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Twitter Chat 2013-11-13, 8 pm: Non-Analytical Engineering Skills


Join Jeff Shelton, co-host of The Engineering Commons podcast, to chat about the skills exhibited by practicing engineers.

Join us with your experiences and insights, as we discuss the manner in which engineers acquire implicit and non-mathematical talents that extend their professional influence. Whether you’re an engineering student, an educator, or engineer working in industry, we hope you’ll find the #BigBeacon chat a beneficial opportunity for conversation and reflection. Join our #BigBeacon community as we chat about the transformation of engineering education. Don’t forget the #BigBeacon hashtag!

Guest post by Jeff Shelton, President of Quarter 20 Engineering, LLC.

A study of mechanical engineers from MIT, conducted by Kristen E. Wolfe in 2004, suggests that the “soft” skills of independent thinking, teamwork, and idea development are far more important in day-to-day engineering practice than pure analytical skills, such as knowledge of fluid mechanics or thermodynamics. However, these skills are often not emphasized in the undergraduate curriculum. One reason may be that it is easier to grade analytical abilities, as test problems can be structured such that there exists only a single correct answer. Non-analytical skills, such as idea formation, are far more difficult to evaluate, as there may be a multiplicity of appropriate solutions. What’s the “right” answer for “build a better mousetrap?”

When engineering students earn their degrees, they have survived the “math-science death march.” They should thus be sufficiently talented in the application of mathematical models. However, there are a number of non-mathematical talents that engineers should possess. Some of these include:

1. Dealing with Ambiguity

Projects often begin with only a rough idea of the desired outcome, or of available time and budget. The multitude of possible approaches may be too large for each to be given close examination. There may exist many solutions that are “more right” or “more wrong,” but none that are analytically superior. Engineers thus have to make decisions that are not entirely based on textbook calculations.

2. Dealing with Adversity

When projects don’t proceed as well as expected, engineers may be criticized for actions that are not entirely technical in nature. This may be due to an engineer’s failure to maintain reasonable expectations, to keep others informed about key decisions, or to foresee design shortcomings. While such situations can be learning experiences, young engineers may find themselves filled with doubt and dread.

3. Dealing with Exclusion

Engineers have to deal with physical realities that are not always

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evident to non-engineers. Thus, engineers may have to deliver the bad news that certain plans are unworkable, or that certain systems are not achieving the desired results. Managers may accuse the bearers of such tidings as failing to be “team players,” an accusation that is difficult for most of us, but especially young engineers, to bear. Engineers must have the courage to speak “truth to power,” and the confidence to stand by their own convictions.

About Big Beacon

The Big Beacon is a Movement to Transform Engineering Education. An Illinois not-for-profit corporation, Big Beacon was organized to catalyze a global social movement to transform engineering education. The Big Beacon connects dots among individuals and organizations to collaboratively disrupt the status quo, thereby bringing about change to align engineering education with the creativity imperative of our times. Read the Big Beacon Manifesto at

How to Twitter Chat

If you’ve never Twitter chatted before, don’t worry; it’s very easy. First, get a Twitter account if you don’t already have one, and log in. At 8 PM ET on Wednesday go to and type #BigBeacon into the search box on Twitter. Thereafter all the tweets with the hashtag #BigBeacon will show up on your Twitter page. To participate, simply express your opinion by sending a tweet, and be sure to append the hashtag #BigBeacon so other members of the Twitter Chat see you are posting. Alternatively, automate the hashtag search and append feature by using the free service Tchat at

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