What would it be like to be an engineer?

It has recently transpired that I will be teaching (and before that, designing and constructing) a brand new ethics module in the large introduction to engineering class at my university that all the freshman who are majoring in any of the multitude of engineering disciplines must take. I'm jazzed, of course, that the College of Engineering thinks that it's worth cultivating in their students the idea that ethics is an integral part of being a good engineer (and a good engineering student), so much so that they are devoting two weeks in the fifteen week term to this. And, I want to do a good job pitching the material to the audience.

I have some experience teaching to frosh. But it occurs to me that I'm a little fuzzy in understanding just what makes an engineer an engineer.

I was chatting about this with a colleague of mine (who does philosophy of technology and has quite a lot of experience working with engineers). He was looking at my preliminary outlines for the four class meetings I've been allotted, and suggested that I ground the initial motivation of why ethics should matter to them in the activity of building stuff rather than in the activity of building knowledge.

I noted that that seemed reasonable. What scientists, even the theoretical scientists, have in mind by "knowledge" is undoubtedly messier than what epistemologists seem to be describing. Knowledge is surely important to engineers, too, and is part of what they make, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if that knowledge had a more "practical" flavor to it.

"I guess I'm not sure how I'd know it if I woke up one day as an engineer," I said. "It's not quite like waking to find yourself a cockroach. Would I be able to tell that I was looking at the world through an engineer's eyes rather than a scientist's?"

"I think you'd notice," he assured me. "I think it would be like waking up and suddenly finding yourself in the Punjab."

"In that case," I replied, "I need to find a way to get ahold of a map and a menu."

So, all you engineering types, can you help me understand how the world looks to an engineer, and how engineering is different from science?

More like this

I would recommend looking at Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold for ideas on how to combine ethics and engineering. There's a scene in the first third of the book where the engineering-teacher protagonist explains just what's at stake when people working in empirical fields have ethical lapses.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 11 May 2007 #permalink

As for what makes engineering different from science:

Engineering involves the practical application of principles that science discovers. It's one level of implementation higher than science. Science produces abstractions, engineering ultimately produces physical structures. Science deals with hypotheses, theories, and models; engineering deals with designs, prototypes, and constructions. Engineering is goal-oriented, and seeks solutions that satisfy pre-set criteria; science (if done properly) isn't trying to demonstrate any particular assertion or reach any particular finding.

Science is trying to find better ways to describe the world. Engineering is trying to use the descriptions to create things with the right properties.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 11 May 2007 #permalink

The function difference is supposed to be that engineers "engineer" a solution, scientists establish the knowledge base on which engineering occurs. In reality the demarcation is blurred: all good engineers have to engage in science, and it is a rare scientist that doesn't harness science in ways that result in solutions to practical problems.

From my perspective as a consulting scientist, the ethical issues are much the same for my science peers as they are for my engineering peers. I think I would get agreement from Jane Jacobs, whose book, Systems of Survival, would seem to place science and engineering in the same ethical value system.

Interesting issues we share are rampant opportunities for conflicts of interest, questions of data ownership, procedures for releasing data to third parties, confidentiality, the ethics of non-compete agreements when you hire the only freaking scientist/engineer specializing in what you hired them for, dealing with expectations for empathy/advocacy from our benefactors, unethical competitive practice, compensated review of a peer's work in a way that is above reproach.

Professional scientific and engineering societies can adopt detailed standards of practice. State licensing boards can have their own standards of practice, as well as extensive precedent dealing with professional ethics.

Since you're talking about engineering knowledge, a really good place to start might be "What Engineers Know and How They Know It" (Vincenti, Walter G., Johns Hopkins Press, 1993). [http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/title_pages/3022.html]. He did a really nice study of aeronautical engineers - mostly historical case studies, but the main principles hold true for all fields, even today.

