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What Is Interdisciplinary Engineering?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Interdisciplinary engineering, also known as IDE, is engineering that incorporates the knowledge and skills associated with other disciplines. This type of engineering has a broader scope than traditional engineering. This requires a drastically different educational approach, with students taking courses from disciplines that traditionally would not be considered under an engineering program. Engineering that uses an interdisciplinary method has advantages for both employers and engineers.

The basic idea behind interdisciplinary engineering is that certain engineering projects require information that might be outside the scope of an engineering degree. For example, to engineer medical equipment, an engineer has to have a fairly thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology, biology and similar subjects. Taking an interdisciplinary approach means that individuals do not have to abandon these types of projects.

People who wish to get into interdisciplinary engineering start out studying subjects considered fundamental to traditional engineering such as math, chemistry and mechanics. This is supplemented with courses in the liberal arts. Beyond this, it is up to the interdisciplinary engineering student to fill his curriculum. This means that two students in the field can follow very different educational paths depending on what their engineering interests are. Although IDE programs are highly flexible in this way, students still are given broad guidelines for the number of credits they must have from predetermined categories of courses.

Despite the flexibility of interdisciplinary engineering programs, interdisciplinary engineers do focus their work. For instance, they might go into systems engineering or mechatronics. Thus, even as engineers can promote their interdisciplinary background, they still can point out a specific type of engineering for prospective employers or clients.

One of the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to engineering is that, with information from areas outside of basic engineering, an engineer becomes able to look at an engineering project under many different lenses. He is able to think more critically about how to design and what those designs might mean for specific people or the environment. This can mean the engineer's results last longer and are more positive.

Another benefit to interdisciplinary engineering is that, because interdisciplinary engineers are better prepared to face a wide range of projects, employers sometimes are more willing to hire these professionals. The employers know that the engineers might be able to meet more than one need the company has. From the employer's perspective, this means greater productivity and stability. From the engineer's perspective, it means more consistent work and a better income.

What Can I Do With an Interdisciplinary Engineering Degree?

The short answer? Anything you want. Interdisciplinary engineering degrees allow you to pursue any career you could think of, with engineering functioning in a major or minor way in your work. For example, someone pursuing an interdisciplinary engineering education can take engineering courses with pre-med classes and develop a keener understanding of the way the musculoskeletal system works through med school.

Completing an interdisciplinary engineering degree looks different for every student. However, some emerging fields of engineering have developed. These include biomedical, structural, ceramics, environmental, robotics, marine, industrial, agricultural and mining engineering, along with engineering management.

Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering combines engineering and medical courses in order to develop new healthcare treatment options. Prosthetics, artificial organs, surgical robots and new medications all come about under the heading of biomedical engineering. Job titles include biomedical engineer, instrument engineer and scientific researcher.

Structural Engineering

Structural engineering combines the art of architecture with the science of engineering. Have you ever driven across a bridge or gazed up at a skyscraper? Structural engineers made sure it was safe for you to do so. Job titles include construction engineer, bridge engineer and structural consultant.

Ceramics Engineering

When you hear “ceramics,” your mind probably goes straight to pots and dishes. You may not immediately think of rocket nose cones, biomedical implants or gas burner nozzles. Those all use ceramics — creating non-metallic, inorganic structures with a crystalline lattice. Job titles include ceramic research engineer, ceramic technologist and polymer chemist.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering combines engineering principles with science, ecology and economics. With environmental damage being done around the world due to pollution, deforestation and waste disposal, environmental engineers are in high demand. Job titles may include water engineer, lead project engineer and health and safety administrator.

Robotics Engineering

Robotics engineering combines electrical and mechanical engineering with a dash of computer science thrown in. If you’re tech-savvy and intrigued by robots, robotics engineering could be a great choice for your future career. Job titles include robotics engineer, aerospace engineer and industrial engineer.

Marine Engineering

Marine engineering looks at boats, ships and submarines, how they work and how to improve them. If you have a love for exploring the depths of the ocean and a passion for travel, marine engineering could be the way you do both. Job titles include marine systems engineer, naval combat engineer and shipyard project manager.

Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineering is the science of maximizing efficiency, minimizing costs and ensuring the well-being of both workers and the environment. Finding ways to simplify complex systems is an industrial engineer’s dream. Job titles include production engineer, efficiency engineer and health and safety engineer.

Agricultural Engineering

Agricultural engineering looks at the sciences of agriculture, ecology, food technology and wetlands preservation. With a growing need for sustainable farming practices and green infrastructure, this is a booming field. Job titles include food engineer, soil scientist and irrigation engineer.

Mining Engineering

Gone are the days when thousands of men died laboring underground to dig out precious gems and minerals from the earth’s crust. Mining engineering looks at designing machines to make mining safer and easier. Job titles include mining engineer, geological engineer and mine safety manager.

Engineering Management

Engineering management combines business management courses with engineering classes. It feeds a growing need for managers with the technical chops to oversee teams of engineers and other scientists working under them. Job titles include plant manager, IT manager and technical consultant.

Is Mechanical Engineering Interdisciplinary?

Mechanical engineering in and of itself is one of the most basic engineering disciplines; some others include electrical, civil, chemical, aerospace, metallurgical and industrial engineering. However, other coursework can be included with mechanical engineering studies in pursuit of an interdisciplinary engineering degree. For example, an interdisciplinary engineering student could take pre-law courses alongside their mechanical engineering classes and continue to law school to become a patent attorney.

What Is an Interdisciplinary Engineering Salary?

Because almost anything can be done with an interdisciplinary engineering degree, the salary expectations vary widely. One survey from Texas A&M University showed that in graduates with a Bachelor’s degree, salaries ranged from $30.000-111.700, with an average of $66,363. Master’s degree holders earned from $45,000-500,000, averaging $96,129. Those with doctoral degrees made $44,000-190,000, with the average at $92,611.

A degree in an interdisciplinary engineering field can take you in any number of directions for your dream job. Combining the principles of engineering with physical, life, and social sciences; the arts; and business skills can lead to a long and fulfilling career.

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