understand complex moving systems. We learned chemistry to understand material behavior; thermodynamics and fluid dynamics to understand heat, mass, and fluid energy transfer; electrical engineering classes to understand electromechanical devices; control theory to make our devices function. We learned about fixed, moving, and deforming structures; Computer systems to design and analyze in the virtual world before bringing designs to the real world. We learned how to communicate with customers, integrate designs, and troubleshoot problems. We learned everything we need to design anything for anyone.
Now, you may be wondering what exactly mechanical engineers design. Well, if it involves heat, motion, lightweight structures, advanced materials, or phase changes, chances are a mechanical engineer had a hand in it. When I graduated, I really didn’t know that there were so many different career paths that a mechanical engineer could take. I spent a just less than 2 years designing HVAC and Plumbing systems, but then after a career switch I found my true calling in advanced aerospace mechanical systems. Next post I’ll show you exactly what I do… in a very abridged form.