Follow-on note: a key consideration is that engineering requires making practical decisions >when there is uncertainty and incomplete knowledge<. That's where a lot of the ethical issues come in. The techniques of engineering (analysis, modeling) seek to reduce uncertainty (will the steel break if I make it 1/8" thinner?), while making tradeoffs (weight, cost, risk of people being killed if the elevator falls or whatever).

Whilst in agreement with Caledonian's observations, perhaps another helpful observation is that engineers, in comparison to scientists, tend to be more focused on design processes involving soft trade-offs, soft compromises, uncertainties, and profit issues.

For this reason, engineers are/should-be taught to care about tractability and traceability of a design, and broader solution/maintenance issues (rather than just the "elegance", "optimality", or "truth" of a solution/description).

Overall, engineers tend to pragmatically think in terms of "relative truth or relative merit", rather than "absolute truth" and instead of seeking an "absolute best" outcome.

I guess this relative/pragmatic focus might present some potential challenges if extended into the ethical domain.

I hope this helps??

By Half asleep (not verified) on 11 May 2007 #permalink

can you help me understand how the world looks to an engineer, and how engineering is different from science?

I have education both as an engineer and as a physicist, and I find it easy to combine both.

In general there isn't much of a difference except for an emphasis on constructions and knowledge for business or for extended knowledge. Engineers and technologies can produce a lot of contingent or even general knowledge. Scientists can construct, or be responsible for constructing, the most exacting equipment. But usually in smaller series of course, though some chemical equipment seems rather ubiquitous if you ask me. ;-)

This means that an engineer must generally be able to quickly orient him-/herself in a new situation and produce results. Models tend to be ad hoc and checked only to the extent that the products will be used. While a scientist often want to penetrate a subject thoroughly. And there is more difference in education and practices between different engineers than scientists.

I can also agree with the suggestion above that scientists can be less goal oriented and work with specific techniques to see what interesting results they can get. While engineers know roughly what the characteristics of the result should be and choose techniques instead.

The ethics:
While both groups progresses faster if checking ideas or constructions against reality often, it is usually more important for an engineer. I would argue that fast product development ethics (and economics, a win-win situation :-) are such that it can be allowed to be sloppy and wasteful, since it will usually save total resources with better, often less wasteful, products earlier to market.

Another difference is that many scientists are educators while some engineers may be communicators - the ethics differs here depending on the specific context. (Educating, or selling ideas internally, or selling products externally.)

Where I live there are ethical codes for both groups. Some scientists have a complement of ethical oversight committees for their tests. (Often medical or animal testing.) Most engineers work in areas with standards that have ethical consequences. (For example, risk to persons if not followed.) The ethical codes for engineers are here produced by their unions. So that would perhaps be something to check and discuss around.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 11 May 2007 #permalink

As an engineering AND science major, I've seen a bit of the view from both sides. One of the things I would note about your class is that it's targeted towards incoming freshmen. From my experience, science and engineering types are actually both quite similar in high school and don't really diverge until around mid-way through their college careers when they get out of core basic math, physics, chemistry, and biology classes.

Also, a lot of engineering work can be highly theoretical, and isn't just about designing "x" -- so I wouldn't change ALL the "knowledge for scientists" references to "applications for engineers".

So yes...there is a difference between the two areas, but it isn't really manifested until 3rd and 4th year.

If I may make a SAT-oid analogy, Engineering is to physics as medicine is to biology. Another discipline that practically applies scientific principles. Most engineers, and docs, in my experience are more worried about what works, than the theoretical basis. Results are important.

By William the Coroner (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

There is still a fundamentally scientific approach to problem solving. The scientific method still applies - you identify a problem, you hypothesize, you design an experiment, you test it and analyze it. Lather... rinse... repeat... like in science.

The toolkit may be different - whether it be finite element software or making and testing physical models. But you are still doing science on some level. One of my fellow engineers enjoys the problem solving the most - he always compares the process to watching CSI - careful observation for subtle clues.

Of course there is a lot of non-scientific stuff as well... like careful documentation and project management... but it all helps feed my addictions to eating and shelter.

