The Engineer’s Constant – A Stereotype about Engineers

--Informant Info--
Nationality: USA
Age: 20
Occupation: University Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 3, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

Item:

The engineer’s constant is 3.  We don’t need to be accurate so we round e to 3 and pi to 3, and also g is 10.

 

Context:

I collected this piece from a physics lab partner who is also an astronautical engineering major at the University of Southern California.  Some of our calculations were off, so he joked about rounding the final answer to three.  When I asked why, he explained that three is the engineer’s constant.  As such, three would be a good alternate answer if we could not find the error in our calculations.  The informant said that he found the engineer’s constant for the first time on an engineering meme page.

 

Analysis:

This short piece actually reveals a bit about the culture of engineers, including their work habits and particularly stereotypes about them.  I have heard of the stereotype that engineers are not always the most accurate, and that they are quite liberal when rounding or making approximations.  There are also jokes about how engineering students should not be trusted with any technical applications of their studies because of this.  I think the stereotype comes from the fact that engineers often do quick, back of the envelope approximations of things in order to get a sense of what they are working with before they dive into the more detailed computations.  Furthermore, sometimes the exact answer is not as significant as getting the correct order of approximation.  My astronautical engineering professor has actually done this during class multiple times because the exact values of the computations were insignificant.  In most cases, he rounds the gravity constant from 9.8 to 10.  By extension, we round commonly used constants such as Euler’s number and pi to 3 for ease of computation as well.  As such, those outside of engineering may mistake this as what we primarily rely on when we work.  The stereotype is not insulting to engineers though, in fact, engineers themselves have also made jokes about it as seen on engineering meme pages.  The potentially insulting stereotype is countered by fully embracing it and taking pride in it as part of the group identity of engineers.  What this short piece reveals is how stereotypes may emerge about a group from those who are not in it, as well as how taking pride in these opinions can counter them and become a part of your identity as a member of that group.  In this case, the stereotype is about how engineers appear to be very generous in approximation, but engineers embrace this by claiming the engineer’s constant.