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Back to School - What We Still Use

Back-to-school season is upon us. For students, it's a time of anticipation, excitement, and a dash of apprehension. But what about those who have already navigated the labyrinth of school and emerged as professionals? How much of those long days in the classroom did they end up using?

In this special blog post, we ask our experienced engineers to take a trip down memory lane and answer questions about their younger days — from the lessons that stood the test of time, to the surprising skills they never thought would matter.

Whether you're a student getting ready for another round of studies or just curious about the real-world skills that matter, join us as we bridge the gap between academia and the practical side of engineering.

What did you learn in school that you actually still use?

  • Virtually everything — from basic reading and spelling to Gaussian quadrature.

  • I use algebra every day for solving various problems.

  • Doing math by heart (e.g. additions, subtractions, multiplications, etc.).

  • Learning how to type.


What did you think wouldn't be important that actually is, or, what did you think would be important that turned out not to be?

  • I used to hate group projects, but now recognize how vital it is to be able to work within a team.

  • I did not value public speaking and writing skills and grammar, but they are important. Memorizing obscure geography seemed important to achieve test scores but has little value today (especially when the country names change).

  • For college-aged students — I had an aunt lead me to believe that I should sell all of my textbooks after finishing a class because once I was a professional, I wouldn’t ever need them again. And perhaps she was right about some of them, but I’m very happy I didn’t listen because many of them still serve as invaluable references today. Even something like a highway engineering textbook you might think isn’t relevant to your work as a structural engineer, until you start needing to do calculations related to alignments on your bridge and determining elevations.

What's one piece of advice for kids going back to school this fall?

  • Be respectful of your teachers and fellow students. Treat them all with kindness and be as friendly as you can be to everyone. Your friendliness could be the highlight of someone’s day or help pick them up when they are feeling down.

  • You have more time now than you ever will to build and develop those skills that are going to serve you throughout your whole life. Whether it’s directly related to engineering or not, find some things that interest you and really dig into them. Learn an instrument, learn to code, become a nerd about something.

  • Getting the “right” answer is not as important as learning how to think through a new problem.

Did you always want to be an engineer?

  • Yes, although I don’t think I always knew what engineers do, nor did I know there were so many types of engineers.

  • When I was growing up, I didn’t know what an engineer was or what they did. It was a term I’d heard about now and then, but no one in my immediate family is college-educated and a lot of the professions I was aware of were just limited to ones I observed in daily life or in media (and you don’t see a lot of engineers on television). So I grew up thinking I would probably become something like a lawyer or pharmacist – I even interned at a law firm between sophomore and junior year of college thinking I might just use my engineering background to do intellectual property law. For me, it wasn’t until I really got into the major and started taking classes in structural analysis and material science that I started to understand what it meant to be an engineer and have been captivated ever since.

  • Of course not, I wanted to be an astronaut.

  • No. Meteorologist.

What's one thing you always had in your backpack that you still can't live without?

  • Pen and pencil.

  • I’ve been using the same pencil for the last 15 years (since my senior year in college), and even though a lot of our work is done electronically now, the pencil is still an invaluable tool for sketching things out and doing back of the envelope calculations.

  • An agenda and a Casio calculator.