DISCLAIMER - My job title has been "engineer" for nearly 30 years, but my degree was in Physics and Math, and science is ever near to my heart

By Dave Gill (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Contrary to popular perception, being an engineer does not mandate a belief in Creationism.

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

I think this sounds like a challenge. I have a bunch of friends who are engineers, and I was going to school to be one for a while. They're not of the same academic mindset as scientists. Generalizing, in my experience, they tend to be of the libertarian mindset, and they are very practical people who don't understand the subtlety or value of non-vocational education and will probably make for an insufferable philosophy class, especially if it was forced on them.

I agree that Vincenti's book is an excellent discussion of engineering knowledge. Another helpful book is Mitcham's Thinking through Technology, where he distinguishes between technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as activity, and technology as volition. If you focused on the activity of engineering, instead of focusing on "building stuff" you could focus on "building stuff." Ethical issues related to the former might involve questions about whether certain technologies are ethical, while ethical issues related to the later might involve questions about what type of process should be used to create the technology or what type of material should be used.

For me, sometimes life as an engineer looks like: plan, plan, plan, plan, execute test, stare at data, stare at data, stare at data, make report, repeat. I imagine that this is pretty similar to what the life of a scientist might look like, except that my "object of study" is some device we made, while the scientists' "object of study" is some part of nature. At a different time during the life cycle of a product design, my life as an engineer looks more like: get requirements from managers, complain about managers behind their backs, insist managers have no clue about basic principles of engineering, perform simulations, go to meetings, perform simulations, go to meetings, perform simulations, have an "aha" moment, perform simulations, have an "oh crap" moment, perform simulations, repeat until we think requirements can be met.

Risk/safety is probably the number one ethical issue, since engineering requires foresight in the face of uncertainty. This could be societal, environmental, or economic risk. There's "professional ethics" involving things like patents, whistle blowing, proprietary information, etc.

William the Coroner touched on the similarities between engineering and medicine. Actually, with the way life sciences are being taught and studied today, many of the scientists are driven by the very considerations and ambitions that drive engineers. Just look at the number of patents that life scientists are producing every year. NIH unproportionately funds projects that proposed a practical solution to a disease or a condition based on scientific knowledge. The NSF budget, which funds basic science, is rediculously miniscule compared to the NIH budget. Thus, there is a similar ethical facet for both medical and engineering students in their future vocation. And the majority of the ethical issues in both fields are also similar. There are mainly concerned with safety of products and/or procedures. How much risk playing with human beings morbidity and mortality an engineer or a scientist (physician) is willing to take to reach the "reward" (money, power, fame) he/she dreams about.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Engineering is inherently teleological, while science is not.

This may have something to do with why engineers are common among the technically-educated advocates of creationism - the idea of intention being responsible for design is natural to them. The relative inconcern with theory may also be related.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Engineering is the frantic attempt to figure out what particular bit of the real world can be used to solve some real-world problem.

My favorite bit of engineering is the "coherer" from circa a hundred years ago. The problem faced was how to detect radio waves. Nowadays you just run an antenae to an amplifier, run it through a super-heterodyne circuit, another amplifier, and you're done. But they didn't know the super heterodyne principle, and they didn't have amplifiers.

The solution was to figure out that a vial of iron filings, which are normally quite resistive to current, will clump together when hit by radio waves, reducing the resistance very substantially.

But how to unclump the iron filing? The answer: use a small hammer driven by the detection circuit. It's quite the rube goldberg device, and it can't be used nowadays for all sorts of reasons (the complete lack of wavelenth sensitivity, for example, and the inability to handle audio signals), but it is quite the elegant solution for the time.

