Editor Solomia Dzhaman presents Mechanical Engineering: the major for the engineer who likes a bit of everything.

So you want to be a Mechanical Engineer? Welcome to the coolest major SEAS has to offer. MechE is an incredibly broad major, that gives you a good “engineering foundation” that you can apply to a lot of things, and you can take a lot of places. MechEs go on to do anything and everything: build rockets, design the lenses in your phone’s camera, model the AC systems of a shopping mall, create mass-manufacturing equipment for rubber ducks. Really, any physical object that you interact with has a MechE attached to it. You really can take it in whatever direction you want, and change paths fairly easily within the engineering world.

MechE at Columbia is a vibrant, welcoming community. Our department is amazing – professors care so much about their students, and the administrative/advising team in the department is fantastic. Students tend to be very well-connected, because of our relatively small size (~50 people in each year), and the fact that we take a standard set of courses. By junior year, you may not personally know everyone, but nobody is a total stranger. The MechE community is also aided by having multiple MechE-heavy clubs on campus: FSAE, CSI Rocketry, and Robotics. Many MechEs join one (or more) of these clubs, and are able to pursue the things they like doing, outside of class. If you choose MechE, you definitely won’t be left stranded.

Now, to the academic stuff:


Strap in, it’s SEAS, so it’s a lot. The department maps out literally your entire academic schedule for you, so save your electives, your path is pretty linear. Here is the course schedule (that I annotated with some explanations), you can “open image in a new tab” to see it larger. Taken from the SEAS Bulletin.

In general, though, you have:

  • General STEM Stuff: Columbia loves the core, including the SEAS core. You’re going to have to do a few random STEM classes (GenChem, Lab, Data Science, Intro to EE, and Intro Python/Java). There are not too many of these, but they’re all intro classes, so they’re not super fun or engaging. 
  • Math: You take a good amount of math (Calc, Multi, Linear Algebra, ODE), which sets you up well to take your physics courses. 
  • Physics: Based heavily in mechanics, you take a lot of physics as a MechE, that’s just the name of the game. 
    • Your classes will include: Physics I, II, and III, Intro Mechanics, Solid Mechanics (“Solids”), Fluid Mechanics (“Fluids”), Thermodynamics (“Thermo”), Dynamics & Vibrations, Heat Transfer.
  • MechE courses: these focus largely on mechanical design and manufacturing. 
    • Your classes will include: MechE Lab I and II, Computer Graphics and Design, Intro to Machining, Materials and Processes in Manufacturing, Machine Design, Control Systems, Senior Design I and II
  • Humanities: Of course, this can’t be Columbia without a bunch of random requirements. You have to do a chunk of the CC core: UW, ArtHum or MusicHum, CC or two Global Cores, and PE. Also, for some reason, Econ.

Overview of the Classes:

There are so many required ones, I’ll try to be brief where I can. 

Before we get into specifics though: MechE is a hard major. It’s a lot of work. Sadly, many of the classes you take are going to be hard and sometimes painful, that’s just the way it goes. But there are also gems here and there, and as you go through the major, you will discover things you love, and realize that actually, this whole MechE thing is pretty cool. I guess all I’m saying is, don’t be discouraged by the intense courseload. There’s no denying it’s tough, and it seems super daunting at first, but you find your footing eventually, and when you do find subjects you like, it’s really rewarding.

Anyways, the courses:

