This study attempts to help us better understand scientific competence and how it is acquired. We interviewed 10 associates at a company that produces unique technical products. Although none of the 10 had obtained degrees beyond high school, they all engaged in highly technical work that would be typical of a practicing engineer. These associates described to us their learning of science as they solved practical problems at work. Both what they learned and how they learned was task-driven. Contextual factors such as choice of tasks and social access to expertise within the company were important factors in their learning. The only influence outside work that was repeatedly named as significant on the acquisition of scientific competence was extensive tinkering experience. Understanding the successful acquisition of scientific competence within communities such as this one suggests that certain features of these communities may be useful for school science communities as well. © 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed86:756–782, 2002; Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI 10.1002/sce.10034