“How do you practice to perform as an engineer?” — HYPER lab mentor PK Northcutt II

The question was simple and sincere. But I (Jake Leachman) had no answer. I had been an ‘engineer’ for over a decade and was now teaching others to be ‘engineers’, but I had nothing. With a decade of experience practicing football, shotput and discus, Jazz trombone, you name it; I had practiced for decades but could not identify a singular act or trait in engineering that could be considered deliberate ‘practice’ as I had, well, practiced with these other professional performances. Sure I’d given students homework problems to do that were ‘engineery’, and since the solutions were known could be considered practice. Professional Engineers have told me I train great engineers, some of which have rapidly risen to top engineering roles in leading companies and won top graduate student awards in the US. But how can I call myself an engineer, or really get good at training them, if I can’t simply describe how one practices the skills of ‘engineering’?

Is it that engineers simply don’t practice? Search ‘engineering practice’ online and you will find lots about the actual act of engineering, but really nothing on how to practice daily to master the skills of engineering. Engineering is considered one of the three original ‘professional’ disciplines with doctors and lawyers. Surgeons deliberately practice operations. Lawyers stand before a mirror and rehearse their testimony and examination. So how is that ‘engineering’ skills are different? People’s lives literally depend on ‘engineering’ craft of all forms. But we seldom see engineers practice their skills for an event; save the occasional thesis defense. Typically engineers try to avoid events at all costs.

To address this challenge I solicited advice from three of the grittiest HYPER lab members to see how they practice to perform outside of engineering, and how this translates into practice as engineers. Yulia Gitter is President of the WSU Skydiving Club and is a certified skydiving instructor who has to practice for events on a weekly basis. Hannah Gardner is a rock climbing enthusiast. Stasia Kulsa is pursing a master’s degree in Flute performance after 12 years of practice. From their stories you’ll start to see trends emerge. We’ll combine these trends with some of the leading studies on effective practice. These trends will be tied together into a concise heuristic for practicing to master engineering on a daily basis. In the end, I came to a new understanding of what it is that engineers actually do, based on how we have learned to practice.

Yulia Gitter: Skydiving Instructor

So often we hear people say “oh, you are so talented.” We hear those words spoken in all disciplines, from academic fields such as math or writing, to sports and a varying level of hobbies. But to what extent is anyone actually born with a natural talent? No one is walking out of the womb playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, consistently throwing hook shots, or solving for the entropy of a system using the Laws of Thermodynamics. Although what we are born with are biological traits, both physical and mental, that can help us excel at something. A pianist may typically have longer than average fingers to assist playing those harder keys that span across the board. A basketball player may have a height advantage for shooting hoops. Or an engineer may be born with the natural ability to think critically in order to solve complicated problems. But without learning and practicing the steps, you still can not succeed. All in all, the correlation for traits is weak and is no strong determinant of success. We must have the drive and put in the effort too.

If we look up any video on the internet, rarely do we see anything that showcases failure or struggle. We only see the mastery of a skill, whether it be a solo piece played flawlessly, a ballgame played with perfect shots and no errors, or getting a 100% on a test by following the process and getting that final answer. We do not see the hours upon hours of practice that it takes to get the point of, what the average (outside person looking in) would call, mastery. It is skill, and perhaps grit, that we grow through, the sometimes tedious, hours of practice. When we think about the word “practice,” the first thing that comes to mind is typically practicing sports, music, or other hobbies. Through meaningful repetition and deliberate practice, we can learn anything. We practice in order to gain proficiency in a skill but typically the skills we practice for, are hobbies. (Or at least those are the types of activities our mind goes to by default.) There is less risk involved if we reduce our efforts or even give up all together when something is merely a hobby. But even with that in mind, we are less likely to drop a hobby than, we could say, a math class. So how does that translate over to engineering, or more generally, academia?

