The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

May 2003

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L. B. Grinter

Responsibility in Engineering Education

The Journal of Higher Education

Volume 25, Issue 5

May 1954, 258-261.

Engineering education should represent the highest type of professional preparation for engineering practice, but it cannot do this if it consists largely of a miscellaneous group of courses with individualized objectives ranging from contact with the arts to a study of pure science.  Every course taught by a professor of engineering should carry forward the multiple objectives of professional education: that is, to develop and work from basic principles, to learn how to study after graduation, to make use of the engineering or scientific method without permitting it to become restrictive, to consider every engineering operation as it may influence the public welfare, to encourage a willingness to accept responsibility for decision, and to express through individual work the highest ideals of the profession.  No course that is either mainly craftsmanship or primarily pure science can do this job for engineers, because art and science are mixed inseparably in every piece of engineering work.  Also, neither in the application of art nor in pure science is there the same quality of responsibility that is carried by the professional engineer.

Perhaps wholly, or at least in large part, these characteristics of engineering education, when properly restated, apply to all professional training.  However, one other characteristic, which in some degree must be a distinguishing feature of all professions, seems paramount in engineering.  The engineer is inherently creative.  His work probably demands more creative activity than that of the lawyer, the physician, or the minister, but he is somewhat less dependent upon creativity than artists or research workers in science.  The engineer must be sufficiently creative, if he is truly professional, to bring any work undertaken to a successful conclusion.  He cannot do


this by the application of craft rules or by using inextensible specialized knowledge of science.  He must have at hand basic principles that he understands so well that he can transfer their usefulness across boundaries to analyze new situations and reach a solution through a synthesis of concepts, techniques, and experiences never before put together in the pattern needed.  This is indeed great engineering, but anything less is inadequate as an objective for engineering education.

In contrast to law, medicine, and theology, engineering education proceeds from basic laws of science as transformed and applied through mathematical analysis to physical situations.  Physical properties of materials, which form important constants in such analyses, are necessarily determined by laboratory experiment; and the properties of complex physical systems can sometimes be determined in the laboratory through model analysis.  Engineering was an art until it applied the methods of mathematics, physics, and chemistry and merged these sciences with engineering art in a professional way to provide for the convenience and welfare of the public.

For nearly a hundred years engineering proceeded with startling success to use specialized science superimposed upon, or, rather, superficially integrated with, its basic art.  However, since 1930, engineers have steadily been forced to delve more and more deeply into basic science for their significant developments such as radar, jet propulsion, synthetic materials, and atomic power.  The narrow interpretation of basic laws as specialized knowledge applicable only to a limited field seems to have passed the peak of its usefulness as the primary method of engineering.  New advances are now more likely to be achieved by those whose knowledge of basic laws is so fundamental that boundaries for them cease to exist between civil, electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering.  Attempts to train general engineers based upon a technological rather than a science background have not been highly successful because it is impractical to give any student all of the specialized knowledge from several branches of the profession of engineering.  Such individuals without basic scientific principles as their tools of integration can be no more than craftsmen or handbook engineers.

It is also important that specialized science not be confused with engineering.  There may be teachers of mechanics, electronics, or metallurgy who serve the engineering profession well without being engineers themselves in the professional sense.  It would be unwise to ask such persons to be registered as professional engineers.  They teach and advance a branch of science, an applied science it is true, but they are not necessarily teaching engineering.  Only when their science is combined with the technological arts and taught in relation to design, thus introducing the creative aspect, does it take on the character of professional engineering.  Otherwise, the value of the educational experience is primarily the acquisition of a background of science, with the usefulness of that experience left to future development.

It appears that engineering differs from other professions in another way.  It is doubtless possible to ask the question propounded by Elliott D. Smith, “What - all things, not just legal things, considered -should be done?”  But it is not proper to substitute “engineering things” for “legal things” in this quotation.  The reason this should not be done is that the verb “to engineer” has as its accepted meaning “to bring to a successful conclusion,” a definition which necessarily requires that “all things” be taken into consideration.  Engineers who neglect economics, law, politics, international relations, or unionism can only perform in restricted fields; those who neglect ethics or the social aspects of their work appear in retrospect as even more limited in their

259 Index

achievements.  All successful engineering must be professional engineering unless it is recognized as craftsmanship or scientific analysis contributing to, but not controlling, an otherwise planned project.

Certain aspects of professional education are seldom neglected in engineering.  Economics, once an addendum, has been well integrated into engineering education.  Ethics, which is professional honesty, seems to be inherently understood as a natural transfer from the study of physical laws which the engineer must respect.  Practice and practicality cannot be divorced from any phase of engineering study.  Responsibility comes so early in the practicing engineer’s life that teachers seldom neglect to train their students to welcome it.  The weakness of engineering education has been neither the neglect of craftsmanship nor of specialized science, but insufficient attention to welding these together so that the student can explain the rules of craftsmanship from his scientific knowledge, and insufficient depth of scientific study to enable him to understand the interrelationships between the half-dozen or more specialized sciences with which he deals.

In engineering education, as in every other type of professional education, the key to professional success is to learn how to learn without a teacher.  We can cover only a little of the art of engineering and a few basic principles before the graduate must leave the university.  If this represents his entire education, the graduate will remain professionally illiterate for life.  However, if he has learned how to study and to learn on his own, he has every opportunity to grow into professional stature.  Instead of passing on codified knowledge, the teacher must learn to place the student on his own initiative to a greater extent than is usual during the undergraduate period.

The reason why students are not given greater responsibility for their own education is often that in its early stages the process results in frustration for the teacher as well as for the students.  Since students have been studying for at least twelve years under a system that requires only the learning of facts, any change in the form and objectives of the educational process is certain to prove disturbing.  For several months the results are likely to appear ineffective and the process inefficient.  Examinations based upon a knowledge of facts are easy to prepare and mark.  Those that demand capacity to originate a solution to a problem are difficult to plan, full of surprises, and discouraging in the tangible or measurable results returned.  Nevertheless, such accomplishment is the true measure of the progress being made toward professional education as contrasted with technical training.

It is possible for every engineering teacher to encourage creative activity in the minds of his students.  The teaching of the art of engineering should proceed in an attempt to explain every rule so that it may be modified to meet new situations.  Specialized science must be associated with or drawn out of basic scientific principles and related to other specialized science through such principles.  And all of this needs to be done largely by the student, rather than the teacher, under the influence of the need to solve problems as novel to the student as each new project is novel to the professional engineer.  If technical tools are used and re-used without change, the result is craftsmanship.  Only by repeated attempts at refinement of the tools at hand can the student or the engineer develop a professional attitude.  In this sense every professional engineer is engaged in continuous research upon his own practice.  It is a fallacy to consider that training for research should be restricted to a minute fraction of engineering students.

In summary, the profession of engi-


neering requires the same elements of education as all other professions, but with greater emphasis upon creative aspects.  The highest professional education in engineering will weld art or practice with basic science into an approach so sound and fundamental that it will level the walls of narrow professional specialization which have been raised primarily by the pride of craftsmanship.  The key to professional education is stimulation of the desire to learn beyond the classroom and beyond the college.  This requires more than the mere transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student.  It demands the acceptance of responsibility by the student for much of his own education through willingness to attempt the solution of new problems.  Through such experiences and under the guidance of those who have themselves carried responsibility, the student will begin to sense his coming accountability for operating in the framework of society for the general good and in the highest traditions of his professional group.  The teacher who stimulates such a sense of professional responsibility in his stu­dents is a great teacher, deserving of the applause of his university and of his profession.

[Vol. XXV, No. _1



The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

May 2003

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