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In our first episode of Crash Course Engineering, Shini explains what engineering is, and gives a brief overview of its four main branches (civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical) as well as a look at some of the other fields of engineering.

Crash Course Engineering is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios:


“The Story of Engineering” by James Kip Finch. Anchor Books, 1960.


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CC Kids:

You live in a world of creations. All of the things you see around me were created by people. The technology that's being used to record me, and watch me, were likewise created. And not by lone geniuses, but by whole teams – sometimes entire generations – of clever designers. Those designers were engineers. And engineers are – when it comes right down to it – creators.

The word "engineering" itself comes from the Latin ingenium, meaning "cleverness", and ingeniar, meaning "to design or devise" And that makes sense, since you have to be clever if you're going to solve the problems that engineers face every day.

Now, you might think of engineering as a kind of science – and that's not wrong. But it's more useful to think of science as a tool: a tool that engineers use – along with mathematics – to perform their unique duties.

Throughout this course, we're going to show you just what you can accomplish through engineering. Math is at the core of engineering, but what's more important are the ideas and the applications. They help us understand how we use math to solve problems. So we'll be teaching you some math, but also the concepts that those equations explain, in their own way.

We'll survey what we've already achieved, explore what we're still discovering, and dream about what we hope to make possible. And we'll show you the ideas you can use to engineer great things. We want you to be inspired and as interested in engineering as we are. That's what this course is all about.

I'm Dr. Shini Somara and this is crash course engineering.

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Imagine you're walking through town, maybe on your way to class or to the gym or to a meeting for work, and right there, on the pavement, you come across a blob of something.  It's fairly large and blue and jiggly.  Pretty strange, right?  What do you do?  Well, you're a curious person and you know a little something about scientific inquiry, so you want to use science to study the blob.  Maybe your background is in chemistry, so you might analyze the blob's molecular structure or the chemical components in it, to try to figure out what the blob is made of.  Or maybe the blob is moving or making sounds and you think it might be alive, so you might try to see how it responds to say, water or a poke with your pen.  Maybe you even decide to remove a sample of it to learn about the blob's biology.  You could even look at it from the perspective of physics and see how it operates in motion.  Maybe this goo has some special properties.  Any of these responses would be approaching the situation as a scientist.  You're curious about the blob and want to understand it.  That's science.

Scientists ask questions about the nature of the universe from our expanding knowledge of space, to the tiniest particles found in the tip of your pencil.  But engineers want to take the answers to those questions and solve problems, because in the process of designing clever things, what engineering really does is solve problems, and the good news is, you already know how to think like an engineer.  You've dabbled in engineering if you've ever wondered what you can do with something.  You've used your engineer's mind if you went outside on a snowy morning and built a snowman after figuring out the packing properties of the snow.  I'm not saying you should put that on your resume, but you do get a thumbs up.  So from an engineering perspective, your response to the mysterious sidewalk blob would be a little different, but it may depend on what kind of engineer you are.

Today, engineering is much broader and more varied than it used to be.  That's because engineering originally referred specifically to military engineering.  Military engineering involves designing and building military works along with ways of communicating and transporting people and things.  Think of catapults, trebuchets, and siege towers.  These types of war machines and military structures have been found as far back as the 11th century BCE, by the Babylonians and Assyrians.  You needed a good engineer if you wanted to storm a castle, so from the perspective of this field, the main problem that an engineer might want to solve is simply how to destroy the blob or to protect yourself from it.  

Now, the first of the modern field of engineering to emerge after military engineering was civil engineering.  This branch had its official start around the 18th century.  Like the name implies, civil engineering was used for civilian purposes rather than military ones.  It focuses on building structures of all kinds along with highways, sanitation systems, and even entire cities.  Under this branch of engineering, we might want to study the blob to figure out what properties it has that can be used to solve problems of daily civilian life, like maybe the blob's glue is better insulating material than what's currently in your house, or maybe it turns out to be really elastic or waterproof or have some other property that could make it useful in construction, infrastructure, or urban planning.  