When we choose a career path and enter a university program, we typically are choosing something that we have a genuine passion for. How is that any different from the hobbies we choose? We would never pick a hobby that we have no interest in, and if we did, we would soon realize it and shift our attention to something else. If we truly love the field we are pursuing at university, in our case engineering, how is it so hard for us to continually practice and get through those difficult classes? I do not believe it has anything to do with the actual content that we are presented in the class itself, but more so in the lack of knowledge we have in how to “practice.” If we were to alter our mindset and think of engineering in terms of a hobby, would we then have an easier time getting through those more difficult classes? The word “work” has received a negative connotation throughout the ages. It is something we HAVE to do. It is not supposed to be fun nor enjoyable. Or at least that is what society has taught us to believe. School is work. If you are pursuing a degree, you are acting as a professional student in order to further your career. It is no doubt difficult, as it should be. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But there are sports and instruments that are hard to play. Some have a much steeper learning curve than others, and same goes with the degrees we pursue. It is all about picking the right one. And just like with a hobby, it is okay to try more than one thing to test the waters and see what you like. But when we do finally pick a path, the classes are still going to be hard. We still see people get discouraged and give up on something that we saw they enjoyed. So what if we were to parallel our process for learning something we see as a hobby, to our academic career? Treat your path to a degree, and even career thereafter, as a hobby. We all know what it takes to practice a sport, instrument, video game, or whatever else it may be, so just translate that practice to your academics and see if you can shift your mindset in order to set yourself up for success. For me I have seen the patterns in my skydiving career (or more so hobby) and started to shift that to my engineering career.

Throughout my entire high school career I focused hard on academics, played ball sports, volunteered training dogs, and fostering sick cats. I also volunteered at a summer camp every year and worked as many hours as I could as a lifeguard year round. I was always doing something. The summer before my senior year I ended up deciding to take a break and went off to Germany for a second exchange program. Somewhere in the middle of that, I decided I enjoyed the slowed down pace for once and got the random idea to go for a tandem skydive. It was completely out of the blue and even I do not know how that chain of events occurred. When I got home from Germany, about three weeks later I was off to the middle of nowhere in Texas, going to a town I had never heard of, with a small skydiving facility. I was going to jump out of a plane for the very first time. I have no idea what was going through my head from take off to landing. I was scared no doubt. But then I landed and immediately knew I wanted to get my license. I called my mom on the long drive home because I could not wait to get home to talk to her. She of course was dubious. She obviously misjudged my level of determination (I was a naive high schooler after all). A few weeks later I forked over the $2,500, from the money I made working, and started the student progression to get my license. 5 years (almost to the day), 450 jumps, and a coach and instructional rating later, I am now here.

I was a below average student when it came to my flying skills. I never had to repeat a jump but I definitely struggled at a lot. Flying well takes much more skill than people would think. We are not birds. We are not meant to fly. That is why we fall (skydiving is just falling in style) and have to use a parachute to catch ourselves. Even at 100 jumps, I was still not where other skydivers with the same numbers were at. In my defense, I did not have some of the resources that other jumpers had to excel as quickly due to always being in school and having to fund everything for myself. We all have our own pace, as frustrating as it may be. It has not been till these past two years where I have really seen my skills advance. Being an instructor and really having to fly with students is one of the best ways to progress your skills quickly.

Just like any other sport, to excel in skydiving, you need repetition. But what sets skydiving apart from other sports is the fact that repetition has to look a little bit different in order to be effective. You have about 50 seconds of freefall in the average jump. Then you have to pull your parachute in order to land safely. Students have even less time because they have to pull higher. Those 50 seconds are not very much time to get anything done. So to get that repetition, you need to do many jumps which can take a lot of time in a day. You can absolutely do 10 jumps in a day but it can be hard depending on the dropzone that you are at. The average is more like 5. The process is: go over the plan, learn the plan, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE the plan, dive the plan, debrief, adjust for new plan, repeat. When learning and going over the plan, the exit is the most crucial part. I drill it the hardest. If you mess up the exit, it takes time to recover and so you end up wasting a lot of time. This full process can take well over an hour. So if you want quality jumps, you constantly repeat on the ground before you go up. This goes for all levels of jumpers but for students especially. If they do something they aren’t supposed to do in their practice on the ground, then they will do the same thing in the air. It could be something as small as dragging a toe, but it makes all the difference. I do not take a student up until I see that they have the necessary skills down perfectly every single time. It sounds harsh, but I want them to be successful and not waste their time nor money by having to repeat a jump. Of course there are exceptions to that rule and of course no matter if they are perfect on the ground, there will still be error in the air, but there is very much less so. When we get back down to the ground, we watch the video and talk about it, assess where we need to make improvements, and repeat the whole process again with necessary modifications.

