NU Declassified: Exploring Engineering

Ari Bernick, Reporter




What is engineering? NU Declassified spoke with some Northwestern students and Professor Justin Notestein to get some answers. Turns out, the field is more creative than you might think!


ARI BERNICK: Confession — I have no idea what engineering is. In fact, I have a couple of friends who are environmental engineers, and I asked them, “Do you code the trees?” Or, to my friends who are chemical engineers, I asked, “Can you make me a potion?” Jokes aside, to try to answer the question, “What is engineering?” I randomly asked students on campus how they would define the field.

KHOI LE: Yeah, this is bad. I’m considering switching into an engineering major, so it’s bad that I can’t even explain it.

BEATRIX STEWART-FROMMER: I feel like it’s building things. If someone said, “I’m an engineer,” I wouldn’t really know what they did for their day to day life. I feel like that’s pretty normal. 

SERENA HSIEH: What they’re doing? What they’re up to? I don’t know too much about how their courses are structured. 


ARI BERNICK: The McCormick School is home to engineering and applied science students, but what is engineering anyway? I spoke with some McCormick students to try to find out just what engineers are up to at Northwestern. What are some types of engineering, and most importantly … what is engineering? From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ari Bernick. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern.


JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: Engineering is really, for me, the application of science and technologies towards accomplishing a particular goal. It’s the “hows” instead of the “whys.” I work with a lot of scientists, and we’re usually asking “why” questions, and the engineers are asking, trying to do the same thing, but oftentimes in the “how.”

ARI BERNICK: That’s Justin Notestein. He’s a professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering and is the director of the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science at McCormick. He said it’s a common misconception that engineering is not much more than finding an answer. Instead, it’s about the creative process to get there. I asked Prof. Notestein about other common misconceptions about the field.

JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: Engineering is more open ended than many of the science fields. There is rarely a right answer. At the end of the day, there’s probably one right theory. But if there’s seven different ways to make this chemical compound, we need to think about why we’re doing in this particular way, what’s the best? What’s the least harmful? Can we do it better? But to me, it’s a lot more creative than most people think.

ARI BERNICK: At NU, there are many ways for engineers to use their creativity, particularly in extracurriculars. 

JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: One of the big ones that’s really relevant is Engineers for a Sustainable World. The ESW club gets together and designs projects for frequently building up infrastructure in places that don’t have it. They were also directly responsible for why there are solar panels on the roof of Ford, for example. For a while, they had a system where they were trying to collect waste oil to make biodiesel. So they do a bunch of neat projects.

ARI BERNICK: I talked to Sandra Chiu, a junior who is a member of ESW. Sandra is majoring in manufacturing design but describes her major as —

SANDRA CHIU: Product design with more engineering and manufacturing concerns.

ARI BERNICK: Currently, Sandra is working on a project for ESW called AutoAquaponics.

SANDRA CHIU: Which is trying to automate an aquaponic system. It’s a system where there’s fish and hydroponic vegetables, and the waste from the fish go on to fertilize the vegetables, and then that food becomes a food source for the fish. 

ARI BERNICK: Sandra says ESW allows for more freedom in your work.

SANDRA CHIU: You’re often trying to find what’s best for the system and making your own rules almost. Because it hasn’t been done before. So you’re sort of inventing something, which is a really cool feeling. It’s a great way, I guess, to learn about new things that the courses don’t teach you. And also the people, they’re really great.

ARI BERNICK: Another creative extracurricular on campus is the Formula racing team. I talked to Jaimin Khakhria, who is an industrial engineer.

JAIMIN KHAKHRIA: Industrial engineering is kinda on the intersection of economics and engineering, so it’s pretty different in that way compared to the rest of the engineering disciplines. So a lot of what we do is about optimization —  to make the most output at the end of the day and the cheapest. So it’s a lot of modeling and understanding big data and making it so it’s working the best for a business or a factory. ]

ARI BERNICK: The Formula Racing team website describes the club as “an intercollegiate engineering design competition organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers, where student teams design, build and race formula-style cars.” In other words, students can design their own cars.

JAIMIN KHAKHRIA: So Northwestern has a pretty successful Formula 1 team. In the last 10 to 15 years it’s been a gas engine. So, kind of like the rest of the world, we’ve always been running on gas. But now from next year, we want to start transitioning to an electric car. So electric cars are much faster — faster acceleration — and obviously it’s better for the environment. So that’s what we’re kind of designing.

ARI BERNICK: Jaimin’s design for the car will not be out until next year, but currently his role in the electric engine team is incorporating batteries into the system.

JAIMIN KHAKHRIA: I’m understanding how we’re going to design to put all the batteries to connect to all the brakes, the actual engine itself which is the power — all those types of things and regulating the batteries. Some batteries get used more than others. You got to balance that, so that’s my job right now.

ARI BERNICK: Engineering students are definitely getting creative with these extracurriculars. But Prof. Notestein notes that creativity can certainly be found in the classroom as well.

JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: There’s a lot more interesting electives, I think, in engineering than people appreciate. We design them to be interesting classes to teach you things that maybe aren’t just yet more differential equations or something like that. You’ll see the stack of ice cream makers on my shelf. Again, elective courses can be kind of fun about teaching about how engineering principles apply to a lot of different areas.

ARI BERNICK: For example, in his class chemical product design, Prof. Notestein had his student build ice cream makers from scratch. He showed me the students’ ice cream makers as an example of how interactive engineering can be in the classroom. Outside of the classroom —

JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: Northwestern students can go off and do lots of different things. Chemical engineers, in particular, are employable in lots of different areas will go on to med school and law school and do all sorts of different things. 

ARI BERNICK: Because of engineering’s broad nature, it can be difficult to define. The next time I talk to my engineering friends in McCormick, I will definitely have a better understanding of engineering. Engineers, in all fields, utilize their creativity and get involved in real-world projects. For Prof. Notestein, engineering is about making an impact.

JUSTIN NOTESTEIN: I like the idea that you make stuff in engineering. I continue to do research and became a faculty member in engineering because I liked the idea that I would have an idea, and I could basically sketch it out and then I could design something at the atomic level that had a function, that did something, and that thing had never existed on Earth before. And then at the end of the day, it spits out something that you know, winds up in your toothpaste. And I just thought that was neat about how we were involved in everything that you do.


ARI BERNICK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ari Bernick. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

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