  • Math: All the math classes are pretty standard. Some you’ll find personally more difficult, some less, and your math experience largely depends on the professors you choose. Read reviews! Listen to your friends! Do not take ODE with a bad professor, you will a) not learn ODEs and it will come back to haunt you and b) hate yourself.
  • GenChem, Physics I, II, III: These are all huge lecture courses, where you will be sitting in a room full of other SEAS kids and CC STEM majors. They are boring, they are tedious, and I’ll be honest, you probably won’t take much away from them. The best thing you can do is don’t slack, keep your grades up, and use these classes (and their mandatory recitations) to meet people. Study buddies are always good.
  • AOE: You know it, you love it. Hanging out with Vallancourt once a week has never sounded so exciting. 
  • Intro Python/Java: Exactly what it sounds like: a class that teaches you the fundamentals of a coding language from base 0. I would recommend taking Python, unless you’re trying to do a CS minor, in which case definitely take Java (it’s a prereq for like, everything CS). Regardless, knowing how to code  is super useful, and you will need a firm grasp on at least one language to be successful in MechE, because it comes up a fair amount. 
  • Intro EE: Learn the basics of circuits and circuit components. You’ve probably learned some of this stuff in physics in high school, but the tempo increases quickly. Take advantage of office hours and make sure you don’t fall behind. This class also has a required lab section, so one night a week from 6 to 9pm you will be fiddling around with wires and oscilloscopes in the EE teaching lab. 
  • Data Science: Basically, you get taught how to manipulate data using Python (and Pandas). It’s not super riveting stuff, but it’s straightforward, and knowing Pandas is actually super useful, and a good skill to put on the ‘ol resume. 
  • Chem/Physics Lab: There is some debate over which is the lesser of these two evils. My personal opinion is that both are a lot of work, but Physics lab is worse. If you can, take Chem lab, even if you didn’t really like GenChem. It’s slightly more fun, and better taught. Either way, you’ll learn how to do experiments, error analysis, and how to write lab reports. 
  • Mechanics: This is just an average, run-of-the-mill statics class. Force diagrams! Woo! This is a semester of drawing diagrams and doing energy balances of things that don’t move. Is it particularly hard? No. But do try to take it with a MechE professor, not a CivE, because the CivEs are much harsher graders and generally more…intense…as people.
  • Solids: A class about beams. No, seriously. You will just be analyzing different ways to apply forces to a beam for a semester. Conceptually, it’s pretty simple, but Solids is the foundation of a lot of engineering in the professional world. A lot of your technical interviews for jobs will take questions from Solids, so one way or another, you’re going to be able to recite a stress-strain diagram in your sleep.
  • Fluids: How does fluid flow? Apparently, in a lot of different ways. This is a mechanics class, but it’s very different from the mechanics you are probably used to. It’s very heavily based in vector calculus, and generally requires a lot of sharp math skills. I personally really enjoyed Fluids, it was one of my favorite MechE classes, and if you’re into the subject matter it’s very rewarding.
  • Thermo: This class is all about heating and cooling cycles, and their efficiency. It is also the bane of every* MechE’s existence. To be fair, Thermo is a notoriously difficult subject, both to learn and to teach, across all colleges. So it’s not just Columbia Thermo that sucks. But yeah, this class sucks. Find a study group you like, and get a copy of the textbook. This was probably the most time-consuming class of my college career. (* maybe there are people out there that understood, or maybe even enjoyed, this class, but I have yet to meet them).
  • Heat Transfer: The physics of how heat flows and temperature changes. You would think this would be a sequel to Thermo, but it’s actually very different, and I would say builds more on the concepts of Fluids. You will learn all about the holy trinity: conduction, convection, and radiation. This is a pretty straightforward class – you learn a bunch of methods to analyze heat transfer. 
  • Dynamics & Vibrations: Remember Statics? Now what if instead of being still, stuff moved? This is basically a class about stuff that slides, rolls, shakes, and crashes. Conceptually, it is fairly intuitive, but in terms of problem-solving, it’s often difficult because for the first time, you have to take into account movement. This class is fairly difficult, and is probably the highest level physics MechEs are required to take. It’s doable, and with enough work you’ll be fine, but it is definitely not easy. 
  • MechE Lab I: The first half of the class is basically a stats lecture class. The second half is learning to write conference-style research papers, through a series of simple experiments. It’s very chill and even fun at times – the final project is designing your own experiment, and overall you have a lot of freedom in the class.
  • MechE Lab II: For some reason very different from Lab I. You get put into groups for the entire semester, and work on a new lab every two weeks, covering a range of engineering topics, from a steam turbine to an Arduino. A little bit of everything here, and it’s nice to see some of the concepts you study in physics classes actually played out in real life. 
  • Computer Graphics and Design: An intro to Solidworks. The class consists of a mix of small weekly CAD assignments, along with two projects. The midterm project is to recreate an object in CAD, and the final project is to invent a product and make a CAD design of it. It’s pretty straightforward, not very hard, and you do end up learning Solidworks quite well. 
  • Intro to Machining: Learn how to use all the machines in the MechE Shop! Milling, lathing, and various other power tools. Over the course of the class, you make a little scissor jack, and that serves as your final project. Again, very straightforward, and fairly easy (unless you procrastinate your project and have to do it all last-minute). 
  • Materials and Processes in Manufacturing: Half material science, half manufacturing, this class is an introduction to the manufacturing process. Learn about material properties, and different manufacturing methods. Not conceptually difficult, but it is just a lot of information to retain.
  • Machine Design: An overview of design for manufacturing, and computer-aided analysis of objects. You will learn finite element analysis, and basically how to simulate loads on parts you design.
  • Controls: An introduction to classical control theory – essentially just learning how to model different kinds of feedback loops. You need a good grasp on ODEs to understand this class, but other than that, it’s not a lot of math or physics, just conceptual understanding. It’s a very unique class – very cerebral and theoretical, with not a lot of direct practical application in class.
  • Senior Design: This is the SEAS equivalent of a thesis. You get two semesters to come up with, design, and create…a thing. It can be anything (as long as it’s complex enough), but really, the sky is the limit. Some people use senior design to develop an element of a club they’re in (CSI, FSAE, Robotics, etc). Some people make a startup-style product. Some people model something. It really is up to you and your group. You have a fair amount of guidance, and a series of “design reviews” to help you along the way.
  • Electives: You are required to take three technical electives, two of which must be MechE courses. Most people use these to “specialize” within a certain niche of Mechanical Engineering – robotics, manufacturing, bioengineering, whatever your heart desires. There are no rules though, just take classes you think you’ll like, or with professors you vibed with.