I have seen this exact same pattern in my engineering career too. When I would be going in to take a test, if I was even just the slightest bit iffy on a subject, I would not perform nearly as well. I had to have my confidence up to at least 95% going in to it. In the professional work place, say the HYPER Lab, the exact same method is applied. It is LEARN ONE, DO ONE, TEACH ONE.  We all start out learning one. I was a baby skydiver once and am still a baby engineer. I was at learn one then do one when it came to building a plumbing manifold for CRAFT. At this point, I have a level of confidence in my ability that I could now teach one how to measure, cut, bend, and swage all the piping for a plumbing manifold. There is still a long way I have to go in both skydiving and engineering. Both areas are so broad and the things you can learn are limitless. So one should note, that these processes never cease. We will always be in all three stages of learning, doing,  and teaching throughout our lives. And if we aren’t, we obviously are not pushing ourselves hard enough.

Hannah Gardner: Rock Climber

When I was a Senior in high school, most of my past hobbies and passions were wrapping up. I was a competitive swimmer for 10 years and I ran track for my high school, and while I was relatively successful in each of these, I was not going to be able to pursue these in college. I was casually thinking about finding something new for myself, but I did not expect to find it so soon.

One day that winter, I rounded up my friends to go to our local rock-climbing gym, and I left with a new obsession. By the time I ran my last track race that spring, I had gotten climbing shoes and a helmet. When I got to college that fall, I trekked through rain and snow to the climbing wall at the Rec Center and joined the Rock-Climbing Club. That spring, I competed in bouldering competitions with my teammates at other universities.

Then, at our home competition that spring, the unthinkable happened: I got third. This meant that I beat about 30 other women and won a bag for a climbing rope that I did not yet own. I thought I had found success in climbing, but then, that very same spring, I realized I was wrong.

I had not failed- I simply learned that there was more that I wanted to get out of the climbing. More specifically, I wanted to fill my rope bag so I could go climbing outside, and do so safely, which meant that I needed to know how to use a myriad of equipment. I took an outdoor climbing clinic at WSU, where I learned everything I needed to safely have fun. At the end of the clinic, I knew exactly what I needed to do to find my new success.

I invested: I bought every piece of gear I thought I needed, including a brand-new rope. Then, I called some friends, packed it all up, and went climbing as much as I could. Later, I taught my family members to climb and mastered all of my new skills even further, my technical climbing skills continued to improve, and once again, I thought I had achieved success. And once again, I was wrong.

That summer, I was invited on a climbing trip, this time where we would hike 9 miles (one way) with 5,000’ elevation gain and then gain an additional 2,000’ climbing at the very end, all to summit the Grand Teton. Climbing now had a new objective: to climb mountains, not just walls.

I am still working to achieve this goal- I am still looking for someone to teach me the necessary skills and I still do not own the gear that I need. I will eventually find success once again, but I will probably redefine my climbing success yet again, which leads me to the point of my story:

Success is when you find a question you want to answer and find it. It is when you learn something new that you are passionate about and master it. Changing your objective does not undermine your achievements; it simply shows you have an additional passion for growth. A friend of mine, an accomplished alpinist, has a mantra: “Never stop working, shortcuts are fatal.”

And if there is a better metaphor out there for engineering than this story and that quote, I do not know what is. Passion and goals are merely harder to define in engineering and academia because it is less streamlined. As engineers, all we can do is find and achieve goals we are passionate about, but never accept a singular success. We must keep discovering, keep creating, and keep redefining our own successes.

Stasia Kulsa: Master Flautist

At this point in my life, I have been playing the flute for twelve years. It is something that I definitely have found a passion for. Music had always been a passion of mine outside of school. Flute brought my passion into school as well. My parents were very encouraging. When I started looking at music outside of what we were playing in class, they made a deal with me that, if I practiced enough every day, they would get me one flute book for fun. I chose the flute book for the Phantom of the Opera. I practiced every day at lunch at school and for at least half an hour at home. I really wanted to earn that flute book. Playing music that I loved was a really good motivation to keep playing. Successes felt so satisfying. The funny thing is though that I do not remember how I reacted the first time that I got an acceptance into an auditioned ensemble. I can tell you how I felt after every rejection though. Even though they hurt, I always learned something. I could take the feedback and focus my practicing on what they told me I needed to improve. Success in music means that you learn something when things go wrong and you practice so that you do not make the same mistake twice. You do not practice until you get it right. You practice until you do not get it wrong. When practicing gets hard, I listen to my favorite pieces. Remembering how they made me feel helps me to keep going. My other major lesson in music has been that success on your own means little. You have to work together to sound good.

