Engineers and engineering students will appreciate the maddening elegance of Hanayama’s brain-teasing puzzles. Since 1933, Hanayama has been making a series of deceptively simple-looking puzzles made of cast zinc. The goal is to disassemble, then reassemble, a puzzle’s interlocking shapes —a task easier said than done.
Puzzles are categorized into different levels of difficulty, from level 1 (fun) all the way to level 6 (grandmaster). It’s easy to be astounded by how a puzzle can feel so complicated, despite being made from no more than two or three parts. But while a layperson may consider the solutions to look like magic, an engineer will recognize a familiar beauty in them.
TED Talks are a viral sensation and can set any engineer’s mind ablaze with both new ideas and the motivation to execute them. They’re also valuable networking opportunities. But tickets to a major TED conference are pricey: the five-day TED 2022 event in Vancouver costs at least $5,000.
TEDx events, on the other hand, are smaller, cheaper, and more approachable for early-career engineers and engineering students. The upcoming TEDx at the University of Maryland, for example, has tickets for as little as $10.00. You can find a full list of TEDx events here and Googling the event name usually yields an official site for ticket sales.
For many engineers (and especially engineering students) one of the most ingenious applications of chemistry is the brewing of fine suds. A home beer brewing kit, like the ones available at Northern Brewer, includes everything one needs to get started in brewing their own.
Engineers will enjoy turning a limited set of ingredients—malt, hops, yeast, and water—into a wide range of complex flavors and potencies. Homebrewing can be a slightly addictive hobby for some, but it might help a few engineering students with their chemistry homework.
You might not be able to give an engineer their next big idea, but you can give them a great idea from the past.
Patent Earth specializes in blueprints and patents as artwork that can be worn on a shirt or hung on a wall. They have Thomas Edison’s 1890 patent filing for the lightbulb (surprisingly simple!), schematics for a wine-bottle corkscrew (surprisingly complex!), and a whole lot in between. Potential gift-givers can narrow their search down to individual categories like science, technology, and industry.
During the Apollo moon missions, an American businessman invested approximately $1 million to develop a pen that NASA’s astronauts could use to write in the zero-gravity conditions of space; Soviet cosmonauts, the story goes, decided to just use a pencil instead.
Today, quality mechanical pencils are much cheaper, but they’re still as valuable of a tool to engineers as they’ve ever been. The Rotring 800+ is the mechanical pencil of the 21st century, one that’s accurate, smooth, and doubles as a stylus pen. And if you prefer something more nostalgic, you can get a replica of the original NASA space pen, too.
Leave it to engineers to reinvent something as classic, and analog, as the notebook. But why have a classic notebook when you could have one that never runs out of pages? The Rocketbook Matrix comes with 30 pages of graph paper meant for diagramming, but every page is reusable, like a whiteboard on paper.
And just because you erase what’s on the page doesn’t mean it needs to be lost forever: with the Rocketbook app, engineers and engineering students can easily scan a page and transfer their notes to the cloud. It might be the last notebook they’ll ever need—until they invent a new one.
Why not buy your favorite engineering student the world’s best-selling British computer? It certainly won’t break the budget: Raspberry Pi’s line of single-board computers start at an introductory price of $4.00. And, as any good engineer can tell you, sometimes the most interesting things come in the smallest packages.
The Raspberry Pi project originally started with the intention of helping to teach computer science in schools, but it’s become much more popular than that: the Pi’s low cost, modularity, and open design have helped it sell more than 40 million units, and today the Raspberry Pi is used in applications as diverse as robotics, cryptocurrency, and weather monitoring.
There are lots of gifts that help engineers and engineering students come up with ideas, but few that can help bring them into the world as literally as a 3D printer. The cost for 3D printers has come down significantly in the last decade, as has their size. The da Vinci mini w+ is an entry-level 3D printer that weighs less than 18 pounds, measures less than six inches in any direction, and still achieves a layer resolution of up to 400 microns. And that’s not even the lightest model available: the nano series weighs less than 10 pounds and is ideal for portability.
For the aerospace engineering student, Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) is about as close as they can get to flying one of the planes they might one day work on without actually flying one themselves.
The latest in a series that dates back to 1982, MSFS 2020 is the most advanced flight simulator on the market. It has a physics engine that provides over 1,000 flight control surfaces, and a suite of aircraft that includes Boeing’s Dreamliner. Even engineering students in disciplines other than aerospace will have plenty to chew on.
MSFS’s Microsoft Azure AI uses cloud computing to generate 3D geographies that enhance visuals with real-world data such as weather; it’s so startlingly accurate that it’s been used in open-source investigations into real-world events.
Andy Weir’s self-published first novel was an instant engineering classic, and eventually a blockbuster movie. The son of a physicist and an electrical engineer, Weir has earned significant praise for the scientific accuracy in his works. In The Martian, the hero is an astronaut stranded on Mars, and he must use scientific principles to survive in what appear to be hopeless circumstances; Weir had to study topics such as orbital mechanics and botany in order to finish the story.
Those already familiar with The Martian might also consider some of Weir’s later work: both Artemis and Project Hail Mary debuted on bestseller lists, and are scheduled to be made into films.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book, Hidden Figures, is a modern response to Tom Wolfe’s classic, The Right Stuff. In Hidden Figures, Shetterly tells the story of three Black women who worked as literal computers during the Space Race and were instrumental in the successes of NASA engineers. Shetterly knows this previously little-known subject well: her father was a research scientist at NASA during the period in which the book takes place.
While the book was made into a hugely successful film, this is another instance where the book is better. Shetterly herself has admitted that the film makes some of the same mistakes that the book sought to correct: primarily, the lack of recognition for the heroes who were intentionally left out of history.
Engineers can do amazing and sometimes frightening things when given a broad set of materials and a high level of autonomy. That was the basis behind Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), a series of secret projects also known as Skunk Works. During the Cold War, Skunk Works engineers would go on to produce the CIA’s U-2 spy plane, the SR-71, and probably a few other things that are still classified as ultra top-secret.
Ben Rich, the director of Skunk Works from 1975 to 1990, doesn’t spill all the beans in his memoir, Skunk Works, but he does paint an entertaining portrait of the incredible feats of aerospace engineering that the Skunk Works team achieved.
By reading a select number of engineering blogs, university students can gain access to the thoughts of some of the best engineers in the world, and get on the path to becoming one themselves.
Engineering internships are an increasingly important part of the transition from student to engineer. Internships provide an opportunity to put theoretical skills to work in hands-on environments. They also give engineering students valuable work experience, networking opportunities, and future career options.
Not long ago, self-driving cars were science fiction. Today, not so much. Influential companies like Tesla, Uber, Apple, and Google boast dynamic auto-drive programs, and many new startups are following their lead.
Students with a penchant for mathematics and the sciences might consider pursuing coursework in engineering at a private research university. Programs in engineering vary widely, but all of them train students to analyze, interpret, and build solutions for commercial and societal needs.
Why are women underrepresented in engineering, the top-paying undergraduate major in the country? Why does a disproportionate amount of engineering research funding go to men? Which schools are actively creating opportunities for women? Which female engineers are leading the way? Find out here.