RES.LL-004 | Spring 2022 | Non-Credit

LL EduCATE: Introduction to Engineering Concepts


Welcome to the MIT Lincoln Laboratory introduction to the engineering discipline. In this course, we will illustrate the many ways that an engineering degree can be used, not only in an engineering career, but in a wide array of technical and scientific careers. What makes this course unique is the set of examples we will be using. These examples are actual projects that MIT Lincoln Laboratory engineers have completed! We will use these projects to demonstrate how engineering provides a wonderful, skill-based foundation for a host of disciplines.

Introductory video by Max Salazar and Bich Vu.

So, first, what is engineering? Here’s what the Oxford Languages Dictionary says:




  • the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.
    • the work done by, or the occupation of, an engineer
    • the action of working artfully to bring something about 

Definitions from Oxford Languages

Engineering is not only a career path and discipline; it involves creativity, thinking outside the box, and pushing current technologies into the future. What’s more, engineering makes possible the invention of technologies and products that don’t even exist yet!

The latter is something at which MIT Lincoln Laboratory excels. Our innovations have helped us build a reputation as an organization that can help solve some of the world’s biggest problems using research and development (R&D)—our bread and butter. For example, the Laboratory has supported disaster relief efforts by deploying laser radar imaging technologies to survey disaster zones from the air. Instead of manufacturing and selling the products we design like a normal company would, MIT LL turns its inventions over to the client who paid for the research (the Department of Defense, for example), or to another company who will license the technology and take it to market. More on that later.

Drawing of a person in a box, surrounded by other boxes depicting satellites, windmills, robots, computers, a plane, city buildings, and a tree.

What is so exciting about engineering is that there are not only many different types of engineers (such as nuclear, mechanical, computer, software, bioengineering, etc.), but the core skills learning in engineering degree programs are applicable anywhere. Think of engineering as a way of disciplined thinking—it provides a scientific and mathematical process to frame a problem and create one or more solutions to that problem. 

You’ve probably learned in your science classes that in order to solve a problem, you first need to:

  • Create a hypothesis about what the issue is
  • Plan an experiment that proves or disproves that hypothesis
  • Run the experiment
  • Analyze the results
  • Decide whether the hypothesis is correct or not

That is called problem solving, and it is the basis for all engineering (and science). What makes engineering different from science is that you get to build stuff (the development part of R&D). As the definition above states, engineers use science, mathematics, materials, and ingenuity to build engines, machines and structures. They can be tiny engines that travel in someone’s bloodstream to evaluate the health of a patient, or huge structures that take someone to Mars and back. Your imagination is the limit (well, and the budget for that project).

Engineering is the art of intentional problem solving, using mathematical and scientific principles, to produce an optimized solution.

You don’t have to be the master of all mathematical and scientific fields and concepts to be an engineer (which would probably take a lifetime to learn and not give you any time to actually make a living). That’s what teams are for. Most engineering projects involve multiple people with different skill sets and knowledge that, combined with creativity and hard work, determine the best solution (or solutions—there may not only be one) for that particular problem.

As we said earlier, there are core engineering skills that that allow you to leverage the fundamental sciences to solve interesting problems. In any engineering program these would include math, statistics, and the physical sciences (e.g., chemistry or physics). Along with these technical skills, you will need to know how to communicate your ideas to others through presentations, technical writing, and documentation. You may also want to think about taking computer programming courses, as most employers will be looking for a solid computer background as well as your engineering knowledge and skillset.

Depending on what type of engineer you want to be, you will gain additional skills that focus around your specialty. You may need to learn about materials and their properties (which materials engineers do), or understand how physics and materials work together when building, for example, a dam (as civil engineers do). A nuclear engineer may work in a nuclear reactor, develop the next US nuclear missile, or build a nuclear engine to power the next generation of submarines or rocket to Mars. An electrical engineer might work on a sensor that tests the air for chemical weapons, or monitors the health and wellbeing of a soldier out on patrol, signaling when the soldier is dehydrated or has a fever.

The next chapter will lay out the different types of engineering fields, but what we’re trying to point out here is that there are additional skills incorporated into whatever branch of engineering you choose. However, the core skillset that all engineers learn will set you up to be whatever type of engineer you choose.

What is also great about engineering is that it is available to people with varying scientific degrees and professional backgrounds. For example, someone with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Masters in mechanical engineering—and who also tested blood in a diagnostic laboratory for five years— may be in as high demand on the engineering job market as someone with both a BS and an MS in biochemical engineering who starts working straight out of school. It is the combination of skills and knowledge that makes good engineers.

Having a range of experiences not only helps you start a career in an area that excites you, but helps you determine which paths you may want to take in the future as you mature. Having a range of professional and academic experiences also enables you to change fields or work on different types of projects. In this way, you will build a solid core of knowledge that you can use throughout your working life. You will want to keep learning, deepening your experience by working on different teams and projects, and eventually you will be acknowledged as an expert.

How do you decide what type of engineer you want to be, though? MIT Lincoln Laboratory hopes that this course will help you at least narrow down the possibilities—or broaden your understanding for the field of engineering—so that you have some data and knowledge about what those possibilities are.

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