No. 1 Question – I’m an eighth grade student and I’d like to be a roller coaster design engineer. What do I need to know?
Designing roller coasters is definitely a lot of fun, and a lot of work. It requires a lot of study and training in school, followed by years of experience before you can lead a design project. It can be a good way to make money. However, many people want to be doing this, and many companies want to be in this business. There is not enough work for all of these people and businesses to get what they want! That means that if you really want to do this, you will have to work very hard and be the best person for the job.
The things that come to mind when people think of designing a roller coaster are the structure itself, the track, the vehicles that ride on the track, and all of the mechanisms such as brakes and motors. Design of these are the responsibility of civil, structural and mechanical engineers. Civil engineers design the preparation of the earth and select the types and grades of concrete to be used for the foundations. Structural engineers decide on the type and arrangement of the wood or steel for the support structure for the track. They must design not only to support the track and vehicles, but also to withstand wind storms and perhaps even the weight of ice or an earthquake. Finally, mechanical engineers design the mechanisms which move and stop the vehicles, and the vehicles themselves including the motors drives, hydraulic systems, and the pneumatic systems which accelerate and stop the vehicles.
There is another type of engineering involved with roller coasters. It is not one that everyone thinks about. It is the type of engineering that we all do here at Birket Engineering: control system design. We are electrical, electronic and software engineers. We design the sensing and control systems, including the computers and software which determine when and how the vehicles move. Most of all, our job is to make sure that all of the mechanisms operate safely. Less than half of our work is related to making a reliable and fun ride. With some practice, that becomes the easy part. The majority of our time is devoted to the hard part. That is making sure that everything works right every single time, and that if something does break or go wrong, the ride stops in a way that no one will be hurt. Our job is to think of every little thing that might go wrong and make sure that we have a good solution for it that will work perfectly even twenty years later after we are long gone. It is a big responsibility because when people get on a roller coasters they trust that we have done our homework.
Homework brings me to the subject of school and how you might prepare to be a roller coaster design engineer. No matter which type of engineering you choose, your math and science will form the foundation for your college studies in engineering. During the four or five years of the engineering Bachelor’s program, all engineers take the same math, science and engineering courses. It is only about one-half year of study that separates the different types of engineers. To get ready, take all the math classes you can in high school, including calculus. Also take chemistry and physics in high school. You will want to take the honors courses or advanced placement courses if your school offers them. You might be able to get into an engineering college without the honors courses, but then the engineering math will not be your friend. You probably won’t graduate at the top of your class if you do not get off to the right start.
As important as math and science will be, you should know that engineers spend their days communicating, mostly in writing. All of our language skills are vitally important. Grammar, spelling, and foreign languages. The world is growing smaller all the time. About half of our work is in foreign countries. The engineers who work here have spent weeks in Spain and Japan in recent months. We’ve worked in about a dozen countries around the world over the years and that trend will continue. Your social studies classes will help you – geography and history. It is so important to understand something about the cultures and customs of your customers. You should learn at least one foreign language. I mean really learn it so that you can speak it. I’m always impressed that our clients in foreign countries speak multiple languages. They are the ones helping us with our inability to speak their language. If you can speak their language, you will be more likely to get their business, and you will be able to do a better job, which means that you will get more jobs.
After you graduate from college, you will want to become licensed to practice engineering. You can work as an engineer without a license but you can’t be in charge of an engineering project without a license. To get the license you must first have a degree in engineering. It must be a full four year degree, and not just an engineering technology degree. Then you take an eight hour test covering all areas of engineering. If you pass, you become an engineering intern. Then you work with experienced engineers for four years, some of whom are already licensed. Then, if they are willing to recommend you to become an licensed engineer, you may take another eight hour test on the more difficult engineering subjects. If you pass that test, you are a licensed Professional Engineer, and you can sign the drawings and designs of the engineering interns who work for you. If you don’t take any breaks, you will be about twenty five years old at this point.
It will be almost impossible to find a job with one of the few roller coaster design companies right out of college. You will need some good experience first, and it should be experience related to your field of engineering, and preferably also related to rides, theme parks or some aspect of the entertainment industry. There are several engineering students who keep in touch with me by email, always asking for part-time work, summer jobs, or any contacts that I may have in the industry so that they can get that experience.
One last thought. In my job I read many resumes from engineers looking for work and I interview them. I can tell you that American students now have a tremendous amount of competition from overseas students. American is a great country and it still has the strongest economy in the world, but we have grown very soft. I see that our students are not trying like they did ten or twenty years ago while the foreign students are trying even harder. The foreign students remember more of what they studied because they went to school wanting to learn instead of just to get a grade. The foreign students also don’t expect to make as much money either. In fact, I can email my specifications for engineering designs to companies in places like India and have my design done for me for less than one quarter of what it costs for me to it here. Sure, I’d rather give the jobs to Americans, but if my competition uses the less expensive overseas labor and I don’t then I’ll be out of business and none of my employees will have a job. Americans need to remember what it was like to study more, work harder, and expect less or many of them will loose their jobs to people from other countries who are willing to work harder. Remember this and watch for it. I’ve seen it start, and you will see where it leads us. It will be sad to see it make America a weaker country.
So, if you want to be a roller coaster design engineer, or any other well paid professional, the answer is the same. Study long and hard, work hard, ask for help when you need it, communicate effectively, maintain the right attitude, network, and always work to be the best that you can be.