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Engineers Rule the World (or do they?)

Since joining up with The Big Beacon to discuss how A Whole New Engineering Education can produce A Whole New Engineer in the future, I have been thinking a lot about my own engineering education experience.

Studying engineering is not just about academic rigour – though there is plenty of that! It’s also about an identity; being a member of a sub-culture.  That culture influences members’ behaviours and choices, and since students are the engineers of the future, it’s worth understanding the subculture of engineering students. One slogan in particular sums up that subculture as I experienced it: ERTW, standing for Engineers Rule The World.

Engineers Rule the World.  Really?

To those of us who attended engineering school in Canada (it’s apparently not found as much elsewhere), this is a pretty ubiquitous acronym. Scrawled on textbooks, spray-painted on walls, mostly close to Orientation or Frosh Week when all manner of other spirited shenanigans are happening. The pride behind ERTW is unmistakable, mostly when yelled in fun at rival faculties.  But is there something more signficant about the mindset that compels engineering students to adopt this motto?  Do we really believe it?

Truth to the slogan?

The logic goes that if we hold the means of design and production of bridges, food, computers, energy and any number of other useful things, being an engineer must make you extremely powerful.  But during my Frosh Week, the Commerce students would yell right back at us ‘You’re going to work for us someday!’.   We knew it was probably true!   We were being groomed to work for the companies that they were being groomed to run. They also called us plumbers, which had no truth, because we would have been no help at all during a plumbing emergency, unless the toilet happened to have malfunctioned due to a broken differential equation inside of it.

Plumbers no more

Many of my friends who graduated as engineers have gone on to positions in management, and now make decisions alongside their business-major colleagues.  Our strong analytical skills can make us excellent managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs provided that they have interpersonal and leadership skills as well; skills which start in the subculture of engineering education.

Rule the World… or just Rule

As a student, I had great enthusiasm for the idea of being able to solve problems on a global scale; to really leave my mark on the world.  And to do it using math and technology – how awesome is that?  That rules!  We RULE!   Faculty pride is also a way to stay sane during the undergrad engineering education experience.  Even while straining under the weight of a metric TON of physics and calculus, and getting my butt kicked academically, a slogan like ERTW reassured me as a student: what I am learning is powerful and useful.  But could the arrogance implied in the word ‘rule’ be damaging to engineers’ ability to be effective team players in the work place?

A Humbler Alternative 

At the Engineers Without Borders Canada National Office, I saw water bottles, binders and shelves decorated with a nearly-identical alternative acronym: ESTW.

A little digging revealed this rant; so ESTW stands for Engineers Serve The World.

Some further explanation at

The concept engineering as service feels right to me.   What is my education for if not to positively affect people’s lives?  What is my profession’s purpose if not to help? What is on my knowledge worth if it doesn’t actually make a difference?  I feel the pride in my profession that ERTW reflects, but of the two, ESTW speaks to my identity as an engineer more clearly.

The Whole New Engineer of the future is humble, and a team player and a community builder.  Clearly these are not skills or traits that can be acquired from a textbook.   But in my experience they are well worth developing. They represent an authentic personal change that comes from within, no matter what you learned in school.

Future engineers, ask yourself:  Which version works best – ERTW or ESTW?  Which is more important to you – ruling the world or serving it?   Engineering educators:  How can you help your students down the path to being proud of what they do, but self-aware and humble?

A Canadian professional engineer with a background in manufacturing and mining, Erica is passionate about creating a better future through Six Sigma, Lean/Kaizen Events, mentorship, coaching, sustainability, educational reform and talking to kids about engineering.

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