What is Computational Engineering?

What is computational engineering? Two computational science students coding

What is Computational Engineering? What About Computational Science and Engineering?

What is computation engineering? And what is computational science and engineering? How about computational scientists? You’re not alone in asking these questions, because computational engineering is actually a new field.

Describing computation engineering is challenging because:

  • Computational engineering wasn’t even possible until recent advances in technology and mathematics.
  • Computational engineering involves some of the most cutting-edge technology around, so we’ll have to explain those tech foundations to explain computational engineering.
  • Computational engineering is interdisciplinary, drawing from branches of mathematics, engineering, and science.

In other words, we can’t describe computational engineering in plain English without some background knowledge. 

Don’t worry though, we’re writing this article primarily for high school students considering computational engineering, and we’ll define any technical terms we throw at you.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of what computational engineering is and what computational engineers do. You might even have a slightly deeper understanding of scientists use math and technology to solve some of the world’s most complex problems.

Computational Engineering vs. Computer Science

Let’s start by exploring the difference between computational engineering and the best known computer-related major—computer science.

The University of Texas at Austin provides a helpful illustration to explain computational engineering, by breaking down how three computer disciplines interact with computers.

  • Computer engineers design the physical computers
  • Computer scientists create the software and operating systems used by computers
  • Computational engineers use computers to solve mathematical models, simulate behaviors, and then analyze the output of those behavior simulations

Okay, we promised to define our terms, but let’s first note that computational engineers use computers. This is kind of obvious, but it’s a foundational distinction between computational engineering and computer science.

Computer scientists take computers and program them to do amazing things. Computational engineers harness the power of these amazing programs to solve complex real-world problems

In this sense, computational engineers stand on the shoulders of computer scientists. The computer scientists made amazing things, but now they’re moving on to make the next amazing thing.

The computational engineers are going to take the tools that computer scientists built and apply them to the world’s big, complex problems.

There, that’s a good start isn’t it? Now let’s explain what it means to solve mathematical models, simulate behaviors, and analyze the output of simulations.

Computational Engineers Solve Mathematical Models

First, what is a mathematical model? Wikipedia’s description says that a “mathematical model is a description of a system using mathematical concepts and language”.

Thanks Wikipedia, but we felt that Britannica’s definition was a lot clearer for the ordinary humans among us. Britannica describes mathematical models simply as “mathematical representation of reality”.

If we may take the liberty of dumbing it down even further, we’re using math to understand the world

Britannica goes on to say that “anything in the physical or biological world… is subject to analysis by mathematical models if it can be described in terms of mathematical expressions.”

Literally anything in the world, if you can put it accurately into math terms, can be studied using math.

The definitions are broad because mathematical models are used everywhere. Some examples Britannica gives are:

  • Modeling how things are assembled in a factory
  • Modeling how dirt and rocks move in a riverbed
  • Modeling how languages are different
  • Modeling how air moves (weather prediction)

Okay, so what does it mean to solve mathematical models? Basically, there’s something in the world you want to understand, predict or change

To build on our examples of mathematical models, you might solve a mathematical model to more accurately predict when tornados will form, or to make a factory process more efficient.

More abstract mathematical models would include laws of thermodynamics.

One more note that we’ll circle around to later: mathematical models are used in every scientific and engineering field.

So why are the definitions so infuriatingly broad? It’s because we’re literally talking about mathematical tools to analyze anything in the universe. 

We could go on and on about solving mathematical models, but this is just a basic definition to explain what computational engineers do. Among other things, computational engineers solve mathematical models.

Hey, we’re making progress aren’t we?

Computational Engineers Simulate Behaviors

The more technical term for simulating behaviors is simulation modeling. So, what is simulation modeling?

Let’s use a skyscraper as an example. If you want to build a taller building than the Burj Khalifa, you don’t just build a skyscraper and hope it doesn’t fall down.

In fact, how did the Burj Khalifa builders know that it wouldn’t fall down? After all, no one had ever built a building that high.

The answer is simulation modeling. Simulation modeling uses computer data to see what would happen when the wind blew at 30 miles per hour from the southeast.

Instead of building a physical structure to test, you’re building a virtual structure (in a computer program), and then testing it with virtual bad weather (still in that computer program).

How are we doing? Take a sip of water. Take a walk if you need to. We’ll be here when you get back.

All right, let’s move on to some refreshingly simple examples of simulation modeling from Anylogic. “Bits not atoms”, they explain. Simulation modeling uses math to convert the physical realities of the world (atoms) into digital programs (bits).

They also use a building analogy, noting that “Unlike physical modeling, such as making a scale copy of a building, simulation modeling is computer based and uses algorithms and equations.”

Again, we’re representing the physical world with digital computer programs. Why is simulation modeling important?

