Engineering is the application of scientific and mathematical concepts to real-world situations. Naturally, you will need to take at least some math courses as you study to become an engineer, and you should expect to use some of the math theory you have learned during school in your future engineering career, no matter which engineering discipline you pursue. However, many prospective engineering students wonder: is a career in engineering even an option for you if you don’t like math or are not especially good at math?
Assessing the Math Required for Engineering
Engineers have to be competent at math. Engineering focuses largely on designing and developing solutions to problems, and engineers often need to perform equations and calculations as part of the process of developing, building and testing the solutions they design.
One way all aspiring engineers must be able to use math is for analyzing their own designs for problems and potential improvements regarding safety, durability, efficiency and affordability. A mathematical error could cause a significant problem when working in any discipline of engineering. In many branches and applications of engineering, such as civil engineering and biomedical engineering, malfunctions made as a result of mathematical mistakes could put people’s safety at risk.
The Highest Level of Math for Engineers
When you look at the curriculum of any undergraduate engineering degree, math classes are sure to be part of the program. Students majoring in engineering should anticipate taking a greater number of math courses than what’s mandated by the school’s general education course standards, including more complicated math coursework than many of their peers in other majors will have to complete.
As an engineering major, you will almost certainly need to complete a sequence of calculus classes. Calculus I and II are essential. Beyond these calculus courses, either Calculus III or a course in multivariate or multivariable calculus is a common part of the curriculum. Differential equations are also common classes in many engineering disciplines. Linear algebra is another common math course requirement for students of engineering.
It’s worth noting that, in many undergraduate engineering degree plans, the math classes students are required to take can be completed before the end of their sophomore year of study. With course numbers typically in the 100s and 200s, these math classes aren’t upper-division classes that are meant only for juniors and seniors and that delve deep into high-level, complex mathematics. The math classes that are officially required for engineering degrees are often lower-division courses, although the upper-level classes you complete in your major will be based on some of these underlying mathematical concepts.
It isn’t only courses offered out of the math department that involve mathematical concepts and calculations. For engineering students, math is integral to laboratory science classes and major coursework you encounter in the classroom, the laboratory and the design studio.
Do You Have to Be Good at Math to Be an Engineer?
You don’t have to be an exceptional math student to make it as an engineer, but you generally can’t be “bad” at math, either. You need to achieve a reasonable amount of proficiency that will allow you to pass the mathematics courses required of an engineering major and use math principles and techniques in your engineering assignments, both during school and after you graduate.
If you truly are “bad” at math and you haven’t found any way to improve your aptitude for the subject despite attempting different learning styles and study techniques, engineering might not be the right career path for you. Mathematics is too integral to the field of engineering to undertake the full engineering design process without having the fundamental math knowledge you need.
On the other hand, some prospective engineers who shy away from the major due to the math requirements may still make excellent engineers. Don’t write off the engineering career you want as impossible just because math simply isn’t your favorite subject, especially if your grades and understanding of the subject are adequate. Engineers are not mathematicians who undertake complicated formulas and equations just for the sake of doing the math. Rather, they use math as a means to an end. That end is designing practical solutions for real-world problems.
Similarly, if you haven’t gotten good grades in mathematics in the past but you also haven’t really made concerted efforts to improve your grades, a career in engineering could still be in the cards. It might be time for a fresh start, with a lower-division basic math course, a study plan that you will stick to throughout the semester and a good math tutor.
Identifying your strengths and weaknesses in math, as well as how you learn most effectively, can help you become better at math and develop the confidence you would need to pursue a degree in engineering.
How Much Math Is in Engineering?
One of the strategies that may help you in this choice is realistically considering what amount of math you need to know to work as an engineer.
Core Math Courses in Engineering Degree Programs
What math courses, specifically, will you need to take to earn an engineering degree? While the major you choose and the engineering school you attend will have some influence on this answer, there are many types of math concepts that you are likely to study in some respect as you pursue any kind of engineering degree. Linear analysis, calculus and geometry are among the most important types of math for aspiring engineers, according to Forbes. Trigonometry and statistics may also be required fields of study, The Houston Chronicle reported. Many engineering programs, like agricultural engineering and biomedical engineering, require students to study differential equations. Students should also be prepared to take science courses that include an emphasis on formulas and equations, including physics.
How Do Engineers Use Math?
