Numbers, Data, Hard Hats and Suits
by Navya Jayawardena
This is how I saw engineering when I was in high school and back then, I could never imagine myself doing this as a career. A few years on, I am making my way through university in the hope of doing just that- becoming an engineer.
For most of high school, I was unsure as to what I wanted to do after Year 12. I knew I enjoyed science and loved the opportunity to be creative, but I couldn’t seem to find a degree that sounded right for me.
When one of my friends told me she wanted to study biomedical engineering, I asked myself why I hadn’t considered engineering before and wondered if it could be what I wanted to study. At the time, my knowledge of engineering had come from seeing my dad, an electrical engineer, writing long reports full of formulas and data. However, the more I began to investigate it, the more I realised that engineering involved creativity and problem solving as well as logic and mathematics.
Yet it was the memory of an experience, from two years earlier, that finally made me decide to go down the path of engineering.
I had taken part in a science and engineering challenge, working with a group of school students to design a paper and toothpick building that had to withstand a simulated earthquake. We spent the time, brainstorming, planning and prototyping to put together a little building we were all proud of.
In the end, our building collapsed almost immediately. But what I remembered from this experience, was how much I had enjoyed the process of collaborating with others, sharing ideas and solving a problem.
So, I thought of pursuing civil engineering. I saw it as a fusion of my interest in physics, design and problem solving, and I had always had an interest in the built world, so I combined it with architecture.
Thus, I entered the University of New South Wales, ready to complete a Bachelor of Civil Engineering with Architecture degree. I now had a new understanding of what engineering meant- problem solving, mathematics and design. But throughout university, this understanding has continued to change.
Having completed two years of my degree, I have begun to see collaboration as a significant part of engineering. Collaboration between the fields of civil engineering and architecture can create structures that are functional, aesthetic, and ultimately enhance the movements of society. Looking at architecture alongside civil engineering has given me the opportunity to learn about built structures in a poetic way as well as a mathematical one. Sir Owen Williams, British engineer and architect, believed that architecture and engineering were inseparable:
“The engineer and the architect have a long road to travel before their separate roles can be played by one man.”- Owen Williams
This cross-over and communication between fields has interested me more and more as I have gone through my degree and has helped shape my understanding of what engineering is.
I also quickly realised that learning to think like an engineer didn’t just involve lectures and theory. A lot of it came from what a university degree didn’t teach you. If engineers had to collaborate daily; communication, time management and leadership must be vital skills.
So, I began to broaden my view of what university had to offer and discovered a range of opportunities from pitching case competition solutions, to volunteering, mentoring and inspiring younger students.
Taking part in these activities not only helped me develop my soft skills, but also taught me that I could have an impact outside of my studies. Societies such as the UNSW Engineers Without Borders Society and the UNSW Women in Engineering Society run outreach workshops to bring school students the opportunity to experience what being an engineer can be like. As a female I was very aware of the low number of women in engineering. According to Engineers Australia only around 12% of the engineering labour force in Australia are women. However, I have never felt out of place studying engineering at university, and the UNSW Women in Engineering Society has done a lot to help girls in engineering, like me, feel supported. Volunteering with this Society to help inspire young girls to consider engineering has been a hugely rewarding experience.
Today, I see civil engineering as being about collaboration with others to innovate and design infrastructure that enhances and develops societies. This view of engineering has changed substantially from when I was in high school, and although university at times has been stressful and challenging, it has also been fulfilling and enjoyable, and will surely continue to change my understanding of what engineering is.
Engineers Australia n.d., Engineers Australia, accessed 24 November 2018, <https://student.unsw.edu.au/how-do-i-cite-electronic-sources >
Flury, A (ed.), 2012, Cooperation: The Engineer and the Architect, Birkhäuser Basel.
Navya Jayawardena is currently in her second year of a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Honours) with Architecture degree at the University of New South Wales. She completed her HSC in 2016, achieving a place on the HSC All Rounders List. She studied Extension 1 Mathematics, Mathematics Advanced, Extension 1 English, English Advanced, Physics, Biology and Ancient History.