ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
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Searching Out the Middle Ground

By Douglas M. Green

Illustration by Matthew Baek About a year ago, I was asked at the last minute to join a group of three other engineers charged with telling 85 elementary school students what engineers do. Drawing the short straw meant that I spoke last, and my three colleagues were eloquent and said much of what I planned to say. I had to reformulate my talk in real time.

I asked the students to pretend, for a moment, that they were living one thousand years ago, and they were rich—perhaps a king or a queen. I then asked them to come up with examples of things that many of us have in the late twentieth century, that even kings and queens could not possess a thousand years ago. The students did a great job of listing a number of high-tech devices, which gave my colleagues and me the chance to mention other products of engineering innovation.

After this productive discussion, I wrote my e-mail address on the board, and offered to answer any questions that occurred to them in the days to come. During the next week, I received 45 messages from these students. The one that particularly stood out came from Angel W., who wrote: "I really appreciate you taking the time of your day to come and talk to us. You all really taught me a lot of things that I didn't know about engineers. I didn't know that engineers did so many things. I mean if there weren't any engineers imagine there wouldn't be any modern technology. No telephones, lights, computers, cars, planes. Life would be over."

This innocent e-mail from a child made me think. Angel said that life—or perhaps more accurately, our way of life—would be over without engineers, and he makes a strong case. Over the past two decades, engineering's contributions to society have been formidable. When viewed over the past several hundred years, the impact of engineering on the lives of individuals has been simply staggering. Transportation, communication, electrification, industrialization, agricultural mechanization, and health care advances only begin to describe the contributions of the engineering profession.

But what exactly is engineering, anyway? The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology defines it as:

"The profession in which knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences, gained by study, experience, and practice, is applied with judgment to develop ways to use, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind."

In this definition, two words jump out at me: "to use." For years, engineering academics have been debating the relative merits of curiosity-driven—or basic—research versus strategic—or applied—research. I challenge anyone to define a universally accepted demarcation line between curiosity driven and strategic research. Almost everyone agrees that research is a continuum and "basic" and "applied" are merely labels.

ABET's definition captures the big picture when it states that the engineering profession is striving "to use…materials and…nature for the benefit of mankind." If our profession pursues strategic research only, we will soon find ourselves limited by our lack of knowledge of basic phenomena and models. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to curiosity-driven research, who will finish the job of determining how to use what we learn about materials and nature?

Of course the job of adapting scientific discovery for the benefit of society is never finished. Striking a balance between curiosity-driven and strategic research is difficult, but ignoring either end of this spectrum would be disastrous. As Angel so succinctly put it, "Life would be over."


Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
and the dean of engineering at Marquette University.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

Department of Education Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers

NSF Engineering Research  Centers Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: unspecified
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Cross-disciplinary programs of research and education on engineering systems important for competitiveness
    Contact: Lynn Preston, ERC Program Team Leader, (703) 306-1380; fax (703) 306-0326; e-mail: ; or see

NSF Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE)

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $75,000 maximum
    Deadline: Dec. 9
    Description: To increase the prominence, visibility, and influence of women in academic science and engineering
    Contact: Bonney Sheahan, Coordinating Committee Chair; (703) 306-1733; e-mail: ; or see

Trent R. Dames and William W. Moore Engineering Fellowship

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $2,000-$6,000
    Deadline: Feb. 11
    Description: Research to help solve conflicting engineering issues involving social, economic, environmental, or political concerns
    Contact: Grants Coordinator, (800) 548-2723; fax (703) 295-6132; e-mail: ; or see


Grant profiles are reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants Database published by Oryx Press; A one-year subscription to  costs $1,000. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; .

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