In Praise Of High School Engineering Interns

Engineering is an unusual profession. While it is often thought to be related to math and science and thought to be exact, it actually is a very complex blend of perspiration, inspiration, communication, confusion, calculation and evaluation and the math and science is only a tiny part of a much larger whole.

This makes it very difficult for educators to explain what engineering really is and the vast majority of young people have only the vaguest picture of what it takes to be an engineer. Actually, the only way to understand what it means to be an engineer is to work as an engineer.

This is why on the job training is vital for engineering.

Great engineering cultures are not created by classrooms alone, but rather by an integrated interaction of class room and apprenticeship. For many years now Martin & Ottaway has been very active in this apprenticeship culture. Originally M&O’s apprenticeship culture was quite formal through work study programs with a number of very fine engineering schools, and through that effort, today, quite a number of Martin & Ottaway intern graduates are sprinkled throughout the engineering profession. These interns have learned about what engineers really do through working in our office and also have enriched us in their enthusiasm and curiosity. M&O allows the interns to interact with the most senior personnel on a daily level and in the great variety of problems that they get to work on. Sometimes a project is pure math, and sometimes it is related to just finding the right tone in the report on a complex human factors or operational issue.

But every intern we have had, even in a relatively short internship, will have revelations such as:

1. In the real world your boss will not reveal the correct answer after you have done the project. It is your job to create the correct answer and to provide it to your boss.

2. In school you may get a partial grade for a problem that is partially correct, but in an engineering firm such a partially correct answer is useless.

3. There is a big difference between hoping an answer is the best there is and making sure you have the best answer there is.

4. Nobody cares how you do the job, as long as you get it done correctly

5. Correct is a fuzzy concept, but it does involve ethics and in the end your performance should be beyond reproach

6. No matter how good your solution is, if you do not present it properly, it is worthless

7. You need to prove that you are a reliable producer, ten steps forward can be spoiled by a moment’s lack of attention

8. You impress the boss by doing something he had not thought of, you don’t impress the boss by aping her

9. Your boss will help you find the answer, but don’t make your boss do your job.

10. Be proactive, not reactive. Try to be one step ahead of what your boss needs

11. Since engineering errors can kill, your boss exists to catch your mistakes, but don’t rely on it. (And a good boss will only be impressed if an intern catches one of the boss’ mistakes)

Experience counts and experience is a two way street. Interns learn and we, as mentors, learn too. One thing we learned as engineering mentors is that, if we are organized, we can get productive work out of high schoolers about as quickly as we can from university level students.

This seems counterintuitive, but the above revelations are no more difficult to assimilate for high schoolers than for university students. The only difference is that college level engineering students may have somewhat more knowledge about certain components of the engineering profession, but the odds a specific bit of knowledge is a major factor in their performance as an intern tends to be small in our firm.

This is a significant discovery, since providing high schoolers with engineering indoctrination prior to entering engineering school is much more useful than providing this indoctrination after students have entered engineering school and struggled with abstract engineering concepts for a number of years.  Most of all, a meaningful high school junior or senior year internship may just make enough of a difference to convince a student to make engineering their university major and begin their studies with a clearer understanding of what engineering means.

For a very straightforward example of how a high schooler can immediately and independently contribute to a project, go to our present high school intern, Connor Schembor’s, independent evaluation of the Maxi Taxi width. This is an unfunded project and does not require any advanced engineering concepts, but it is an important exercise that further refines a novel concept and can only be useful and meaningful by paying attention to solid engineering principles; complex issues, real data, solid analysis and thorough presentation.