Teach the ‘Why’ of Engineering
Historical analysis is essential for leadership.
Opinion by Larrie D. Ferreiro
Engineering education has traditionally emphasized the how of engineering – how to calculate, design, and build a machine or system. However, today’s large corporations and start-ups are clamoring for newly minted engineers who not only can perform stress calculations but can also pick up a project and lead it to success. Engineering leadership requires not just technical skills but a deep awareness of the why: the rationale and context for creating those things. Modern engineers need this larger perspective before they even enter the workforce. The challenge for engineering education today is to develop those leadership thinking skills from the beginning. To do this, we can take a page from military academies and colleges – which develop future leaders from day one – by emphasizing history as an integral part of the education of future engineering leaders.
Military education at one time focused on tactical thinking – how to carry out maneuvers or use weapons. But as military forces entered a new global industrial age, it was not enough to simply understand the nuts and bolts of modern weaponry; leaders had to think strategically about war. Conquering or defending territory was seen as a way of carrying out a nation-state’s political goals and gaining – or holding on to – economic advantage. As the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz put it, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
Individual experience alone is not enough for mature strategic thinking. Instead, the collective experience of warfare, as taught through history, allows an understanding of conflict in its larger context. The link between today’s battles and those fought hundreds of years ago is context: society, politics, economics. That is why military academies and colleges use history as the intellectual method to understand broadly why the military is organized the way it is and what it is trying to achieve (strategy), in order to determine how weapons and maneuvers are to be developed and used (tactics). Historical analysis is the foundational tool for strategic thinking and leadership decision-making.
Today’s engineering leaders must think strategically about the design and management of systems and technologies. Like wars, engineering projects are products of cultural, political, and economic forces. I tell my students at the beginning of each semester: “Engineering is the continuation of politics by other means.” The Apollo program was America’s engineering effort to demonstrate dominance over the Soviet Union. Roads and bridges are the manifestation of political goals to connect a nation. Corporations have political goals as well. One company may seek to create a disruptive new smartphone market, while another may aim to gain market share via lower prices; each goal requires a different engineering approach. The societal and political context of the Internet is discernible in the Victorian-age telegraph.
Understanding the strategic context is key to leadership decision-making. As with war, an individual’s experience in engineering is insufficient; one engineer may only work on a handful of large projects in a lifetime. The collective experience of many individuals in projects, as taught through history, is needed to develop a sound strategic vision.
ABET already requires engineering programs to address the “global and societal context.” Since curricula are tightly constrained, I recommend that engineering programs develop or adopt core courses in the history of engineering that fulfill general humanities requirements and provide the foundation for strategic leadership skills. Tiered courses at the first, second, and fourth year, such as the Science, Technology, and Society curricula required of all University of Virginia engineering students, is one possible model. We must recognize that this process will take time. If we accept that it can take many years to develop an engineering system, we must also allow that it will take years to develop our future engineering leaders.
Larrie D. Ferreiro, an engineer and historian, teaches complex systems engineering at George Mason University.