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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationAPRIL 2007Volume 16 | Number 8 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
Powering Up the Pipeline - Schools hope their innovative K-12 programs will propel more students into college engineering courses—and careers. - BY JEFFREY SELINGO
Germany’s Bright Flight - An engineering brain drain prompts Europe’s largest economy to seek reforms and coax its talented flock back to the nest. - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Piercings, Not Pocket Protectors - Tufts engineering undergrads show young girls that engineering can be cool—just by being themselves. - BY MARGARET LOFTUS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
E-MAIL
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Diagnosing Dilbert - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: The Power of “We”  - BY RAY M. HAYNES

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Live Green or Die - ENVIRONMENTALLY AWARE STUDENTS. GROWING GLOBAL NEEDS. CAN ENGINEERING SCHOOLS “GO GREEN” FAST ENOUGH TO SAVE OUR PLANET? - BY JO ELLEN MEYERS SHARP
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: - Tap Different Disciplines - BY WILLIAM A. WULF  AND NORMAN FORTENBERRY
ON CAMPUS: I Want My Therapy! Now! - BY LYNNE SHALLCROSS


BACK ISSUES







 
REFRACTIONS: Diagnosing Dilbert - BY HENRY PETROSKIHenry Petroski
 
Technical skills reign in the engineering classroom, but communication skills deserve some attention, too.

On several occasions earlier this year, I received a copy of a one-minute video clip attached to an e-mail message. Usually sent with little more introduction than, “You’ll enjoy this,” and cryptically titled “The Knack,” the video shows a young Dilbert and his mother in a doctor’s examination room.

As little Dilbert sits beside her on the exam table, his mother explains that she is worried about her child because “he’s not like other kids.” When the doctor asks her to elaborate, she tells of leaving Dilbert alone for a short time only to come back to find that he had disassembled the clock, television and stereo. When the doctor assures her that such behavior is “perfectly normal,” she adds that what really worries her is that Dilbert used the components to make a ham radio set.

The doctor mutters, “Oh, dear” and explains that normally he would run an EEG on the child but that the machine was not working. In the meantime, Dilbert has gotten down from the exam table, opened up the EEG machine and fixed it. Upon seeing this, the doctor admits that Dilbert’s condition was worse than he had feared. He turns to the mother and announces, “I’m afraid your son has ... the knack.”

The doctor explains that “the knack” is a “rare condition, characterized by an extreme intuition about all things mechanical and electrical and utter social ineptitude.” When Dilbert’s mother asks if her son can “lead a normal life,” the doctor responds, “No, he’ll be an engineer.” At hearing this, she sobs.

Although the dialogue suggests that the video clip is ridiculing engineers, I got the distinct impression from viewing it that the animated cartoon is not necessarily presenting engineers—even engineers-to-be—in a negative light. Young Dilbert, who is generally quiet throughout the vignette, comes across as a charming little boy, politely listening to adults talk about him. While his mother explains her concerns, he dangles his legs, like a pair of pendulums, sometimes in and sometimes out of phase with each other. When the doctor hits Dilbert’s right knee to test its reflexes, he utters a little “oop,” and both legs rise. To me, this kind of light touch to his personality separates Dilbert from the nerds. He is a real kid with a real sense of humor.

Might we not benefit our students by encouraging more open discussion about what it means to be an engineer in the world beyond the problem set?When he gets the inoperative EEG machine to start, Dilbert ironically becomes the hero of the drama. While the doctor and mother had talked, Dilbert fixed what the doctor evidently could not. There is no stigma to having “the knack” to do this and so be destined to be an engineer. After all, it is engineers who design and understand the workings of the countless medical devices that enable doctors to diagnose and treat all kinds of conditions.

What is disappointing about the video clip is the seemingly gratuitous characterization of engineers as being socially inept. But in the doctor’s office, little Dilbert demonstrates none of the ineptitude he exhibits as a grownup engineer in his comic strip. Is it something about engineering education that has changed him?

Engineering education is certainly primarily about inculcating technical prowess, but it does not diminish the technical if some social lessons also are introduced in the classroom. Might we not benefit our students by encouraging more open discussion about what it means to be an engineer in the world beyond the problem set? We should want all engineers to feel comfortable with the technical and the nontechnical alike, and we might be able to help them with the latter by encouraging them to strive to communicate with words and thoughts as well as they do with numbers and equations.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest books are “Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering” and “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.”

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American Society for Engineering Education