In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 18, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 4
The winter issue of The Bridge is focused on the 2019 Frontiers of Engineering symposium.

President's Perspective: What Is Engineering?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Author: John L. Anderson

“A scientist studies what is, whereas an engineer creates what never was.”

       – Theodore von Kármán[1]

The National Academy of Engineering carries the flag of the engineering profession in the United States. But when I asked the NAE for a definition of “engineering” eight years ago, I was referred to the famous quote by von Kármán. Inspiring, but not definitive. Visual artists, composers, and ditch diggers also create “what never was.”

The origin of the word engineer is in the Latin ingeniator: one who devises. It is associated with ingenious and ingenuity.[2] The French word for those who practice our profession is ingénieurs; in Swedish, it’s ingenjörs.

I think it is time we try to define engineering in an operational sense. A start is to suggest important words that characterize the profession—for example, create, design, systems, processes, artifacts (products). Skill sets and knowledge bases also shape the definition and practice of our profession; examples include computation, science, operations. The goal is to “create” a concise definition of engineering.

Here are a few expressions:

  • Engineering is “The systematic application of scientific knowledge in developing and applying technology.” (AAAS 1989, p. 26)
  • “Engineering involves the knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences (biological and physical) gained by study, experience, and practice that are applied with judgment and creativity to develop ways to utilize the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.” And an engineer is “A person who is trained in and uses technological and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” (ITEA 2007, p. 238)
  • “Engineering is a systematic and often iterative approach to designing objects, processes, and systems to meet human needs and wants.” (NAGB 2014, p. 1-4)
  • Engineering is the act of creating artifacts, processes, or systems that advance technology and address human needs using principles of the sciences, mathematics, computing, and operations.

We can benefit from a short but substantive phrase to use when asked “What is engineering?,” whether by a cabdriver or at a cocktail party or when talking with members of Congress. It is important that the general public, including lawmakers and influencers, appreciate the essence of engineering, its contributions, and the fact that it is a separate and just as influential partner with the sciences.

Let me know what you think. Send comments or suggestions to me via Bridge managing editor Cameron Fletcher ( I am always pleased to hear from our readers, on this as well as bold, forward-looking ideas for the programs of the National Academy of Engineering.


AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of -Science]. 1989. Science for All Americans. Washington. Available at

ITEA [International Technology Education Association]. 2007. Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, 3rd ed. Reston VA.

NAGB [National Assessment Governing Board]. 2013. Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework for the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington.

NRC [National Research Council]. 2001. Theoretical Foundations for Decision Making in Engineering Design. -Washington: National Academy Press.

Stone H. 2019. The origin of the word engineer. Seminar, Engineering as a 21st Century Liberal Art, May 1, Princeton University.

[1]  Quoted in NRC (2001, p. 1).

[2]  I tip my hat to Howard Stone, who introduced me to this etymology and continues to enlighten audiences about it (Stone 2019). 

About the Author:John L. Anderson is president of the NAE