16.436 education of engineers

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Jan 23 2003 - 02:50:45 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 436.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2003 07:20:13 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: education of engineers

    Two interesting and relevant items for us, both on the education of engineers.

    (1) Rosalind Williams, "Education for the Profession formerly known as
    Engineering", in the Chronicle of Higher Education 49.20, 24 January 2003,
    p. B12, which is adapted from her recent book, Retooling: A Historian
    Confronts Technological Change (MIT Press, 2002).

    In this article Professor Williams reviews the changes in engineering
    driven by "interaction in interdisciplinary projects where the projects,
    not the disciplines, define the terms of engagement". Many of these, she
    notes, involve "the science that is now most dynamic -- biology", as a
    result of which "the relationship between science and engineering... no
    longer summarized in a set of reliable equations... now includes all the
    complexities of evolving life forms". Williams invokes historian of science
    Peter Galison's "trading zone" metaphor to describe the combinations and
    recombinations across the disciplinary boundaries which now largely define
    the engineer's working life.

    "A major factor in the success of this trading zone..." she comments, "is
    the role of information technology in providing a common, readily
    transferable language" -- so much so that "[m]ost engineering departments
    are becoming, to a greater or lesser extent, departments of
    applied-information technology." Williams describes the radical changes in
    departments of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and the growth
    of new theoretical departments in engineering schools.

    At the same time, she notes, there is a very strong "back to practice"
    movement within engineering that she identifies with the growing
    market-orientated forces. The consulting practice that once bridged
    university labs with businesses has been drastically weakened as companies
    realize that they "can get the benefit of good research ideas by investing
    in and eventually buying up small companies, which pay more attention to
    marketability, timeliness, and productivity than university labs."

    Under this pressure, combined with the sea-change in which IT is so
    intimately involved, engineers "seek to reclaim a distinctive identity for
    engineering: to proclaim that here is something engineers do that
    scientists and businessmen do not do. In the end, however, the reclamation
    efforts only underscore engineering's loss of identity. In both design and
    systems work, many people other than engineers are in on the act. In design
    today, engineering, programming, science, language, and art converge. In
    dealing with technological systems, it is even more obvious that engineers
    have to collaborate with political scientists, economists, lawyers, and
    managers, just for starters. In fact, the constant dilemma for engineers at
    MIT and other universities is whether to hire these collaborators as
    faculty members or to try to get other departments and schools to hire them."

    "As a result, engineering education today is, as we say in the humanities,
    contested terrain -- a site where different strategic goals collide." One
    reaction is to pile ever more into the curriculum, hence the "curricular
    logjam". "Everyone concerned with engineering education yearns for
    dynamite, if only they could agree on where to set the charge."

    To summon a very Canadian image, we in humanities computing are, at least
    at the moment, much more like beavers than those lumberjacks.

    (2) Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind's Eye (Cambridge MA: MIT
    Press, 2001), which is a most welcome enlargement of his very fine article,
    "The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology", Science 197 (4306, for
    26 August 1977): 827-36. My attention was originally directed to the
    article, hence to the book, by Michael Mahoney's article, "The History of
    Computing in the History of Technology", online from
    http://www.princeton.edu/~mike/computing.html. See the description of
    Ferguson's book e.g. at http://www.asme.org/history/e_ferguson.html.
    Mahoney explains clearly enough the significance of Ferguson's work for a
    deeper understanding of software and what we're doing with it.


    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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