“The uses of simulation in business are varied and it is often utilized when conducting experiments on a real system is impossible or impractical, often because of cost or time.”

In other words, we don’t have the time or money to build a test skyscraper and just see if it falls.

Another cool aspect of simulation modeling, is that you can test scenarios that are impossible to test with physical objects. In other words, this stuff could really revolutionize the world and human life. That’s pretty cool!

So why did we discuss simulation modeling? Because computational engineers use simulation modeling. It’s a core part of the education and job description.

Computational Engineers Analyze the Output of Simulation Modeling

Whew, finally something that’s a little easier to explain. Once you use simulation modeling to see what would happen in a situation, your job isn’t over. You have to analyze the results.

This analysis involves two parts:

Analyze the Results with More Math

That’s right, after the simulation modeling, computational engineers use more algorithms and more simulation modeling to analyze the results. But this is actually the second part of the analysis, as computational engineers must first:

Consider What To Analyze

This is why humans still have these jobs—it’s because the smartest computer in the world still needs a guiding hand to know what to calculate.

As computational engineers analyze the results of simulation modeling scenarios, they must use critical thinking skills to determine how to proceed from there.

As we mentioned in our initial paragraphs, computation engineers solve complex real-world problems. To solve these problems, computational engineers rely on three things:

1. Math

The fastest supercomputer still needs you to tell it what to do, so math is obviously at the core of a computational engineer’s skill set.

Computational engineers must be able to set up the simulations and algorithms that computers will run, and understand the mathematical results the computers spit out.

2. Advanced Computers

We mentioned that computational engineering is a new field, and that’s because it wasn’t possible to do this stuff before. Modern technology and computing advances brought an entirely new field into existence.

You’re not alone in asking “What is computational engineering?”, because a few years ago it didn’t exist.

3. Critical Thinking Skills

Along with the mad math skills, computational engineers must think critically about how to set up simulations and other methods to get actionable information.

The good news is that math, computer science, and critical thinking do go hand in hand. They also share the common trait of being really difficult.

You know what else is really difficult? Defining computation engineering in simple terms. At the cost of comprehensive accuracy, we’re going to give it a shot anyway.

Computation engineers use computers and advanced math to understand, predict, and solve complex real-world issues. 

There, it’s overly simplistic, but it’s our best shot. With that background, you can make better sense of this YouTube video by UT Austin on “What is computational engineering?”

Okay, that’s a great overview with some specific examples of what computational engineers do and what fields they can work in, from space exploration to medical research.

If you’re getting a feel for what computational engineers do, that’s great! Don’t leave just yet though, as we’re just getting started with our exploration of computational engineering.

We’re going to continue by comparing computational engineering to a few closely-related majors

By comparing computational engineering with these other fields, we can shine some light on how computational engineers are different, as well as introduce some other college major and career ideas that you may find interesting.

Computational Engineering vs CSE (Computational Science and Engineering)

What is computational science and engineering (CSE)? In practice, CSE is the same as computational engineering.

It’s confusing, but it’s also fitting, because computational engineering is undeniably a science. 

Oxford Languages describes science as “the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. 

This is exactly what computational engineers do as they observe and experiment, using mathematical modeling.

Computational science and engineering (CSE) is also a fitting phrase because computational engineers apply math to the sciences.

Computational science can be used to solve any complex problem that can be described in mathematical notation, but practically it is most often used in relation to the natural sciences.

Space science and biochemistry in particular are two disciplines that benefit greatly from computational engineering work.

Computational science and engineering effectively describes the function of computational engineers, but it’s a mouthful. In practice, jobs postings generally use the terms computational engineer or computational scientist, which have essentially the same meaning but slightly different connotations.

A computational engineer may work with the more technical aspects of setting up algorithms and simulation models, while a computational scientist may be more involved in deciding what to study, or how to approach a particular problem.

Computational Engineering vs Scientific Computing

In their 1992 textbook on Scientific Computing and Differential Equations – An Introduction to Numerical Methods, Golub and Ortega define scientific computing as “the collection of tools, techniques, and theories required to solve on a computer mathematical models of problems in Science and Engineering.”

In short, scientific computing is what computational engineers do.

Let’s use carpenters and carpentry as an example. Carpentry is like scientific computing—it’s the work that the carpenters (or computational engineers) do every day.

As you learn more about computational science, you may find that a Google search for scientific computing will answer many of your technical questions.

Computational Engineering vs Computer Engineering

Computer engineering and computational science and engineering are actually pretty different

Despite the similar names, computer science is actually more closely related to computational engineering.

As we discussed initially, computer engineers usually focus on building the hardware of computers, computer networks, and new technology.

On the other hand, computational engineers use math (via software and coding languages) to solve complex scientific problems.

