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BY HENRY PETROSKI

ENGINEERING APPRECIATION

Students need to learn what the profession is all about.


HENRY PETROSKI - C.P. Snow Predicted China Would Prosper Through Engineering. Art Appreciation is a common overview course offered by art and art history departments. Typically having no prerequisites, it can have a reputation for being easy. Indeed, the hardest part of the course for some students may be staying awake in a comfortable theater seat in a darkened auditorium as slide after slide of some of civilization’s greatest artistic achievements appears on a screen.

But those who do remain awake learn a lot about the nature of art and about how to look at and understand artworks. They can learn how art is produced, not only creatively but also in terms of the materials used and the techniques employed. Students typically learn how to interpret a piece of art and how to be informed viewers and critics of it. They also learn something about the history of art and how the past has influenced the present. In short, students learn how to appreciate art as a noble human endeavor.

Engineering students can benefit from an analogous course, in which they are introduced to the nature of engineering, including its methods and challenges, and are taught how to look critically and appreciatively at works of engineering. Mathematics and science prerequisites for first-year engineering students advance their knowledge and skills in those fields but do little to satisfy their drive to understand how tangible things are designed and made — and how they work.

When students finally do take an engineering course, it is likely an engineering-science course that all too often looks to them just like math, physics, chemistry, or biology. There may be more lecturing and problem solving relating to a quasi-real rather than to an ideal world, but the focus is typically on disembodied parts of larger systems. The emphasis is on developing the groundwork and skills prerequisite to more advanced engineering courses, culminating in a capstone design experience. But that’s a long way off for a first-year student.

Too many engineering curricula offer no formal opportunity for instructor and students to step back together and ask, “What is engineering?” Not all students are given an intellectual justification for why they must do so many problem sets, and they are not always taught how to look critically at the results and implications of their calculations. Many students become conditioned to go from problem to answer to problem to answer, seemingly ad infinitum and often ad nauseam.

Too few students are exposed to an overview of the profession and its history — or to the nature and history of its great achievements. As a result, they do not see engineering as a grand continuing enterprise, having made civilization itself civilized and being essential to its future on Earth and into interplanetary space. In effect, there is a shortage of an appreciation of engineering and its place in the grand scheme of things.

It is time to take a fresh look at how we present the profession and prepare students for entry into it. A step in the right direction could be embodied in courses in engineering appreciation, in which students at the beginning of their studies are introduced to the bigger picture and taught how to look critically at engineering products, structures, and systems as the works of functional art that indeed they are.

Students who have chosen to study engineering are eager to learn about it and its accomplishments and potential. Instead of viewing an introductory course as a vehicle by which to present career options and advertise major departments to students, we should see it for what it can be: an opportunity to teach them to appreciate engineering.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He views his Introduction to Structural Engineering course as one in engineering appreciation.

 

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