I have found that these lessons apply to engineering as well. I have goals to motivate me. I learn from any rejection or failure. If I have a weak point, I keep working at it until it is a strength. Most importantly though, if I have help, and if I help others, we will all be more successful and more likely to make it through. It is possible to do just about anything alone. However, it is far more pleasant to have help and to have company when music or engineering are challenging.

How Engineers Practice

These stories bring up similar practice trends to those of other HYPER lab members. Whether it be Jordan Raymond’s path to mastery of Botany to Greg Wallace’s iteration of bread recipes: mastery takes continuous improvement, continuous improvement requires feedback from coaches/clients, feedback from coaches comes from practice, practice takes iteration, many iterations take considerable passion. So why is it that so many HYPER lab members draw a blank, as I do, when I ask them how they practice engineering? My guess is that this is due to a difficulty in defining what it is that an engineer actually does.

One of my good friends Don Shearer is a Senior Director of Development and Associate Vice President for Advancement at WSU. In this role he regularly visits with WSU’s most successful alumni to discuss donations to their Alma Mater. Don once said to me, “I enjoy talking to Engineers. All they want to know is: 1) What’s the problem? 2) What’s your plan? and 3) How can I help?” From this we can glean what it actually means to be an engineer: engineers solve people’s problems with technology. Another way to consider the above three points is that professional engineers want to know: 1) Is this relevant to me? 2) Is this a credible plan? and 3) Can I help make this more efficient? In other words, engineering is about solving people’s problems with: 1) Relevancy, 2) Credibility, and 3) Efficiency.

While this definition seems simple, the scary reality is how much the act of training an engineer in traditional curricula differs from this simple directive. There is a popular shirt among engineering majors that reads, “Engineering is like riding a bicycle. Except it’s on fire and you’re in hell.” Becoming a doctor or lawyer takes 6-8 years, similar how long it takes to become an engineer in other cultures. But here in the US we cram this 6-8 years into just 4. There is so much (and increasingly so) technical content that there is hardly time for anything else. Often we faculty structuring curricula have to take input from stakeholders that say our students need to know robotics, so we add another robotics course into the curriculum. Pretty soon the curriculum is crammed full of all of these intense classes on disparate topics. While all of these courses practice variants on the engineer’s problem solving process, it’s easy to loose site of this. With so many technical classes, so fast, students no longer have time to even consider that simple directive: engineers solve people’s problems with technology.

So lets tap the brakes.

Here’s a generalized heuristic for practicing engineering:

