Question РI am an 11th grade student thinking about which college I want to attend. The subject I am most interested in is physics. I am thinking of applying to mostly engineering schools and the area that interests me the most is the designing of new-age roller coaster rides for theme parks. Would give me some information about which colleges you believe are best in this field?

I’m not sure how much help I can be, but I’ll give you my thoughts. I don’t believe that there is any one engineering school that is best for finding work in the development of rides for theme parks. Any good engineering school will be fine. The more important thing, as always, is your grades, a strong work ethic, and your positive attitude. From there, because this business is smaller than most, it will be a case of getting your foot in some door. Then you have to be noticed because of your technical skills, your people/management skills or something that will set you apart as an above-average contributor.

An internship is a great idea, but they will only be available at places like Disney, and, well, Disney is all that I can think of. The other parks are really not organized enough to have such programs (that I know of), and the smaller design companies like Birket Engineering are not big enough to have any predictable openings of that kind. We have only employed three pre-grads; two are full-time engineers here now, and the other followed her husband to another part of the country. We just roll with the flow so to speak, in our hiring practices. It all depends on the contracts that come our way, and that is too variable to plan too far ahead with our hiring, say nothing of an intern or co-op position.

I don’t mean to be negative though. For now, school and grades must be your priority. Most of the real full-time roller coaster development work goes to the mechanical engineers, and some to the electrical/electronic/software types (that’s us). We do the computers that control the operation of the rides, including the monitoring of safety and capacity. Safety is most of the game, and computers are a major part of that. Still, most of the coaster jobs go to the MEs. The fact is, as with anything, the best jobs go to the top performers. After you get your foot in the door, if you really keep studying, and are dedicated, engineers have even been known to cross disciplinary lines.

You are off to a good start with an interest in physics. All engineering programs, be they civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc. start out the same core physics classes (and math, naturally). The fact is that for about the first three years of an engineering program all majors take the very same core classes. The first year or two is mostly math and general physics, chemistry, etc. You can probably wait a year or two before you select a major, if the programs are like they were when I did it.

One choice for you will be between a BET (Bachelor of Engineering Technology) and a “full” BS or BSE program. The BET won’t pay quite as well, at least at first, but it will be a little easier. Also, it won’t be as easy to get an EIT and PE license with a BET, if you can at all. The BET programs are more “hands-on” so they concentrate more on using the math and physics rather than really understanding the how and why behind it all. The BET grad get more done for their employers in the first year or two, but they are less trusted with more project responsibility and bigger engineering decisions because they are not trained to think as critically as the full BS/MS graduates. I like to say that the BET grads seem to know more of the answers at first, but the BS/BSE grads always know more of the questions. After awhile, you come to appreciate that it is knowing the questions that is most important. Once you know the questions, there is always some one who can figure out the answers.

Strictly speaking, you don’t have to be licensed for most engineering jobs, but depending upon your goals you may need to at some point so why limit yourself? You should ask if the college and program that you apply to meets the requirements of the NCEE (National Council of Engineering Examiners) before you enroll. We have a few engineers here who did not do that, and they can’t be licensed. You may also be able to go directly to the NCEE on the Internet.

A word of caution. Don’t choose engineering unless you really do like the math and physics to the point of really understanding the concepts that you have learned already. If you don’t have a solid “feel” and understanding of math and physics, you sure won’t like engineering. If you do, then great. There are always those who get through the program by cramming for the test and getting the required grades, sometimes even good grades, but they really don’t have a solid feel for the material. Not only will the four or five years of college drain you enormously, you will be “found out” in an interview or in your first year of real employment. Then you will have to hope that you can “get lost” in a big organization (not so likely these days), and you will only excel if you happen to have good people/management skills. There are definitely some “engineers” among us who never really understood engineering beyond what is required to struggle through school, but who have other valuable skills that the rest of us technically-minded engineers do not have. It takes all personalities, but I still don’t recommend an engineering program for those who will be in agony for four years, or more. To put it another way, it seems that all of the engineers who accel at engineering are the ones that grew up working on their cars, taking apart everything in their house from the telephones to the dishwasher, or exhibited some other form of natural interest in “how and why things work”. Math comes easily to them too. The indicators are a little different for software engineers, and well, I’m getting off track. Just make sure you like it, because engineering is not an easy program. On the other hand, it is one that is likely to find you a good job.