A couple years ago I led a university engineering course covering Fire Protection Engineering.
While the students consisted of both undergraduates and a couple graduate students, we had one working professional audit the course whom I had worked with on several projects. He was a respected local plan reviewer who had nearly three decades of fire service and review experience. We carpooled to campus before and after each class and had great discussions on the profession, the course, and nuances of private versus public experiences.
One week he told me that he was very surprised by the class.
Not by the content, but that the engineering students didn’t just already know the concepts we were teaching.
It wasn’t that he thought the group wasn’t intelligent, he just always carried the premise that engineers knew all the important concepts that non-engineers don't. The realization he had after a few weeks was that each student was starting from scratch just as he had done years ago.
The concept surprised me.
While there exists a small handful of fire protection programs in the U.S., the far majority of people who work in and around the industry do not have formal degrees in fire protection. Even for those people, the most important knowledge gained is learned on the job.
The premise drives at the point that the greatest benefit to education, at least in engineering, is gathering the ability to think critically and establish a platform for lifetime learning and growth. Recent graduates, even out of the best programs, are nowhere near the same people they become 5, 10, or 15 years later.
Education isn't about the content, it's learning how to learn.
Those that don't embrace lifelong learning get passed by those who do. Degrees (and education) matter, but a degree in fire protection and/or engineering does not inherently translate to knowledge or a successful career.
There is so much great information out there; much of which is more accessible now than ever before.
Just about everything I gained during an architectural engineering undergraduate program concerning fire protection was in self-study or through internship experience.
Would an architectural engineering program have set me up for long-term success in fire protection? Absolutely; I have no doubt it would have. The many people I’ve encountered from that program (University of Kansas Alumni) or other nearby engineering programs have already proven that it doesn’t take a fire protection degree to do extremely well in this industry.
Conversely, I later studied Fire Protection through the University of Maryland a Master of Engineering graduate program. Was is all that it was cracked up to be? In my opinion: yes and more. I learned to think about fire protection as a complete entity and not just within the context of fire alarm and fire sprinklers. I developed roots in performance-based design, began to consider special challenges of nuclear power generation or marine suppression systems, and experienced a depth in content that I had not known existed.
Those two programs have impacted my life dramatically. Yet, the most important takeaway I have from each of those experiences is the ability think critically and have a fanatical willingness to continue learning.
I read recently that more content is published online in every two days than had been created in all of human history through the twentieth century. There is so much great content in fire protection that exists in printed books, in reports, in training programs, in committee discussions, or is between the ears of that colleague in the office.
Knowledge is not limited to formal education – and formal education is not a pre-requisite to be a contributing and success story in this industry.
While it might be easy for engineering graduates to say that education isn’t critical to success, I readily believe that the most important and productive learning we can gather is in non-stop reading and intentional question asking.
There is so much to learn.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.