Theory vs. Practice: What I’ve Learned as an Engineering Intern

mhugheyby Mitchell Hughey

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

When I received the call notifying me that I was chosen to be a summer intern at Wood Harbinger, I was overjoyed. I was near the end of my sophomore year at Saint Martin’s University, pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. Saint Martin’s is a small university in Lacey, Washington, that prides itself on its civil and mechanical engineering programs. Feeling thoroughly prepared (and a little on top of the world), I was excited to finally apply what I had spent the last two years of my life studying. However, once I started my internship, I realized that I could not have been more wrong.

The Real-World Perspective

Studying engineering seems like it should prepare you for the real day-to-day duties of being an engineer or commissioning provider, but the truth is, classroom education, as it currently seems to be structured, only does so much. There are countless concepts, ideas, and skills I have learned during my short internship, working with Wood Harbinger’s commissioning group, that I would have never learned in school. I have used some of the skills I learned in the classroom, but I’ve gained so much more knowledge and experience “on-the-job.” This has made my internship a very valuable experience.

With two weeks left of my summer at Wood Harbinger, my biggest takeaway is that having a fancy engineering degree alone is no guarantee of success. Gaining real-world experience by applying engineering concepts, problem solving under real-world conditions, and learning how to collaborate with other people are key factors in preparing for a career.

Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts

“There are two kinds of people in this world: book smart people and street smart people.” Or so the saying goes, more or less. I believe this saying applies to engineers. The “book smart” engineers are the kind of people who can solve any complex math- or physics-related problems you throw at them without flinching. They can give you a general solution to a second order differential equation, or tell you the modulus of elasticity for the material of your choice. Then there are the “street smart” engineers. They can look at information provided about a system with a dense field of variables, identify the true problem, and pose a solution to the problem. “Street smart” engineers have knowledge that cannot be learned from a book or taught in a lecture hall; their skills come from experience.

Learning to be a “street smart” engineer is seldom mentioned at the university level, in my experience. I think this is due to a common misconception that the “book smart” engineer is a better engineer, though my internship has confirmed that a combination of book smarts and street smarts is the ideal. This is why on-the-job training plays such a critical role in becoming a successful engineer.

Problem Solving: Concepts vs. Application

In the “book smarts > street smarts” education model, engineering degree programs stress the wrong kind of problem solving. They focus on difficult mathematical equation solving and test-score-based performance metrics. Students are memorizing certain equations, laws, and various numerical constants, while practical applications of the covered material are rarely explained. Mathematical accuracy is essential on the job, but an engineer is rarely without reference resources, and you become more familiar with the material as it is applied. This is what really matters in the real world: understanding the significance of the equation or law and knowing how to apply it in a problem-solving scenario. That’s what engineers really are: problem solvers.

A Modest Proposal

Knowing now how truly valuable applied knowledge and experience really is, I believe students should have opportunities within our engineering courses to practice valuable problem solving skills while applying concepts learned in lectures. When it comes time to assess a student’s understanding of the material covered, instead of assigning a timed test over a one-hour period, I think students should be tasked with a technical problem—one that cannot be answered as easily as “X equals something”—and given time to work out a solution, perhaps even in small groups.

There’s also opportunity here to incorporate more real-world application. The student, or group of students, could prepare a formal write-up proposing their solution to the technical problem, much like how a submittal is written to a client.

Collaboration Skills: The Forgotten Subject

If you are an engineering student, your eyes may have widened at my suggestion of group work in the classroom. However, one of the most valuable lessons from my Wood Harbinger experience is the need for collaboration and an ability to relate to other people. This is, in my opinion, the most overlooked skills needed of an engineer. The current structure of university engineering classes does not promote opportunities for collaboration. I know many fellow students who show up to class, then go home and study. They are very smart but they are not developing a very necessary skill.

Everyone has a boss, clients, and colleagues—these are people you will work with every day at an engineering firm. If you cannot relate and collaborate with them, you will not be as successful.

Being able to assess a problem, tailor your message appropriately to different audiences, and explain a system in both technical terms and in a way that people without your level of technical knowledge can understand, is an important skill and a major part of the engineering process. For example, you would communicate differently with an architectural client than with an internal teammate when describing your design and rating of an HVAC system that pressurizes rooms to create airflow. This skill can be difficult to learn and is one I had not thought about prior to my internship at Wood Harbinger. Now I know that collaboration and teamwork with coworkers is everyday life for an engineer.

Final Thoughts before Heading Back to School

Wood Harbinger has done a better job of preparing me for my remaining schooling and future career. That is all attributed to the great people I have had the pleasure to work with and the opportunities they have given me. I have been exposed to a wide range of projects and multiple applications of engineering. I have had opportunities to go to job sites and test systems to assure functionality. I was able to help with in-the-field problem solving. I created trend graphs and then helped with analytics and writing the report submittal.

The practical knowledge and lessons learned from these experiences are ones that I would not have gained in school. Simply having a degree or certification hanging on the wall does not guarantee the level of ability of an engineer. The key to success is found in his or her practical experience; the on-the-job experience I have gained here is priceless. Working with the commissioning and mechanical groups has been more beneficial than I could have hoped. Internships like this one and further on-the-job training will certainly make me a better student, which is essential as I work toward becoming a successful engineer.

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  2. Posted June 14, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

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  3. Andy
    Posted August 15, 2018 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Very good read, I’m a Mechanical Engineer and I definitely fit the “street smart” definition and seeing the book smarts not really utilized too much in many sectors I have worked in and been around, truth be told software and there is an app for that seems commonplace in workflow. Also it’s no secret that in this age of Google, many just Google it.

    Take note, if you are planning to interview, some companies will sometimes have a book smart person with little to no practical experience interview you, asking you to draw and recite theory and much you may have not utilized or reference occasionally. This can make or break the interview outcome IF they are overly picky. Won’t matter if you have the skills and experience, they will totally overlook it on top of patents and a trophy case of successful launched projects. Sad reality…

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