Saturday, October 3, 2009

What is engineering? What is not engineering?

I agree with Noah that engineering should be defined more uniquely. When I need to strictly define the scope of X, I expect the definition to be so clear and unambiguous that everything in the world should either inside or outside X. No exception. So far, I don't think I can define engineering in this way.

"Is drawing engineering?" As raised by Sensen in class, I was also confused by such a question. But according to Koen's argument, engineering method is the strategy for causing the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources. Light changes. Fixed-size canvas. Artists try their best. The model may not pose the same all the time. Drawing shows all characteristics of engineering: change, resource, best and uncertainty. From my perspective, however, these four criteria serve as evidences rather than determinants to judge whether Y belongs to engineering. Koen may agree with me because he described these four words as characteristics of an engineering problem. Having Taken Bucciarelli's argument about social components of engineering, I am still not able to define engineering precisely. Do we really have such a definition?

Another question confusing me is that in Jonassen's paper, I lost connections between 12 themes and 6 implications for engineering educators. How can those 12 be matched to the 6 improvements?


Junaid said...

I share the difficulty in characterizing engineering uniquely as you have mentioned. I also like to have a description of engineering that sticks out more than it seem to does with our discussions so far. I don’t need it for myself so much; rather I feel that it will be helpful for anyone who is considering engineering as a student or for anyone in general.

When we discussed education we can identify some clear and common sense aims for educations such as building knowledge and skills, or to learn how to act morally. In my other course we are discussing entrepreneurship and there the growth of business is a clear aim. Do we have such an aim that is uniquely attributed to engineering? If engineering is aimed towards satisfying people wants and needs then this aim is not unique to engineering! If engineering is about design then the word design is not uniquely used with engineering.

Engineering has emerged as a profession in last 2-3 centuries and it is mostly described using the existing vocabulary. Do we have words that are uniquely used to describe engineering? Using phrases like “engineering design” or “engineering problems” by adding the word engineering to another word I feel does not help enough. I think it is also a limitation of language that we use in describing engineering.

One aspect of engineering that sets it apart from anything else is its use of maths and science. As someone said “the joy of engineering is to find a straight line on a double logarithmic diagram”. This is perhaps why maths and science has gained so much emphasis in engineering as it helps engineering to be distinguished and give it an identity. At least this how I used to compare engineering with other disciplines and professions. When we ask engineering to redefine its role in terms of the generic notions like design, problem solving, creativity, change etc. I wonder if there is any possibility of putting it at the risk of identity crisis.

As a side note – processes like engineering are usually not easy to define in words. In one of the articles I read, Henriksen (2006) suggests avoiding an essentialist question like “What is engineering?” Instead we can look at engineering in a relative manner like looking at it in a historical perspective and how it is perceived at present. The chapter "What is Engineering?" in National Academy Press book is useful as it describes Engineering in a similar manner.

Henriksen, Lars Bo (2006). Engineers and Bildung. In. Christensen, Jens, Henriksen, Lars Bo, and Kolmos, Anette (eds.), Engineering Science, Skills, and Bildung, Aalborg University Press, Denmark.

Hanjun said...

I totally agree. As you said, engineering may be one of those that are not possible to have a definition strictly and uniquely. We may answer the question such as what is strawberry but not what is engineering.

However, I still feel the need of defining engineering. I have been asked multiple times about what engineering education is by my friends and parents since I started my study here. I feel embarrassed to answer, "No, engineering education is not definable."

Sensen Li said...

I think when we define "engineering", we need to think about the scope first. Since I don't have any background in engineering, so when I see this word, I will just say it is a profession that can make good money. If I think it deeper, I will say it is a subject/discipline, compared to liberal arts, science, etc. It is nice to see Koen discussed engineering from a unique perspective, to say engineering is a method and/or a way of thinking. When Noah proposed the question in class, it made us laugh. All the adjectives on Blackboard may fit almost all the discipline, but can't show the different features of engineering. It also made me think using adjectives to "describe" something was indeed a good way, but not specific since it could only reveal one facet of the "something". I am thinking maybe using nouns to "define" something may be a better way. What do you guys think?