The 19th century led to an increasing focus on the machinery industry, which gave rise to the branch of mechanical engineering, which I must say, as a mechanical engineer myself, is a fine discipline.  This branch focuses on machinery and mechanical systems from robots to engines.  Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, two English inventors who were credited with inventing the steam engine in the early 1700s, were both mechanical engineers, and so was James Watt, the Scottish scientist who made their design much more efficient by recapturing steam in the engine.  The industrial revolution was led by mechanical engineers like them.  

Then, electrical engineering was a natural progression once we were able to generate electricity and create electronics.  Dating back to the 19th century, electrical engineering deals with devices and systems that can range anywhere from microchips in cell phones to the giant power station generators that supply energy to big cities.  Electrical and mechanical engineering often come together to create some pretty fantastic inventions.  

If you want a robot that can move about like we do, you're going to need a mechanical engineer to suss up the skeleton of the machine.  Then to give it a "heart" of electricity, you'll need an electrical engineer to provide power to the robot with electronics.  If you want it to act like us too, you'll need someone skilled in computer science.  

But engineering doesn't stop there.  Another field was founded in the late 19th century: chemical engineering.  These engineers have quite a wide focus.  Not only designing and operating chemical plants that do things like refine oil and distill alcohol, they also deal with food, medicine, and the environment and much more.  They're involved not only with the preservatives and artificial flavors found in the pizza pocket you ate last night, but also with the medicine you took the next day to help your upset stomach.  

Together, civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering are often seen as the four main branches of engineering in the modern world, but there are many more fields that specialize even further.  We have aerospace engineers, building machines that fly in the air and space.  Nuclear engineers harness energy released from nuclear reactions, and biomedical engineers creating medical equipment and devices to solve clinical problems.  The list goes on, and one branch that supports all of them is industrial engineering.  Engineers in this field design and optimize the facilities, equipment, and systems that many other engineers use to create their products.  Think of them as the support class of the engineering world.  They provide the all-important groundwork for many of our engineering advances.  We'll need some industrial engineers to help us with our factory when we start manufacturing our cool new products based on whatever this blob is made of.  

With the power of engineering at our fingertips, we've already been able to do some pretty amazing things.  We've built spaceships that have sent people to the Moon and given Mars a few rovers, which are fantastic works of engineering themselves.  We've made artificial hearts to pump blood through the human body and artificial limbs to replace the ones that we've lost.  We've designed skyscrapers that wave at the clouds and show the world just how high we can reach, and we've only just begun.

In the future, it's very possible that we'll see advances like an artificial pancreas that would effectively cure Type 1 Diabetes, and new nanotechnology that will show the might of being small and rockets that will finally send people to Mars to hang out with those rovers.  This and much, much more could all come from engineering.  Maybe one day you'll be the one to create something truly amazing.

As for the blob you found on the pavement, I don't know what that thing is.  Maybe it will turn out to be a huge wad of used chewing gum, or maybe it's a new life form.  No matter what, it won't be the first or last mysterious object you'll encounter as a student of engineering.  The world is full of strange things with great potential for solving problems.  When you use your engineering mind, everything suddenly seems both perplexing and exciting.

So over the next 40 or so weeks, we'll show you how to build things, design things, we'll show you how to solve problems.  We want you to be able to make things better and figure out what's next for the world, because we all live in a world of creation and we want you to be a creator.  

Next time, we'll continue our journey by diving deeper into civil engineering.  We'll learn more about its history and the types of work that civil engineers do, getting you one step closer to being an engineering master of the universe.  Thanks for watching, and I'll see you then.

CrashCourse Engineering is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios.  You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of their latest amazing shows, like The Origin of Everything, Infinite Series, and Eons.  CrashCourse is a Complexly production and this episode was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio with the help of these wonderful people and our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.