Department Newsletter:

As does every department, we have a newsletter. You’ll get emails once in a while, ranging from department updates to job opportunities. Additionally, once you declare your major, you’ll be added to a Canvas class called “MECE Career Development”, which is basically a giant MechE job board, both for jobs within the school, and also for real-world career opportunities. 

Applying for the Major:

Nothing fancy, just click the button.

Last-Minute Tips:

  • Get as many of your general requirements out of the way as soon as possible. Econ, EE, PE, Global Cores, etc, get all of that done as soon as you can. Taking intro classes is frustrating, but sitting in a room full of freshmen in your senior year is much more frustrating.
  • On a similar note, do your Tech Electives last. Until junior year, when real MechE coursework starts to pick up, you aren’t really exposed to much MechE subject matter, so you don’t know what you like yet. You only have room for a few Tech Electives, so use them wisely, and don’t waste them on stuff you’re not sure about. Also, until about junior year, you don’t actually have a strong enough theoretical background to handle most of the higher-level technical courses. You can’t take a 4000-level engineering course before taking Linear Algebra. 
  • Make friends in the major. And I don’t just mean study buddies who you meet up with every week to check answers with – make genuine friends with the people in your classes. When it gets hard, having people you enjoy being around makes the grind so much more bearable, and even late nights studying can be fun memories with the right people.
  • I said it above, but I’ll say it again: our department has amazing faculty. So work with them. If you’re having trouble, talk to your professors. If you like a class with a professor, take more of their classes. Ask them what their research is about. Chat with them in the elevators. They’re cool people.
  • Doing research is really easy to set up. I recommend trying it out for at least a semester, just to see if it’s your cup of tea. All you really have to do is talk to a professor you like, or look out for those MECE Career Development job board announcements. It’s simple, and you gain a lot.

machines via Pixabay

SEAS Logo via Columbia