Engineers focus primarily on the practical applications of mathematical concepts. If you don’t enjoy abstract mathematics work and feel frustrated at having to solve math problems for the sheer sake of answering abstract questions, you may still be a successful engineer. In the field of engineering, the focus is on math with a practical purpose. How can you use math (and science) to design the plans to build a bridge, develop artificial intelligence systems in software, devise innovative biomedical interventions or design machines that make production and manufacturing more efficient?
Engineering is a highly quantitative field, so math is involved in some capacity in all disciplines of engineering. Engineers often need mathematical calculations to evaluate the strength and suitability of materials for executing their designs. How well different materials hold up to different forces, elemental exposures and other conditions will affect not only its appropriateness for the job at hand but also whether any reactions that occur under these conditions could necessitate changes in the design and manufacturing. For example, a civil engineer designing a bridge in an area with harsh, cold winters would have to run the calculations to make sure that the intended building materials will maintain properties like strength and the ability to stretch even under extreme weather conditions.
Sometimes an engineer must use mathematical calculations to put a number on risk. In the real world, no action or situation poses zero risk, no matter how many safety efforts a company may put into place. Using math allows engineers to evaluate the statistical odds of a safety incident and identify a figure that constitutes acceptable risk. This is particularly important in roles that involve balancing safety measures with budgetary constraints, production expectations and the other factors that affect real-life engineering work.
Engineers of all kinds use mathematical modeling in their work. Fortunately, a lot of mathematical modeling for engineering applications is now done with software programs such as MATLAB, and some math can even be performed inside computer-aided design software programs like Autodesk AutoCAD. In many instances, the math work involved in engineering has less to do with performing calculations yourself and more to do with identifying the right tools and formulas to use and how to translate real-world data into variables in an equation. Software programs, calculators and other types of tools exist to help engineers efficiently perform accurate mathematical functions needed for designing and refining engineering solutions.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, engineering teachers have identified the top five most important math skills for engineering students as evaluating solutions and checking their work, becoming familiar with units and dimensions, understanding how to create and interpret graphs, performing algebraic manipulations and being able to convey and interpret engineering relationships through mathematical expressions. Surprisingly, these math skills – particularly the top three skills – don’t require a lot of complex advanced mathematics knowledge. You can achieve these competencies even if you consider your math skills in general to be only adequate, not excellent.
Some colleges offer specific mathematics courses intended for engineering students, such as linear algebra for engineers or advanced mathematics for engineers. If you feel that you struggle with math, particularly abstract math, looking for a curriculum that tailors math courses for your future career needs can help you focus on the areas of math that matter most to you.
Options for Aspiring Engineers Who Don’t Like Math
If you’re thinking about a career in engineering but you don’t like math, you have a tough decision to make. On one hand, you simply can’t earn an engineering degree and become a fully qualified engineer without taking math classes. On the other hand, you don’t want to abandon your dream career just because you might have to take a few classes that you would rather skip. Your decision might come down to the question of which desire or motivation is stronger – to become an engineer or to avoid taking math classes.
Skipping an Engineering Degree
There are success stories of students who achieved their dreams of becoming engineers despite being bad at math. Generally, though, engineers who struggle so much in mathematics studies that they aren’t able to meet the requirements of earning an engineering degree can only become engineers through gaining experience in engineering technician roles and demonstrating an exceptional level of technical skill. Even then, unfortunately, not having an engineering degree can limit your job prospects, hold you back from getting promoted and sabotage your earning potential.
People who dislike math so much that they decide not to pursue an engineering degree may opt to work in independent technical consulting roles, if they have enough technical expertise and the reputation to prove it. In independent technical consulting careers, company policies requiring college degrees in engineering – and the math coursework that they entail – won’t prevent you from reaching your full potential in the role. However, keep in mind that you can’t strike out on your own as a fully qualified consulting engineer because you generally need an engineering license to sell your services to the public, according to the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Majoring in Engineering in Spite of the Math Requirements
Suppose you decide to go for the engineering degree and just pursue a career path where the math requirements are minimal. Of course, even if you can get by in an engineering career without using complex mathematics concepts and formulas on a daily basis, you still need to pass the core math courses you need to graduate. If you really want to be an engineer, you might have to change the way you study math so that you can succeed.
This may mean taking fewer courses at a time or working less during your education so that you can devote extra time to studying for your math classes. Be vigilant about your understanding of the material in the classes that you find difficult, and start taking action as soon as you notice that you are struggling. Talk to your instructor about questions that you have or concepts that aren’t making sense to you, and consider hiring a tutor who can help you understand the material better.
If you are still in high school, taking as many math courses as you can right now – even if you don’t like the classes – may help you have an easier time with advanced math courses when you get to college.
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