Despite that significant difference, computer engineers may sometimes be hired to fill computational engineering roles, as the necessary skills have some level of overlap.

Computational Engineering vs Data Science

Another rising field we haven’t mentioned yet is data science. An article on de DATALOOG explains this clearly by viewing two Venn diagrams.

The data science diagram is composed of:

  • Domain knowledge
  • Engineering
  • Statistics and machine learning

Computational engineering’s venn diagram includes:

  • Computer science
  • A science discipline
  • Applied mathematics and numerical models

The article argues that computational science is actually more promising in terms of future applications, because computational science attempts to understand complex systems. 

Data science only analyzes the data, and does not attempt to account for the system that data comes from.

How to Become a Computational Engineer — College Education Requirements

As you may have heard in the “What is computational engineering” video earlier, UT Austin recently launched the first bachelor’s degree in computational engineering in the United States.

A larger number of schools offer master’s degrees in computational engineering or CSE.

Students majoring in computer science or computer engineering may also be able to transition to a career as a computational engineer or computational scientist.

In these cases, employers may want to see demonstrated skills in the areas of scientific computing, modeling, and simulation.

While we’re on the topic, we’ve also written an article on whether computational engineering is worth it as a career.

What Classes Do Computational Engineers Take?

To answer this question, we took a look at the courses in UT Austin’s undergraduate program.

The 122-credit program includes:

  • 27 general education credits
  • 30 math, chemistry, and physics credits
  • 26 core engineering credits
  • 21 computational applications credits
  • 18 design and technical elective credits

So if you’re considering CSE or computational science, be prepared for a lot of math, physics, engineering, and computer science. This is no major for the faint of heart.

Should I Study Computational Engineering?

We’ll direct this more towards answer more towards those earning a bachelor’s degree, as graduate students will already have a specific area of expertise, and the job market differs widely based on the science being analyzed (medicine, meteorology, etc.).

All right, so should you study computational engineering as an undergraduate?

Well, one limiting factor is that UT Austin’s new program is the only one we know of, so that limits your options.

UT Austin’s computational engineering program does sound pretty cutting-edge, and graduates have average starting salaries of $75,000. That’s not bad at all for a four-year degree.

To give you an idea of where computational engineering graduates can work, here are some companies where UT’s computational engineering graduates work:

  • CACI International Inc
  • Capital One
  • Epic Systems Corporation
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Microsoft
  • Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Southwest Research Institute
  • Texas Advanced Computing Center

With a good salary outlook and opportunities to work at the cutting edge of technology, we wouldn’t discourage you from studying computational science.

One thing we will note is that many graduates are still landing computational scientist jobs with computer science degrees.

In fact, this deserves its own header, so we’re going to give it one.

Can You Study Computer Science and Become a Computational Engineer?

Students in class - computer science classes verses computational science and engineering (CSE) classes

Computer science is a much better-known degree that continues to be in high demand, and the expected salaries for computer science grads are great too.

Unless you’re already very interested in attending the University of Texas at Austin, it’s not a bad idea to find a good computer science college near you, and tailor your studies toward a computational science career.

For example, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing offers respected graduate degrees in computational science and engineering degrees.

So what do they offer at the undergraduate level? Instead of breaking out computational engineering into its own major, Georgia Tech offers a Modeling and Simulation “thread” within its computer science major.

This directly prepares students for careers in computational science, while giving graduates more flexibility in the job market.

What are the Best Colleges for Computational Engineering?

While there is a little variance, the best colleges for computer science are also the best colleges for computational engineering.

Luckily for you, we’ve ranked the best colleges for computer science in every single state. Simply visit the article, click on your state, and check out our written reviews of the best computer science colleges.

We’re working on a nationwide review of the best colleges for computational engineering too, so we’ll make sure to update this post with a link when it’s ready.

Conclusion and Recap

To review, we ended up with two definitions of computational engineering. The first is more accurate but a bit tougher to understand:

Computational engineers use computers to solve mathematical models, simulate behaviors, and then analyze the output of those behavior simulations

Our second definition gets the basics, and sacrifices comprehensiveness for an easy-to-understand working definition:

Computation engineers use computers and advanced math to understand, predict, and solve complex real-world issues, especially in the sciences. 

We noted that computational engineering, computational science and engineering, and computational science almost always refer to the same field.

We also found that scientific computing is the noun describing what computational engineers do.

We also compared computational engineering to the three most similar fields:

  • Computer science
  • Computer engineering
  • Data science

We wrapped things up by advising undergraduate students to just study computer science in most cases, and take advantage of electives and tracks to gain skills in computational science and engineering.

Well, it’s been a long read, but hopefully you came away feeling a little more enlightened. Thanks for visiting College Guidepost, where we do our best to give you the resources you need on your educational and career journey.

We hope to see you again soon!