The difference between engineering and science? Scientists try to figure out why the iron filling clump. Engineers add the litle hammer :-)

(Why the word frantic in the opening sentence? Because solving a problem that's already solved doesn't pay very well. Solving an unsolved problem has the potential for a much larger payoff)

Your original point was about ethics, personally what i was taught in uni ethics classes and what i know in the real world are 2 different things, ill sum up the real world in a few points

1) engineering is the business of making things
2) to make an engineering business work u need to sell what you built
3) creating sustained sales comes down to who you know and how much they trust you
4) if you;
--a) lie about your products,
--b) cut corners and compromise your products
--c) or generally screw your customers over
--a) word of mouth spends that your unethical
--b) no one trusts you, because you have a bad reputation
--c) you cant create sustained sales and go bankrupt..

Also take this as an example of the difference between an engineer and a scientist. An engineer will give it to you in 5 minutes straight no bs or waffle, a scientist will laboriously prove it to you over 2 weeks.

Samuel Florman has a few great books on the culture of engineering like The Introspective Engineer and The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Henry Petroski also has a lot of good books like To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering

In my experience, engineering students very much want to be self-contained. It doesn't come naturally to them to ask "outsiders" for help or advice. Once you can build a little credibility and trust with them, though, it's all good.

I've written a little bit about one way that my engineering background influences my non-technical pursuits. And somewhere in the sluggish pipeline of my future blog posts there's a related essay coming along, I hope.

In the comments here, many of the themes raised so far look familiar to me. I suspect there are enough dots here that can be connected to form a halfway coherent picture.

A description that has stuck with me throughout my adult life (and my technical career) came from a novel I read as a teen. The writer described one character, a ship's engineer, as the sort of person who would walk a mile on a broken leg to fix a leaky toilet.

That's me, in a proverbial nutshell.

Among my core beliefs about the world is the concept that Stuff Oughtta Work.

Toilets should flush. Cars should start when you turn the key. Software ought to function as advertised.

It bothers me when stuff doesn't work. And it's not just things -- toilets, appliances, circuits, and machines -- that ought to work. Software companies ought to be functional. Every business ought to be functional. Economies ought to function. Elections should function as advertised. Government ought to work. Our culture ought to work. The biosphere that supports our species ought to work.

It bothers me greatly to see dysfunction as a social norm in business. It bothers me greatly to see dysfunction as a norm in our economy, in our government, and in our culture. It bothers me greatly to see the harm our routine daily dysfunction does to the biosphere of our little planet, the only home we're likely to have in our lifetime.

What would it be like for Dr. Freeride to be an engineer? Well, as we say in the biz, your mileage may vary. What it's like for me to be an engineer is to look around every day and to see a lot of stuff that doesn't work, a lot of stuff that I'd like to repair, rebuild, redesign, and sometimes, remove.

I hope the variety of observations in these comments offer enough bits and pieces to create a helpful mosaic.

Thanks for asking. Cheers

Caledonian, you're firing on all cylinders (IMO).

I enjoy your comments and look for them actively; I consider them among some of the best on ScienceBlogs.

I like:
Kennedy, J. M., Pinelli, T. E., Barclay, R. O., & Bishop, A. P. (1997). Distinguishing engineers from scientists- the case for an engineering knowledge community. Knowledge diffusion in the U.S.aerospace industry- managing knowledge for competitive advantage (pp. 177-213). Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corp.

I've been an engineer for as long as I was a physicist, and I still don't know the difference. In both fields I put together experiments, run them, and analyze the data. The only difference seems to be that as an engineer, I sometimes have techs run the experiments instead of doing it myself.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 15 May 2007 #permalink

It might help to keep in mind that engineers are more likely than scientists to work in private industry, so business ethics are as relevant to engineers as scientific ethics. Previous posters have noted that if you are selling engineering services and desire to keep doing so, you need to keep your clients happy, as well as your employees, and it helps to be able to pay your bills and make a profit. The National Society of Professional Engineers (and most other engineering societies) has a code of ethics available at http://www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-codepage.asp. In addition to minimizing the risk to the public from engineered products ("first, do no harm"), engineers also should not cheat their clients, etc.