The Engineering Way of Thinking
We embrace the lessons of other disciplines. They would benefit from embracing ours.
Opinion by William M. Bulleit
In last year’s March-April issue of Prism, Henry Petroski took issue with the credit given to science for engineering’s advances in aviation. He suggested that engineering educators should “emphasize how much of engineering is independent of math and science” as well as impress upon students that they are “engaged in the study of a subject that is at least the equal of science and math.” I could not agree more, and I would suggest that we go even further and envision an “engineering way of thinking” (EWT) that encompasses all the tools that engineers take from other disciplines—and share our way of thinking with others.
To quote Hardy Cross’s 1952 essay collection Engineers and Ivory Towers, engineers “use any fact or theory of science, whatever and however developed, that contributes to their art. . . . Engineers are not, however, primarily scientists. If they must be classified, they may be considered more humanists than scientists. Those who devote their life to engineering are likely to find themselves in contact with almost every phase of human activity.” Engineers apply math and science, as well as any other discipline that works, depending on the situation. We use pragmatic criteria: If it looks like it might work, try it; if it works, use it.
The EWT is constantly evolving. Engineers in the time of the pharaohs could not foresee engineering in the Middle Ages. Engineering in the late 19th century could not encompass the engineering of today, which will not contain all of engineering 50 years from now. Furthermore, we are entering an era where we need to engineer systems: technological systems, social systems, and even climate systems. The EWT needs to be expanded to do this, and, like all systems, variation and selection drives its evolution. The variation comes from trying new things in order to adapt to a changing world. The selection comes from failures and learning from them.
Economist Tim Harford suggests three principles of adaptation in his book Adapt: How Success Always Starts with Failure (Prism, September 2011). First, he says, “try new things expecting that some will fail.” Second, “Make failures survivable: create safe spaces for failure or move forward in small steps.” Finally, he sums up, “make sure you know when you’ve failed, or you will never learn.” These principles sound like ways that engineering has always advanced.
Considering all of the above, I propose defining the EWT as a way to adapt to a continuously changing and highly uncertain world knowing full well that some alterations that are made (variations) will lead to failures, and that failures must be looked upon as a way to gain information that will advance future alterations (selection).
Educators who must teach the engineers of the future should absolutely, as Petroski suggests, emphasize engineering’s independence. Further, as large-scale systems start to require more engineering, educators should begin to think about how to teach non-engineers about engineering. I suggest that non-engineering majors in universities need to take engineering courses of some sort as part of their general education. After all, engineers take humanities and social science courses—and more—as part of their general education. Engineers recognize, sometimes begrudgingly, the importance of non-engineering courses; the converse is generally not true of non-engineers.
The Earth has been altered by humans for eons, but the broad use of engineering knowledge and methods is still to this day not used for the alteration of most large-scale systems (on the scale of sociotechnological and climate systems). We as engineers should think more broadly about engineering and what it can do, looking to this engineering way of thinking.
Petroski has, in his own way, written about the EWT for years. It seems to me that it is time that we begin to educate everyone—engineering students, engineers, and non-engineers—about a way of approaching change under significant uncertainty that has proven to work at various levels for thousands of years. The EWT has grown over those millennia, and needs to continue to grow to meet the needs of a changing world.
William M. Bulleit is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University.