  1. Client Interview/Problem Definition — To solve someone’s problem you first have to know what the problem is. I have not once seen an engineering program in the US that formally teaches engineers, at the beginning of their training, how to conduct a client interview or define a problem. This takes the rare engineering skills of 1. listening, and 2. empathy. To practice this step you have to 1. listen to someone who is frustrated, 2. restate what you think the problem is to them, and 3. shoot for the reply, “I never thought about it like that before!” It takes considerable practice to efficiently define what MUST the design do and what SHOULD the design do in this problem statement. We are often so terrible at this as engineers because we give students already defined problems and never require students to define problems for themselves. HOW TO PRACTICE: in any class engineers are typically given well defined, pre-formed problem statements from a textbook. The minimum is to re-write this problem statement on your work sheet. The best is to do what faculty do by taking real world problem and then practice writing it as a refined problem statement on a daily basis. In between these two extremes is where most people are forced to be and there are many fun ways to get good at defining problems: try jumbling the order of a problem statement you are given, or chunking it on post-it notes, try making up a fantasy story from which the problem can be extracted, or just do what I do and tell the story of how you saw a problem and broke it down.
  2. Background/Prior Art — It always shocks me how poor the information literacy of engineers tends to be from other institutions. In MME at WSU we’ve scaffolded our curriculum with our Engineering Librarian to ensure that our students are all information literate before they graduate. If you are going to be a proficient engineer in an area, you need to know, very quickly, what is known and has been done before in the area and what has not. It takes practice to quickly and efficiently search the literature forward and backwards in time, and how to quickly and efficiently sort/bin this information. Most engineers, including faculty, are so arrogant to believe that with Google Scholar they don’t need to teach this anymore. Wrong. HOW TO PRACTICE: Developing a data/concept map or sketch of the information space is key. In statics this is called a free-body-diagram. In thermodynamics this is called a system and/or state diagram. Each of these approaches involve the construction of a map or sketch of the most basic elements or concepts that are known, and how this relates to what is desired, sought, or unknown. The act of constructing this map literally helps rewire the myelin in your brain for later recall. When it comes to a literature review, binning or mapping all of your sources and identifying the gap in knowledge is one approach. Simply writing a historical/chronological accounting of key events is another. There is no singular correct approach to this as ANY of these approaches could involve multiple concepts/approaches and it is often helpful to view the information using 2-3 of these lenses/concepts. Even something as simple as a thermodynamics problem can be solved in different ways by changing the definition of the system boundary.
  3. Hypothesis/Theory — What is key? What is the nut? What is/are the key physical mechanism(s) that the problem is most sensitive to? What question can be simply tested to determine the result? It takes practice to simply and quickly run the numbers on the energies and/or resistances involved in a situation. When proficient, this often can be figured out in under an hour. From these basic numbers a hypothesis for the problem can be formed. Think “If this then that.” HOW TO PRACTICE: There are master equations in any field from which the singular equation that matters most can be derived. No need to go to a textbook! Just start from the basic equation and based on what you’ve learned from steps 1 & 2, you should be able to whittle down to the key equation through a series of steps. In complex systems like heat transfer, simply running the numbers on resistances through different media will tell you which resistances dominate the system. In design, this is when you have a conceptual design review to ensure you’re in the right spot with a viable idea or not BEFORE you do a ton of laborious detail work. But regardless of which approach by the end of this step you should know with certainty what matters, what doesn’t, and be ready to start a plan towards completion.
  4. Work/Experiment/Plan — Now plan for quick and efficient resolution. What is the minimum hardware/code and associated sensitivities to answer the hypothesis? If it’s complex you need a plan to follow. When you’ve got enough practice planning you’ll have non-arbitrary metrics for once you’ve reached completion. Start with procedures, work through agile project planning, then follow your plans through to completion, and most importantly reflect on what worked well and what didn’t in the plan. It should be obvious that detailed diagrams that others can follow are essential at this phase. HOW TO PRACTICE: Break down what will be done into a series of enumerated steps. In thermodynamics, you’d have the energy, entropy and mass balances derived and be ready to apply a fluid model, implement in an equation solver, solve, and parametrically vary the solution to observe trends and optimums. The specific fluid model and software you implement it in are irrelevant, just pick one that works in many ways. With experiments, this is where you have many detailed Plumbing and Instrumentation Diagrams (P&ID). Uncertainty analysis to numerically determine confidence is also important.
  5. Results and Conclusions — What was done and why did it matter? Shoot for a single, obvious statement, that then leads to the natural conclusions of “what we should do now”. Practice this pitch by listing recommendations, in order, that you could present to your boss. What are all of the ways that your analysis could be wrong? What are the recommended next steps if option A vs. option B vs. option C are decided based on the results? If someone were to throw down $$$ on the spot, where would you recommend it be invested? HOW TO PRACTICE: Try a 2 minute elevator pitch of what you did and why it mattered. What are the key points, where if someone was only skimming, would be essential for them to leave your work with? Do it fast, and do it slow. If your explanation took two paragraphs, try it in two sentences, now just five words. Use all in your final product.

These key components of the story arc of an engineering achievement can be practiced individually, or together. Much like practicing for a flute performance, climb, or skydive, they must be iterated until optimal and obviously correct, in many ways. Chunk each of these ‘chunks’ of the problem solving process into smaller chunks that you can repeat, repeat, and repeat. Practice them faster than feasible. Practice them painfully slow. Remove everything that isn’t relevant, credible, or efficient. Jumble the order. Do it out of your comfort zone. Remap, recolor, recode, and restructure the content for yourself. Play with an interview, reading, hypothesizing, hardware hacking, and pitching. It will take practice.

So if you want to get good at engineering, take a look at your daily schedule. You are probably already doing most of these things, just not realizing that it’s rigorous practice of these things that are making you good. How are you using elements and games of these steps during your warmup? If you’re not, your fiercest competitors likely are.